The Boston Bruins fell one win short of spoiling Boston sports fans with yet another championship, but as long as key players don’t age too poorly, there’s a strong chance that they’ll be a contender again in 2019-20.
It would indeed be mild, though, as it would save Boston a bit more than $1M, but every bit might count.
If they really want true breathing room, the Bruins should wrestle with the best ways to handle that full Backes $6M cap hit, which expires after 2020-21.
To be specific, Boston needs to think long and hard about bribing a rebuilding team like the Ottawa Senators or Detroit Red Wings to take on that burden, at the cost of picks and/or prospects from Boston. Would it be worth it to get rid of Backes’ contract even if it cost something similar to Toronto burning a first-round pick to get Patrick Marleau off of the books? That would sting, but let’s be honest: the Bruins certainly are planning for that first-rounder to be a mediocre pick, if not one at the end of 2020.
There’s actually an especially devious way to handle that.
After signing McAvoy (and to a lesser priority, Carlo), the Bruins then can truly ramp up their efforts to move the Backes deal, so that they can line up some of that Backes money to re-sign Krug, who is in line for a significant raise from $5.25M after his current contract expires following the 2019-20 season.
Ideally, for the Bruins, they could lock McAvoy to a bargain contract akin to that of Marchand and Pastrnak, as McAvoy is absolutely a star, and then eventually keep the sometimes-underrated Krug in the fold.
Maybe that means stomaching a painful price to get rid of Backes, and perhaps that means that Boston won’t be able to keep some nice pieces like Charlie Coyle and Carlo around much longer. The luxury of having $2.75M to spend on a quality backup/platoon goalie like Jaroslav Halak might run out soon, too. As dominant as the top line with Patrice Bergeron can be, the Bruins truly took off when the Coyles of the world were able to provide support. Boston might not enjoy that level of depth very long.
This management group already extended a competitive window that sure felt like it was closing toward the end of the Chiarelli era, though, and there’s room to work with to wedge it open even longer. Doing so might require some cleverness, and maybe swallowing some pride to get rid of that Backes mistake, though.
What under-the-radar UFA could make the most impact next season?
SEAN: Brett Connolly turned himself from a top-five draft bust into a very reliable bottom-six forward with the Washington Capitals. He was vital in their run to the 2017-18 Stanley Cup title and his numbers improved in each of his three years in D.C. all while getting modest ice time (10:41, 12:00, and 13:20, respectively). He topped out is his walk year this past season with 22 goals and 46 points. The 27-year-old earned himself a nice raise from $1.5M salary this past season, and given how desperate some teams are for depth scoring, he might land in the category of an overpay even if he can give you 30ish points playing in your bottom six.
JAMES: The Flames already reportedly having interest in Cam Talbot makes me worried that the second-biggest reason I’m eyeing him (possibly being cheap?) could fall through … but if it’s a one-year deal, he’s low-risk all the same.
Consider this: even after two rough seasons with the Oilers, Talbot’s career save percentage is still a solid .915. That’s not world-beating stuff, but I’d honestly feel better about Talbot – David Rittich than how they rolled the dice with Mike Smith last season. Besides, if it’s one year, so if things went off the rails, they could also pursue someone at the trade deadline. (As they, frankly, should have done re: Jimmy Howard in 2018-19, if you ask me … hey, Howard does only have a one-year contract in rebuilding Detroit. Hmmm …)
Otherwise, here’s my advice: sign players closer to training camp than July 1. If you need a slogan: “PTOs are the way to go.”
ADAM: Joonas Donskoi is the guy that I keep coming back to. I thought he got kind of a raw deal toward the end of this season in San Jose and could probably use a fresh start with a bigger opportunity. He’s always had some decent production, his underlying numbers are strong, and he’s still pretty young as far as unrestricted free agents go. He is still probably going to get a pretty nice deal for himself, but he is not the biggest name out there and I think I’d rather bet on him than a lot of the other names on the market.
JOEY: With Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and a few other big names grabbing all the attention, it seems like Gustav Nyquist is flying under the radar. Sure, he struggled with the Sharks in the postseason, but he still managed to put up 22 goals and 60 points last season. He’s a top-six forward that would immediately improve any team he joins this summer. Nyquist has hit the 20-goal mark four times in his career.
