Here's the first of a five-part “Breaking Down the Bruins” series where we look at where the B’s sit at the end of this season and where they’re headed as they aim toward again vying for a Stanley Cup. Today, we look at the offseason improvement plan for the Black and Gold’s roster.
BOSTON – The Bruins took a solid step a year ago by returning to the playoffs and another big step this season as the Black and Gold won a seven-game, first-round series against Toronto before falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games.
So, the direction is onward and upward and that’s a very good thing for the long-term future in Boston. Still, the Bruins aren’t going to make the next few steps simply by having Don Sweeney and Cam Neely leave things alone while hoping the team keeps taking big steps forward.
Often the last few steps toward being a Stanley Cup contender are the toughest ones and there are clear improvements that are going to need to be made for a team that showed some flaws the in the playoffs. That will be the job that Sweeney is charged with this summer as he weighs his next wave of young prospects, the core group currently in place and some lineup spots where he’s probably going to need to go outside the organization for what is needed.
That’s all certainly a lot easier said than done.
“We’re certainly going to explore everything. We’ve got meetings that we’re going to go through from a coaching standpoint, pro meetings coming up,” said Sweeney. “So we’re going to put everything on the table and continue to explore any of the areas that we think we can improve our hockey club. It’s also exploring bringing back some of the guys that we felt were really good fits for our club, and some of them are pending UFAs. From adding more young players or continuing to add younger players, the players themselves generally dictate whether or not they’re ready,
“It’s a matter of whether we can blend things together as we felt we needed to add for a playoff push. You know you probably can’t win just with completing a lineup riddle with younger guys that have never been through a Game 7 or situations [like that]. So, we’re cognizant of it, and we’ll explore every avenue, whether that’s a trade or whatever it may be.”
Where are the biggest areas of improvement for the Bruins this spring and summer?
The search for a frontline, left-side defenseman - also at the top of the priority list last offseason - continues. Zdeno Chara will be 42 next season and could be coming off surgery depending on how things go with the recovery of his upper-body injury. Torey Krug has been an offensive dynamo for the Black and Gold, but has been injured late in each of the last two seasons and it looks like it’s going to be a challenge for the 5-foot-9, 180-pounder to remain healthy.
They clearly need another left-side guy that can log 20-plus minutes per night, play in all situations and be there in case anything happens with Chara or Krug. The truth is, though, that a move for a young, experienced D-man could end up costing an asset such as Krug when it’s all said and done.
Certainly, they’ll canvass the teams with an excess of young D-men that may be looking to move players from their roster. That would include Edmonton (Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse), Minnesota (Jonas Brodin) and Carolina (Noah Hanifin) among others.
The cost will be prohibitive and dealing away Krug would lessen Boston’s offensive ceiling, but they probably need to clear his $5.25 million cap hit at some point with young D-men Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy heading for new contracts after next season.
The other major upgrade area for the Black and Gold?
They need to find a Rick Nash-type player that’s actually going to perform in the playoffs rather than put up one two-goal game and then call it a day for the rest of the playoff drive. The Bruins have a plethora of young, fast and skilled types on the wing: Danton Heinen, Ryan Donato, Jake DeBrusk, Anders Bjork and others, but they really need a big body that can be a net-front presence, conjure up some chemistry with David Krejci and given them that element that they used to have with Nathan Horton and Jarome Iginla.
James van Riemsdyk is a natural left winger and will be costly as a free agent come July 1, but he’s also the type of player that the Bruins are lacking. Fitting him in on the left side may ultimately be what steers the Bruins away from him as a player, but JVR definitely fits the playing style of what they need up front. Whether it’s JVR or another young power forward-type that the Bruins end up pursuing in a trade, adding a legitimate source of offense on the second line is a major need after watching Boston become way too top-heavy with their reliance on Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak in the second round against the Lightning.
Last, but not least on the list of offseason improvements is an area that will be near and dear to the hearts of Bruins fans. The Bruins fourth line was pretty effective in the regular season and clearly, Tim Schaller, Sean Kuraly and Noel Acciari had the respect and affection of coach Bruce Cassidy with the way they played with heart and grit. But Tampa Bay had Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz on their fourth line and their hard-hitting physicality and experience came through in that second round.
How about adding free agent Ryan Reaves as a fourth-line option that brings big hits, a mean streak and the kind of intimidating presence that will give opponents second thoughts about taking runs at Marchand, Bergeron or Pastrnak next season? Reaves wouldn’t be expensive, he’d give the Bruins something they didn’t have last season and he’s given Bruins something they’ve really always wanted as a fourth-line tough guy. Would he play every night, or really much at all in the playoffs?
Maybe not, but players like Reaves, with his size, strength and intimidation factor, still play a key role in the NHL even as fighting fades into the background. A lot of things went down in the series between the Bruins and Lightning that can be discussed, but one that shouldn’t be accepted is the way Tampa Bay won the physical battle against a Boston team that really got pushed around. That would seem to be an easy fix for the Black and Gold and bringing in Reaves could help address that issue.
Certainly, there are other areas, such as a third-line center where a young B’s player (Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson or Trent Frederic perhaps?) will most likely step in next season, but the Bruins might also have some shopping to do this summer. It’s all part of an offseason improvement plan that should be fully in effect now after watching some of Boston’s flaws come out in their second-round loss to the Lightning.