Bruins

Some real uncertainty about Torey Krug's return to Bruins after this summer

Some real uncertainty about Torey Krug's return to Bruins after this summer

The reality is that nobody knows what lies ahead from an economical landscape in the world of professional sports. And anybody that professes to know exactly what will happen is bald-faced lying to you.

That’s the reason there have been only a handful of one-way NHL contracts for over $1 million per season since Jaroslav Halak signed a one-year extension with the Bruins all the way back on May 1.

Essentially, Halak and the recent signing of Ryan Reaves to an extension with the Vegas Golden Knights are the only NHL contracts of consequence that have been completed in the entire league over the last two months. Caution is in the air with NHL general managers crunching the numbers on flat salary caps for a couple of seasons moving forward, if not even worse scenarios than that based on the speculation that arenas could be empty going into the 2020-21 regular season as well.

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It's this caution and uneasiness that serves as the backdrop for looming Bruins free agent defenseman Torey Krug, who is destined for unrestricted free agency once the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs come to an eventual, elongated conclusion.

There was a time when Krug and the Bruins might have been able to make a deal based on the salary cap space that Boston cleared by ridding themselves of the David Backes contract, and based on the salary cap going up from the $81.5 million salary cap ceiling this past season.

Krug has consistently maintained he’d like to remain in Boston with all things being equal, though there had been little talk of taking “a hometown discount” after the 29-year-old defenseman said that early on this season.

"There hasn't been any discussion," said Krug back in April during a virtual town hall with season-ticket holders. "I'm prepared for it just because of the unknown and that nobody knows what the financial implications are going to be for this league, and for each individual team for years to come. That's still being sorted out. I didn't really anticipate anything like that. As I've said all along, I want to be part of this group, part of this locker room and part of this city.

"[Boston] has become home for us and we love it. You heard our Fenway bark earlier. We named our dog ‘Fenway.' How much more Boston can it get? I never thought about it during the season while we were playing, but now that you have a second to think about it, the mind wanders a little bit. We always assumed that we'd have some kind of [contract] answer by July 1, but who knows if we'll have that with regard to the season and how it all plays out. I'm just trying to live in the present and enjoy what we have now, and hopefully finish out the season."

Estimates had the salary cap rising to roughly $84 million with the B’s already committed to $63 million in guaranteed contracts for next season.

But that was before the outbreak of COVID-19 put the regular season on pause in mid-March and put the notion of business as usual far back in the NHL rear-view mirror. Assuming the Bruins face a flat salary cap for next season, that leaves them with roughly $18.5 million in salary cap space for next season with 17 regulars locked up.

The Bruins also have to come up with contracts for unrestricted free agent Zdeno Chara, restricted free agent Matt Grzelcyk, restricted free agent Anders Bjork and restricted free agent Jake DeBrusk along with Krug. Let’s assume that Chara signs for something in the neighborhood of this season’s $2 million incentive-laden deal, arbitration-eligible Grzelcyk signs for roughly $2.5 million AAV and Bjork for roughly $1.5 million AAV based on this past season’s breakthrough as a regular top-9 winger in Boston.

It would also mean walking away from free agents Joakim Nordstrom and Kevan Miller at the end of this season, which seems pretty self-evident given the chance to replace Nordstrom and Miller’s inability to get back on the ice due to injury issues.

The difficulty will come down to signing both Krug and DeBrusk to important contracts with something in the neighborhood of $11-12 million remaining in cap space after the Bruins take care of their other players. Krug has been pretty mum about his status with the Bruins other than to say A) he’d like to remain in Boston with all things being equal and B) that there has been very little progress on a new contract over the past year.

It’s a tough spot for both player and the hockey club because of the financial uncertainty. It’s more likely now that Krug is going to sign for as much money as he can get now given the uncharted waters ahead. Krug would have been able to command an annual salary in the $8 million AAV range based on his offensive production over the last handful of seasons, something few of his peers can boast.