SCOTT: I’m torn on this one. Is Semyon Varlamov an under-the-radar free agent? If so, I think he’d be a great add for several teams in need of a goalie, and a starter. Could he fit in Edmonton even after that insane Mikko Koskinen deal? Would Calgary welcome a No. 1 goalie with open arms? What about Ottawa or Buffalo. Varlamov didn’t have the world’s best season in Colorado but played a lot of games when the Avs were a poor team. He had a .920 the year before.
If Varlamov isn’t an under-the-radar choice, then Brett Connolly most certainly is. The former sixth-overall pick in 2010 had a great contract year with 22 goals and 46 points, both career highs. The risk here is that all the good production came in a contract year. But he’s a positive possession player in five of the past six seasons and is still quite young at 27. His cap hit last year was $1.5 million. That will go up, but if the Caps can’t find room in their cap, others will. Paging the Edmonton Oilers.
What team/GM needs to hit a homerun this summer?
SEAN: Dale Tallon has promised to be aggressive this off-season and many are expecting the Florida Panthers to land one of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, if not both. The organization needs to strengthen big time to back up their talk, and if they underwhelm in free agency, how will that affect the fan base going forward and what will that mean for the temperature of Tallon’s seat?
Hiring Joel Quenneville was a boon. Now they need to add talent to the roster, starting with a replacement for Roberto Luongo in goal.
JAMES: I’d like to see the Dallas Stars pull the right moves, with the requirement being that, if they land big fish, they really need to play a more entertaining style. Even Ken Hitchcock would probably want them to pick up the pace a bit. Scratch that, Jacques Lemaire even would.
Jamie Benn looked dominant at times during the playoffs, and who knows how much more often that will happen with him being 29? Ben Bishop is 32; you can’t expect him to be the best combined regular season and playoff goalie year after year. And even consider the youngsters: you only get two more years of Miro Heiskanen on his rookie contract, while John Klingberg‘s obscene discount $4.25M will run out after 2021-22.
There’s a lane here, so the Stars should bowl over the finish line like Roope Hintz when he’s really on the loose.
ADAM: I think the obvious answer here is Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is going to lose his two franchise players, he is (probably) going to lose the two big trade deadline acquisitions he received, and is going to have to try and piece together a roster to fill out all of those spots. That will not be easy, especially as it relates to goalie. Sergei Bobrovsky is not going to be easy to replace and they have nothing in house. Unless you get Robin Lehner the free agent market is pretty slim, too.
Dale Tallon in Florida is also probably under a lot of pressure. There has been so much anticipation around them heading into the summer and what they might be able to add. The core of that team is good enough to win … he just needs to make sure he puts something decent around them. Bobrovsky could be great in the short-term before he starts to decline in a couple of years, and Panarin would be a bonafide star going into that lineup.
JOEY: I think the pressure is on Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers to deliver on Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. This team missed the playoffs in 2018-19 and they need to make sure that they create a buzz in their market going forward (easier said than done). Everyone expects them to land prized free agents on July 1st, so failing to do so will be perceived as a wasted opportunity to improve their team. They have a good group of young players and it’s time they get them some help.
SCOTT: In my opinion, it’s without a doubt Jarmo Kekalainen in Columbus. Here we have a general manager who chose to keep both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the NHL Trade Deadline instead of shipping both Russians off for returns. And he sold other pieces off to acquire the likes of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel for a playoff run that started out tremendously against the Tampa Bay Lighting only to fall flat on its face in Round 2 against the Boston Bruins.
The Blue Jackets had two fourth rounders after doubling down on the 81st pick in the third round in a deal with the Florida Panthers. Their third and final pick in this year’s draft came in the seventh round. Not much restocking there. The Blue Jackets stand to lose their best forward and their best goalie this summer, along with Duchene and perhaps others. Kekalainen sold his soul to the devil and the deal burned to ashes. Now he has to rebuild from the rubble. Those fond memories of a two-round playoff run will provide little warmth when they’re dead last by Thanksgiving.
Finally, are we really going to finally see an offer sheet signed this summer? If so, who is the most likely candidate?
SEAN: I’ll believe it when we see it. This year might be the closest because of the high number of talented RFAs, but I think NHL GMs will remain conservative and not want to upset the apple cart. If we were to see a player actually sign one, how about Kevin Lebanc from the Sharks? He’s coming off a great year and ready to cash in.
