DALLAS – It looks as if the Bruins are starting to resign themselves to letting their remaining free agents head to the market on July 1. Don Sweeney said at NHL draft weekend in Dallas that the Bruins haven’t really made any progress signing pending UFAs Anton Khudobin, Riley Nash and Rick Nash, and they may have to begin formulating other plans in case agreements doesn’t come to fruition.
“I’ve talked to all of them, and it seems to be inching rather than moving in the direction I’d like it to,” said Sweeney of his looming free agents. “Just because we’ve gotten closer to the deadline doesn’t mean we’ve closed the door on any of them, but [July 1] does get closer. As much as they might think it does [get closer], we also have to begin to think and prepare otherwise.”
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Clearly, the fate of 33-year-old Rick Nash was tied up in the Bruins' pursuit of Russian free agent Ilya Kovalchuk, who signed with the LA Kings on Saturday. It may be that Nash is ready to dip into free agency with the Bruins clearly viewing him as a secondary option for a second-line winger. Riley Nash and Khudobin were both players that the Bruins had interest in retaining after banner years, but free agency also comes at a time for them where they may be able to maximize their value on the open market.
With the third-line center position, the Bruins actually have some pretty good youthful options - former draft picks Trent Frederic and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson are getting really close to NHL readiness. Things may be a little more treacherous at goaltender as there is a real question as to whether B’s prospect Zane McIntyre is ready to be an NHL backup behind Tuukka Rask. Instead, the Bruins may need to dip into the free-agent pool to bring in a veteran backup capable of playing the 20-25 games that Rask needs out of his understudy.
The good news for the Bruins is that goaltender Chad Johnson, with past Bruins experience, and others like him are expected to hit the free-agent market, where they could be a good fit.
It’s doubtful trade-deadline acquisitions Tommy Wingels and Nick Holden are going to end up back in the fold with Boston, but the door won’t officially be closed until the market opens July 1. With $12 million in cap space, the Bruins clearly will have some money to spend on needs at third-line center, second-line wing or backup goaltender.
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Given some of the contracts the Bruins have on their books, given their overabundance of young assets and given a couple of the holes that need filling on the NHL roster, it feels inevitable they're going to be active over the next few weeks.
First, there are a couple of key openings they'd like to fill on their NHL roster that they can’t simply plug in with their own young talent in the organization. Boston’s interest in free-agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk would fill one of those vacancies as a second line sniper-type that the Bruins could plug in with David Krejci and theoretically provide more balanced scoring up front than what the B's featured in their second-round defeat against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Clearly, the Bruins aren’t the only team interested in Kovalchuk, 35, who has suitors on the West Coast (the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks) among others when he becomes available to sign on July 1. Given his age and that he's been away from the NHL playing in Russia the past five years, Kovalchuk isn’t going to command much more than a one-to-two-year deal at $5 million to $6 million per season. That’s a doable price tag for an aging game-breaker who should score 25 goals and 60 points in his sleep.
Certainly, Kovalchuk seems a better bet than Rick Nash, 33, who disappointed after arriving at the trade deadline while also coping with a concussion that really messed up his time with the Black and Gold. It could come down to an either/or for the Bruins between giving Kovalchuk or Nash a similar contract to be the veteran, big-bodied scorer on the second line. That’s a must given the small stature, inexperience and highly skilled nature of the young players the B's overwhelmingly feature on their wing right now.
A little higher on the degree of difficulty this offseason is the longstanding search for a front-line, left-shot defenseman who could fit into Boston’s top four. With Zdeno Chara turning 42 next season and Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk both undersized, puck-moving types, there’s a clear need for a bigger, stronger and younger do-everything D-man.
The Bruins have a longstanding interest in Carolina defenseman Noah Hanifin that goes back to their efforts to trade up for him in the first round of the 2015 draft. The Hurricanes are a team that appears likely to trade off some of their players amid a regime change. Hanifin won’t come cheap as the Canes will undoubtedly ask for left winger Jake DeBrusk in a hefty package, just as the Rangers similarly did in the Ryan McDonagh discussions last spring. Perhaps the two sides can settle on a package built around Danton Heinen or Anders Bjork instead, or perhaps the Bruins will have to look elsewhere, whether that means Oskar Klefbom or seeing what Jakub Zboril/Urho Vaakanainen/Jeremy Lauzon could bring to the table.