Since the beginning of the 2016-17 season, only Brent Burns ($8 million per season), John Carlson ($8 million per season), Victor Hedman ($7.875 million per season), Roman Josi ($9.059 million per season) and Erik Karlsson ($11.5 million per season) have produced more points among defensemen than the 212 posted by Krug. That is heavy-duty NHL company with a capital “H” and demonstrates how in-demand Krug would be as a PP quarterback, puck-mover, point-producer and top-4 defenseman capable of playing 20-plus minutes a night in the NHL grind.

Those kinds of players don’t grow on hockey trees. Those kinds of players get paid and they get paid big money. Every player on the aforementioned list of Krug’s peers is paid a minimum of $7.875 million per season, and others like Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jarred Spurgeon are making upwards of $7 million per season as well.

The unknown question is how much of an adjustment there will be made to all NHL contracts once each of the 31 teams scramble out from under the rubble of the COVID-19 impact.

Interestingly, Bruce Cassidy wondered aloud what he might do next season if Krug is not a part of the Bruins picture based on the economics during a discussion with The Athletic about the Black and Gold’s power play. Cassidy has been toying with the idea of five forwards on the top Bruins power play, and that should tell you that the Bruins know there’s a very real possibility they simply cannot afford Krug’s next bank-busting deal.

“Is it Grizz or Charlie? Or is it a fifth forward?” asked Cassidy. “That’s one thing I’ve been brainstorming. It’s been rattling around in my head a little bit. Not for this year. We have Torey in place. It may never be [if Krug ends up re-signing]. But it’s one of those things to put in the hopper for down the road.”

There’s also the Patriots-like salary hierarchy already in place with the Black and Gold. Do they want to pay Krug more than Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand or David Pastrnak and make him the highest-paid player on the roster as an undersized, elite offensive defenseman who's approaching 30 years old? Or do they expect Krug to make a little bit less than market value as all of Boston’s other players have done in recent seasons to keep the band together?  

Clearly, they would miss him on a top power play unit that’s vital to the overall success of the Bruins and they would miss his fiery, passionate leadership as a key “middle guy” between the younger and older generations inside the Bruins dressing room.

But unless something unforeseen happens — like a decision to trade Jake DeBrusk rather than pay him or some miracle trade where they can cut more salary after already spending a first round pick to escape the David Backes albatross — it feels like it’s an increasing longshot that Krug is going to be back with Boston after this final summer hurrah.

Jack Studnicka out of Bruins lineup vs. Lightning in NHL round robin

Jack Studnicka out of Bruins lineup vs. Lightning in NHL round robin

The Bruins always intended to mix and match combinations and players during the round robin games while readying for the true Stanley Cup Playoff rounds that await next week, and that’s exactly what they will do against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night.

Promising 21-year-old prospect Jack Studnicka will be a healthy scratch after a disappointing night for the second line in the Sunday afternoon loss to the Flyers, and instead Nick Ritchie will skate in his first game since Phase 4 began at the Toronto bubble.

Studnicka skated with a second group of Bruins players after the main practice, though the youngster was, for all intents and purposes, the second line forward who stood out the most during a pretty invisible afternoon for Krejci and DeBrusk.

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He had four shot attempts in 11:36 of ice time in Sunday’s loss to Philly and had a hustling back-check to break up a 2-on-1 in the first period that was one of the few B’s highlights from the entire afternoon.

“Tuukka is scheduled to start. Ritchie goes in and plays with Krejci and Kuhlman on the right,” said B's head coach Bruce Cassidy. “That’s how they practiced [on Tuesday]. We don’t want to overanalyze one particular game, but that’s where we’re at to a certain extent.

“[Studnicka] is going with the second group. He’s healthy. We’re trying to go with a smaller group on the day before the game. He was out after practice with [Trent] Frederic and [Zach] Senyshyn to get some work.”

Ritchie will play the left wing with Krejci and Karson Kuhlman on the second line, and Jake DeBrusk will drop to third line right wing alongside Charlie Coyle and Anders Bjork.