The 23-year-old forward scored 17 goals and record 56 points in in 82 games this season and nine points in 20 playoff games. Coming out of his entry-level deal, Labanc could fetch an AAV of a little more than $3.5M a season — by Evolving Wild’s model — and, according to the NHL’s offer sheet compensation for 2019, it would cost only a second-round pick. If a team wanted to try and make the Sharks not match, the next tier of AAV between $4,227,438 – $6,341,152 would cost a first- and third-rounder.
Doug Wilson has a lot of decision to make while using his $14M of cap space, but it’d be tough to imagine him not bringing back Labanc, who shows plenty of promise.
JAMES: My vote is no, it won’t happen.
For all the courage that’s demanded of hockey players, hockey executives are often among the most conservative, risk-averse people out there. Combine that notion with the prohibitive costs of signing an expensive offer sheet, and you quickly realize why offer sheets are a fun idea that would won’t happen any time soon, like the abolition of offside calls.
At first, I though Sharks’ rising star Timo Meier, as he might be a less-obvious choice than, say, Mitch Marner.
But context makes me wonder about Sebastian Aho. The Hurricanes may very well be a budget team even after that great run, and judging by how they’re seemingly trying to lowball Aho, I wonder if a team try their luck in seeing if Tom Dundon would divert some of those AAF bucks to Aho? (Uh oh.)
When in doubt, follow the money, or in this case: perhaps an urge not to spend it.
(I still wouldn’t expect too much drama, but would be DELIGHTED if I’m wrong. I might stock up on some extra popcorn, just in case.)
ADAM: We should, but we will not. Mitch Marner is the logical candidate due to Toronto’s salary cap situation, and maybe Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, but I just don’t see it happening. Every year we try to talk ourselves into this and every year it never happens. I will say this: if I am Joe Sakic in Colorado I am marching into my owner’s office and trying to get the okay to spend as close to the cap as possible, because that team is the perfect one to make an offer sheet on a player Marner or Point. They are already a potential Stanley Cup contender and a team quickly building something special, they have more salary cap space than anyone, they just had two of the top-16 picks in the 2019 draft and have a bounty of young players so giving up the draft pick assets in the future would not crush them, and they could probably sign Marner and re-sign Rantanen to massive contracts and STILL under the cap. If any team could do it; this is the team. If they will not, no one will.
JOEY: I don’t expect to see one, no. But if there is one, I think it’ll be Sebastian Aho in Carolina. Would the Hurricanes be able to match a front-loaded contract from another team? Would they even want to? The ‘Canes are one of those small-market teams that need to make sure they take care of business with their best player before July 1st. It would be a shame to see them take a step back after having such a positive campaign in 2018-19.
SCOTT: I’ll be bold here and say yes. Someone is going to fire off an offer sheet to Mitch Marner that will cripple the Toronto Maple Leafs if they match. The New Jersey Devils are having quite the summer and they’ve taken Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes in two of the past three drafts and added P.K. Subban to the mix last weekend, too. Want to keep Taylor Hall in the organization? Throw enough money at Marner that Kyle Dubas can’t match. You have the cap space to do it and could probably find ways to get back into the first round down the line, especially if Hall gets shipped out.
Don Sweeney took over as the Boston Bruins’ general manager in 2015 and has guided them to three straight playoff berths and a 49-24-9 record in 2018-19. On Wednesday night during the 2019 NHL Awards, his efforts were acknowledged with the GM of the Year Award.
A panel of NHL exclusives, print and broadcast media, as well as the 31 GMs annually give the award “to the general manager who best excelled at his role during the regular season.” Though the award focuses on the season, the voting does take place after the second round.
Sweeney made two significant moves before the trade deadline, acquiring Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle. Though the two had a limited impact during the regular season, they provided valuable secondary scoring during the Bruins’ run to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
One of his big moves though came before the campaign when he signed goaltender Jaroslav Halak to a two-year, $5.5 million contract. That move played off beautifully for the Bruins as Halak was an ideal backup in 2018-19. He took the pressure off Tuukka Rask during his early season struggles and allowed Boston to use their starting sparingly enough that he was fresh for the postseason.
The Boston Bruins were within one win of taking home the Stanley Cup this year, but in the end it simply wasn’t meant to be. As disappointed as they must be, they still put together an incredible season and postseason in 2018-19, and they have something they can continue to build on in the near future.
Yes, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand are both over 30 and, yes, Zdeno Chara is 42 years old, but there’s enough talent there that they may go on another championship push as soon as next season. General manager Don Sweeney will have to get creative in order to improve his team, but he’s found a way to add to this roster every year.
