BOSTON – The Bruins have a number of unrestricted free agents with the start of free agency less than two months away, and general manager Don Sweeney admitted on Thursday in his end-of-season comments that it wasn’t “realistic” for the B’s to retain all of them. Nick Holden, Rick Nash, Riley Nash, Tim Schaller, Anton Khudobin, Brian Gionta and Tommy Wingels are all facing unrestricted free agency on July 1 while Sean Kuraly and Matt Grzelcyk will be restricted free agents for the Black and Gold as well.
Given Boston’s salary cap situation and a number of their own young players that they’ll need to sign in the next couple of years, Sweeney feels like he needs to tread carefully with the veteran players that Boston will commit to this summer. There’s also the honest truth of it all: This Bruins team wasn’t good enough to win it all, so there should be changes to a talented youthful group and the veteran core of established Bruins veterans.
“Obviously, our team accomplished a lot to get to the 112-point level. Ideally, you’d like to bring everybody back and think you take another run at it. I don’t think that’s realistic in a cap environment,” said Sweeney. “We can afford the salaries they’re currently at, but some of the guys had very good years and you expect that to change. I’ve had discussions periodically with some of those players and will have with their representatives going forward in the next month or so.
MORE HAGGERTY: Pastrnak shows he's well on his way to NHL superstardom
“I don’t have clarity on any of the players at this point in time that are in the UFA status, but we’re going to see clarity. We’ve got some players that we think, internally, will continue to push and carve out goals, and we’ll see how we piece the jigsaw puzzle back together. But [they were] all great contributors, and in an ideal world, you’d like to entertain bringing them back. But I don’t know if that’s realistic today.”
It’s a no-brainer that RFA’s Kuraly and Grzelcyk will remain with the Bruins, and all things being equal it makes sense for the Bruins to make respective pushes to retain both backup goalie Khudobin and fourth line winger Schaller of the price is right.
Khudobin made it clear he’d like to stay in Boston, and the 32-year-old goalie also indicated he’s hoping to play eight more NHL seasons as a puck-stopper coming off a very good season. Coming off a year where he was the perfect backup goaltender supporting Tuukka Rask and posting a 16-6-7 record with a .913 save percentage, Khudobin should be Boston’s top priority when it comes to retaining any of their own players.
“Don [Sweeney] knows that I love it here. I love the city and everybody knows it,” said Khudobin, of his love affair with Boston. “How much is it going to be a factor in signing a new contract, I don’t know? I don’t think it will be a factor.
“I don’t think it matters. It matters what they can offer, and how much I’m willing to take. But for me personally, I would love to stay here. I’m 32 [years old] right now, and if I’m going to play until 40, I would love to play another eight years here. So that’s clear for me. If we will get a deal, today, or tomorrow, or in free agency, I don’t know. But if it will happen in Boston, I will be happy.”
But the rest of the pending free agents may face long odds of returning to Boston, including Riley Nash after a career year with the Bruins as a dependable, two-way center that put up the best offensive numbers of his career. With aging centers in Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci locked into long term deals, the Bruins really need to go young with their third line center and have a couple of players in Trent Frederic and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson pushing for the spot.
Nash said he would like to return after two good seasons in Boston, but the tripling of his salary that he’s rightfully earned may price him out of Boston.
“I’ve been around for a while, so winning is going to be one of my top priorities,” said Nash, who had 15 goals and 41 points for the Bruins this season and filled in ably for Patrice Bergeron on Boston’s top line when he was injured. “If they see a fit here, then I’ve truly enjoyed my two years here, it’s been awesome and I’d love to come back. I think they have one of the best teams coming up with the young players and the veteran leaders, so this has been a good fit for the last two years. We’ll see if we can figure something out.”
The bottom line for the Bruins when it comes to their own free agent class: An exception or two might stick around Boston, but a well-stocked prospect group means the Bruins will be waving goodbye to most of their veteran free agents from this season’s 112-point squad.