Ondrej Kase won’t play against Tampa Bay, but is expected to get into this weekend’s round robin finale vs. the Washington Capitals ahead of the traditional playoff rounds. Some of it is obviously about getting all of his players some game action this week, and some of it also about a couple of disappointing games and a “low energy” practice on Tuesday that has caught Cassidy’s attention.

“It’s a tough mental part right now. You don’t know who your opponent is going to be next week and you still want to pick up wins,” said Cassidy. “You’re trying to balance that urgency while preparing for your first playoff opponent, so tomorrow [against Tampa Bay] should be a good test for us and bring out of the best of us.

“Yesterday was a good day. We worked on a lot of offensive principles, shooting the puck and getting to the net. Today we lacked a little energy. We addressed that. Part of the mental challenge for every team in this tournament is creating your own energy. We as coaches might have to look at that as well. Do we need to bring more? Should there be more chatter? Should we assign to the assistant coaches some verbal cues when [players] need to step up.”

Here are the expected line combos and D-pairings for Wednesday night’s round robin game vs. the Lightning:

FORWARD LINES

Brad Marchand Patrice Bergeron David Pastrnak
Nick Ritchie David Krejci Karson Kuhlman
Anders Bjork Charlie Coyle Jake DeBrusk
Joakim Nordstrom Sean Kuraly Chris Wagner

DEFENSIVE PAIRINGS

Zdeno Chara Charlie McAvoy
Torey Krug Brandon Carlo
Matt Grzelcyk Jeremy Lauzon

GOALTENDERS

Tuukka Rask
Jaroslav Halak

Brad Marchand 'not concerned' about how Bruins have looked in first few games

Brad Marchand 'not concerned' about how Bruins have looked in first few games

The Bruins certainly haven’t impressed anybody out of the gate thus far in dropping both of their games after a five-month layoff due to COVID-19.

They have been outscored 8-2 in losing both their exhibition game vs. the Blue Jackets and their opening round robin game against the Flyers, and there hasn’t been much to write home about it in either game.

David Pastrnak scored on a nice individual play vs. Columbus and Chris Wagner scrapped for a fourth line goal vs. Philly, but the Perfection Line has been quiet while the special teams haven’t been all that good either.

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Both goaltenders Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak looked rusty between the pipes as well, so most of the team’s strengths during the regular season have been MIA thus far in the Toronto bubble. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Pastrnak had one shot on goal apiece until late in the proceedings against the Flyers and were all minus-2 or worse when the game was over, so clearly Boston’s best players left a lot to be desired at both ends of the ice.

Still, don’t count them as concerned with two more round robin games left against Tampa Bay and Washington prior to the real playoff rounds starting next week.

“Instead of trying to make plays out of nothing, we’re going to have to try to get [pucks] in deep a little bit more and wear teams down low while making our plays in deep,” said Marchand. “We do tend to want to be more of a rush line and create opportunities on the rush, but with the ice the way it is right now it’s too tough. We’re just going to have to simplify a little bit. We’re going to get our looks and when they are there and they’re clear, then we can make them. But the ones where we’re trying to force it, we need to be a little smarter and get it in deep.

We’re not concerned about the way the last few games have gone. We’ve been off for six months and it’s going to take a couple of games to get back into it. But when we do, then [the goals] are going to come in bunches.

Certainly Boston’s top players looked passive with the puck, slow to react and hesitant to shoot when given a lane, and that is not very much like any of the Perfection Line guys when they are feeling it offensively.

In the past, there have been plenty of instances when Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak can look downright bad on the ice if there really isn’t much to play for within the game. They looked dreadful for a week or two at the end of the 2018-19 regular season once everything was clinched for the postseason, but then came on like gangbusters in the NHL postseason against the Toronto Maple Leafs and everybody else.

Perhaps they weren’t going full tilt in round robin and exhibition games that have little bearing on the actual playoffs, but that should change with the next couple of round robin tilts against Tampa Bay and Washington. These are teams that the Bruins will absolutely want to make statements against as they edge closer to the traditional four rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So the Bruins' top players aren’t "concerned” right now, but there might be a different answer from them if it’s more of the same Wednesday night against the rival Lightning.