The Bruins have about $14.3 million in cap space heading into the offseason. Re-signing Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo will likely eat up a good chunk of those available funds though. They also have to decide whether or not they want to bring back Marcus Johansson, who they acquired from the New Jersey Devils right before the trade deadline. Danton Heinen will also be a restricted free agent, while Noel Acciari is scheduled to become a UFA on July 1st.
For Sweeney, the issue isn’t just re-signing potential free agents this year, it’s also about projecting ahead to next summer when Jake DeBrusk will be an RFA and when Torey Krug and Charlie Coyle will need new contracts. There was a lot of trade speculation around Krug throughout the season, but do the Bruins really want to move him after the postseason he just had? Probably not.
In the end, Sweeney can’t sit around and do nothing, and he probably won’t. So what can he do to make this group better?
Boston is set up in goal with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. Assuming McAvoy and Carlo are back, they’ll have eight defensemen under contract next season. So, unless Krug is moved, you’d have to think that they like the way their defense looks heading into next season.
One area where they can improve, is scoring depth. As we saw throughout the Stanley Cup Final, David Krejci and DeBrusk were relatively quiet. Krejci is now 33 years old, and he’s the highest paid forward on the team at $7.25 million (there are two years left on his deal).
Also, finding someone to take on David Backes‘ contract would be huge (two years remaining at a cap hit of $6 million). Sweeney would have to give up some kind of asset to make that happen though. Buying out Backes isn’t really an option, because he would cost $5.67 million on the cap next season and $3.67 million the year after that. They need someone to take him ofter their hands for a draft pick and/or a prospect.
If the Bruins can make the money work, they’ll likely be in the mix for a number of big-name free agents on July 1st. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them make a run at Matt Duchene, Jordan Eberle, or even Kevin Hayes, who is from Dorchester, Massachusetts. If they keep the perfection line together, they need to find a way to address the second line so that they can remove some of the scoring pressure on Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.
So there’s a good chance the Bruins will look similar to the group that just went to the Stanley Cup Final, but don’t be surprised if they add a piece or two up front in an attempt to get themselves over the hump next year.
In fact, Chara played doorman on the far end of the Bruins bench next to Jaroslav Halak for the entirety of the remaining period, one that saw Ryan O'Reilly pot the eventual game-winner to send the game back to Boston tied 2-2.
“We clearly know he got a puck to the face, very uncomfortable, was advised not to return to play, had some stitches, probably some dental work in the near future,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said following the game. “He wanted to come out on the bench and be with his teammates, that’s why he was out there. I don’t know his status for Game 5.
“Obviously, when he gets back home he’ll have to be re-evaluated, see how he feels tomorrow, for starters. If we have something for you we’ll give it to you. So I can’t say whether he’ll play in Game 5 or not. No idea.”
His status is obviously a big concern, but so were the words “was advised not to return to play.
Cassidy addressed that, sort of.
“I don’t want to get in the nuts and bolts,” he said. “The conversation was short, he was getting worked on, we’re getting on the ice. The trainers come to me and said, ‘Done for the night.’ Question was asked, he’d like to sit with his teammates. If medically he’s able to do that, that’s fine.
“Typically these injuries, coaches, at least in our case, we follow the advice of the medical staff 100 percent of the time. And they did in this case, and they said it was OK for him to sit on the bench. That’s what took place and that’s about all I got on that.”
Perhaps being allowed to sit on the bench is a good sign.
The Bruins are already without defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, who was plastered from behind in the first period of Game 2 and has yet to return to the series.
Losing a second man from your top six would be a) bad luck and, b) bad news. Already missing Grzelcyk’s 16-plus minutes, losing Chara’s near-23 would be detrimental to their cause of a second Stanley Cup in eight years.
“If there’s any chance for him to be back, he’ll be back,” David Backes said. “If not, it’ll be next man up again. Whoever our next guy up is will have to fill that role admirably—and they’re big feet to fill.”
That could Steven Kampfer, among others. Cassidy said Kampfer would get the first look and they’d go from there.
“You never want to see that happen to anyone, especially someone on your team, someone who is such a big part of our team playing-wise, leadership-wise,” Charlie Coyle said. “It’s not an ideal situation but it’s how you respond to adversity and you see a lot of it during this time of year.”
Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday (stream here).