It’s been about three weeks since the Bruins shockingly fired Bruce Cassidy, and it’s still bewildering. Maybe the Bruins needed a “new voice,” but it’s fair to argue that GM Don Sweeney should’ve been replaced, instead.
Obviously, that’s not how the situation played out. While Cassidy took the fall, the Bruins handed Don Sweeney a contract extension.
So, the good news for Don Sweeney is that he kept his job as Bruins GM. The bad news is that it looks like a difficult job.
Bruins’ salary cap situation unclear, especially without clarity yet from Bergeron
Of course, some of the most important questions about the Bruins short and long-term future revolve around choices that aren’t totally in Don Sweeney’s control.
Most immediately, there are the questions about the future of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Lately, the indication is that Bergeron might return for 2022-23 instead of deciding to retire. With Krejci, that situation is murky.
Right there, the Bruins could either possess an aging-but-excellent one-two punch at center again, they could end up with Bergeron alone, or perhaps none of the the two.
[Incredibly, Patrice Bergeron won the 2022 Selke Trophy]
Naturally, adding Bergeron and/or Krejci to the mix would create salary cap ripple effects for the Bruins, as well. Via Cap Friendly, the Bruins currently have about $2.4M in salary cap room.
Under normal circumstances, that number would already be misleading. Considering the deluge of injuries likely sending a ton of money to LTIR to start the 2022-23 season, the Bruins’ salary cap space figures to be especially elastic. (Charlie McAvoy carries a $9.5M cap hit alone.)
So, there’s wiggle room regarding Boston’s actual ability to maneuver. Yet, the bottom line is that things will be about as snug as Bergeron’s coverage in the defensive zone.
Also immediate: Bruins must find a new head coach to replace Cassidy
Of course, Don Sweeney and the Bruins created a new challenge by firing Bruce Cassidy, as they also need to find a new head coach.
If you’re looking for a contrarian take on Bruce Cassidy, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Just about every indication is that Bruce Cassidy created a strong structure for the Bruins.
Hockey Viz’s Micah Blake McCurdy attempts to isolate a coach’s impact. McCurdy’s measures back up the consensus that Cassidy did strong work with the Bruins — all the way up until his tenure ended.
[Golden Knights quickly hired Bruce Cassidy as head coach after Bruins fired him]
Of course, coaching isn’t just about structure or embracing “good nerds.” The Bruins indicated that there was a disconnect between Bruce Cassidy and the team’s younger players.
Could a new coach drive better results from younger players? If nothing else, such a move might placate scoring winger Jake DeBrusk.
Personally, I’ll defer to others about how “energetic” Bruins head coach candidate Jay Leach might connect more with young players. Instead, I can’t help but wonder: do the Bruins really have enough young talent for any of that to matter?
Sure, there are some interesting prospects, such as Fabian Lysell. Yet, it can’t be ignored that the Bruins’ prospect pool has been ranked somewhere between bottom-10 and bottom-five in the NHL. Without a 2022 first-rounder, that group may only slide even lower.
So, that brings us up to an even bigger fork in the road: do the Bruins trade David Pastrnak, or sign him to a big contract extension?
Trade or extend Pastrnak? Bruins must answer a pivotal question
David Pastrnak’s current contract is such a “deal with the devil” that includes a bargain $6.6667M cap hit. However, the 26-year-old can easily advocate for a huge raise once his contract expires after next season.
So, the Bruins likely want to get ahead of this situation. Do you trade Pastrnak for picks and/or prospects, or cough up big money for a contract extension?
Such questions go beyond whether Pastrnak is worth the money and risk (yes, and probably). Really, that decision is a barometer for where this team is going.
After all, the Bruins aren’t likely to land a pick or prospect in a Pastrnak trade who can actually match Pastrnak’s value. Instead, you’d save that money, replenish the farm system, and hope to fight another day.
There’s logic to going down each path. That said, the Bruins aren’t really set up very well for a full-fledged rebuild that would include a full teardown. To be clear: it wouldn’t be impossible; it would just be difficult to pull off.
Bruins are structured more like a contender than a rebuilder
Take a look at the Bruins’ salary cap situation at Cap Friendly.
Again, you’ll see a missing first-rounder, and also a lack of a second-round pick in both 2023 and 2024.
Beyond that, you’ll see a lot of veteran players who boast term and, in many cases, clauses that limit the Bruins’ trade options.
- Trading Brad Marchand seems like a terrible idea, considering his elite status and dirt-cheap contract ($6.125M AAV through 2024-25). He’s also slated to being the season on LTIR. Then again, if you boldly wanted to rebuild, maybe Marchand would want out? Either way, he has some trade protection in his deal.
- Taylor Hall, 30, boasts almost the same contract as Marchand ($6M, also through 2024-25) and robust trade protection.
- The Bruins just trade-and-extended Hampus Lindholm. The 28-year-old’s $6.5M cap hit is more manageable than expected, but the term is daunting: through 2029-30. Lindholm’s contract also carries serious trade protection.
- Charlie Coyle, 30, presents a $5.25M cap hit through 2025-26. Coyle also has trade protection in the form of a 10-team list. Coyle’s the classic good player on an iffy contract, making him a magnet for imaginary trades. The Bruins aren’t likely to “win” a Coyle trade in reality, but maybe they could shake loose from his deal without too much pain?
- Would Brandon Carlo be the sort of player who could get moved for futures? The 25-year-old doesn’t have an NMC/NTC, and his $4.1M cap hit (through 2026-27) could be appealing to a trade suitor.
- Clearly, Don Sweeney has been OK with saddling the Bruins with no-movement/no-trade clauses. Even depth veterans Derek Forbort and Nick Foligno boast such protections.
When it comes to NHL trades, all it takes is one GM to turn an untradeable contract into a head-scratching deal. Right now, it seems like the Bruins aren’t really set up for a full-fledged rebuild.
What if the Bruins tank — but just for this season?
What if the Bruins tank for short-term pain, but mid-term gain?
As a reminder, Marchand, McAvoy, and other key Bruins are expected to miss a lot of time to start the 2022-23 season.
Maybe the Bruins would “write off” this season, hoping to tank their way to Connor Bedard in the 2023 NHL Draft? Perhaps you throw in a David Pastrnak trade/other rebuilding trades to “retool on the fly?”
Granted, such a strategy starts to crumble if Bergeron and/or Krejci play in 2022-23, and keep the Bruins competitive. If that’s the case, the conversation may swing from “Should the Bruins rebuild?” to “Can the Bruins actually contend for a Stanley Cup?”
Overall, the Bruins face some tough questions, so we’ll see if Don Sweeney is indeed the right choice to remain as GM.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.