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As it stands, the Bruins will have somewhere between $10.4 million to $14.4 million in cap space after signing Grzelcyk to a two-year, $2.8 million extension, depending on where the ceiling for 2018-19 ends up between the projected $78-82 million. They have 10 forwards, seven defensemen and one goaltender under contract and still need to make decisions on their third-line center and their backup goaltender, along with a second-line sniper. So, it would be smart cap management by the Bruins to move some salary in order to give themselves some breathing room ahead of July 1. That’s why the names David Krejci ($7.25 million cap hit) and David Backes ($6 million) have been whispered around the periphery of league-wide trade discussions.
TSN Insider Darren Dreger told Buffalo WGR Sports Radio 550 last Friday that the Bruins are fielding calls about a potential Krejci trade. Dreger also added that the Bruins are "a little reluctant to” move their playmaking 32-year-old Czech center, but instead "would like" to deal away the 34-year-old Backes.
What does it all sound like to this humble hockey writer?
It sounds like wishful thinking from a Bruins general manager who would love to move either of the two worst contracts - paying aging players with no-movement clauses - on their books. Of course, the Bruins would like to move Backes, who had a bad contract from the minute they signed him to a five-year deal. Backes has endured all kinds of injury and health issues the past couple of seasons, including a nasty concussion that ended his postseason. He has settled into a third-line role after never really building any offensive chemistry with Krejci.
Clearly, Backes is making too much money for a third-liner who has averaged 15 goals and 36 points in his first two seasons in Boston. It also wouldn’t be shocking if the hard-working, no-nonsense Backes would be amenable to moving somewhere where he might fit into a more prominent top-six role. Still, nobody is going to take on Backes unless A) the Bruins were willing to eat a great deal of his remaining $18 million or B) they were willing to take on a similarly unfavorable contract coming from another team.
All of this doesn’t even mention the fact Backes is one of the few Bruins forwards with size, strength, snarl and a willingness to go to the front of the net and jettisoning him would just be creating another hole to be filled on their roster.
“Hopefully he is going to be healthy. He went through... even he described it as a pretty difficult year," GM Don Sweeney said back in May at his end-of-season press conference. "I don’t know if a lot of players are going to play through some of the things David went through this year. It speaks to his character. It’s a big reason why we went out and got him, and to what he was going to offload at times from other players on our hockey club that we all speak about from a core standpoint, and the impact they make from a leadership standpoint. It’s a lot to lump on players individually to carry that burden, and I think David’s done a really good job of coming in and helping in that regard and spreading it around. From a pure production standpoint, a little bit is determined where he plays in the lineup.
“Nothing against Bruce, but he’s putting together the lineup and did a really good job this year. We played him on the power play. His offense comes in spurts probably more so than what he used to, from a volume standpoint. He’s also playing with younger players at times that’s he’s helping on and off the ice. I think we looked at David Backes as providing balance in our locker room, on the ice, not just from a pure production standpoint. Do I hope he becomes a 20 [goals] 50 [points] guy again? Yeah, I absolutely do. I don’t know, that’s up to him. He hasn’t the last two years, but at times, if he was healthy, he was trending in that way. But a little bit depends on the usage piece.”
Perhaps there is less reluctance to deal Krejci from a Bruins perspective, but it’s once again an aging player experiencing both more injuries and less production at this point in a very solid career. If the Bruins found a team willing to take either Krejci or Backes in a reasonable deal, and either was willing to waive their no-trade protection, then Boston would and should pull the trigger immediately, if not sooner.
Instead, this feels more like Boston trying to float a couple of names they’d like to trade before going through the pain of trading a younger, more valuable asset (Krug, perhaps?) to clear the cap space they’ll need to make all their desired offseason moves. All the pieces are in place for Sweeney and the Bruins to make a few splash-worthy moves this season, but let’s also hope B’s management doesn’t shake, rattle and roll too much of a roster that piled up 112 points last season while looking like they were onto something most of the year.