Zdeno Chara

Bruins face plenty of salary cap pressure

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Boston Bruins. 

The Bruins have been a contender for quite some time in the NHL. Inevitably, that comes with the price tag of salary cap headaches.

On the bright side, they’re in a better spot than many of their peers. Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand don’t just comprise arguably the best all-around line in the NHL; they’re also all getting paid far less than market value. Those values are the headliners, yet they also have other team-friendly deals with Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, and Charlie Coyle.

Yet, as fair as it is that Don Sweeney won GM of the Year, he faces some tough work ahead — during the rest of this offseason, and also through the next one.

[MORE: 2018-19 in review | X-factor] | Three questions]

By Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Bruins have approximately $7.294M in cap space heading into 2019-20, but that number is misleading, because key RFA defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo still need to get paid.

Bruins legend and exec Cam Neely spoke of what Sweeney and the team are currently going through in an interview with NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty.

“Across the league, [negotiations with RFAs] has been like sweeping mud. Unfortunately, it’s still status quo [with Carlo and McAvoy],” Neely said. “The history since Don [Sweeney] has been here is that when we negotiate, we do it from a position of fairness. We do a lot of work at comps around the league and try to get a deal done that’s fair. We start with initial offers that are fair and that’s been no different with Brandon and Charlie.”

One can debate McAvoy’s value – he’s a star in my opinion, while the Bruins argue that injuries hurt his case – but the bottom line is that a defenseman of his caliber could eat up close to $7M alone, even without the (dubious) threat of offer sheets.

Recent history shows that the Bruins have deftly found ways to use their own limitations and leverage to get bargains. The dream is probably for McAvoy to sign the sort of relatively cheap bridge deal Torey Krug did, as Krug signed for just $5.25M per year when things were tight in 2016.

The downside of bridge deals is that they only buy you so much time, and the bill is coming for Krug, as he’s entering a contract year. So, beyond finding immediate answers for McAvoy and Carlo, the Bruins must also ponder their approach for 2020-21.

For all of Sweeney’s many wise decisions, contending teams feel the sting of mistakes.

  • David Backes struggles to even crack the top 12 forwards, and while his contract only lasts for two more seasons, it comes at the whopping cost of $6M. If his rugged career isn’t enough to eventually land him on LTIR, then he’s the biggest headache going forward. Maybe the expansion draft would save Boston, even if it meant bribing Seattle and convincing Backes to waive clauses?
  • John Moore would be another bribe case, although his $2.75M AAV lasts through 2022-23, which is tough to fathom.
  • Moving Kevan Miller seems the most doable, as his $2.5M cap hit expires after 2019-20.

Chances are, the Bruins will find a way, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Will they eventually need to wave goodbye to Charlie Coyle, whose bargain $3.2M cap hit evaporates after 2019-20? Could we see David Krejci trade rumors crop up again?

It’s one thing to get under the cap, yet the Bruins also want to contend, making this a challenging juggling act. To the Bruins’ credit, they’re at least not juggling chainsaws like peers who are in even bigger binds, but they’ll need to exhibit serious skill (and enjoy some serious luck) if they’ll end this exhibition with the crowd going wild.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Can Bruins hold off Father Time for another year?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Boston Bruins. 

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: “Father Time is undefeated.”

To the Boston Bruins’ credit, they’ve found ways to zig and zag with the aging curve so far.

Patrice Bergeron is 34, yet aside from being limited to 65 and 64 games during the past two regular seasons, he remains a dominant two-way presence. Zdeno Chara‘s slowing down, but is still averaging more than 21 minutes per night, and often succeeding in making us forget that he’s 42. Instead of getting poor play from an aging goalie duo of 32-year-old Tuukka Rask and 34-year-old Jaroslav Halak, the Bruins’ save percentage stats were comfortably above league average. David Krejci continues to contribute at age 33, and it’s still confounding that Brad Marchand is 31 already.

The Bruins have unearthed some major youthful talent, particularly in David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy, but the bottom line is that this team remains reliant upon an aging core of talents whose productivity could plummet.

[MORE BRUINS: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three questions]

We’ve certainly seen this before with other teams who’ve had long runs as contenders.

The Los Angeles Kings’ decline wasn’t gradual — it was staggering. Their pals in Anaheim could see the same drop in their team play, or just observe the jarring downfall of Corey Perry, which ended with a buyout.

Maybe the Bruins thrive where those teams fight to survive because of style differences, such as Bergeron’s cerebral game. Or maybe the Bruins have just been lucky.

Whatever the explanation may be, the Bruins have sustained a window of true, elite contention for longer than expected, as it sure seemed like that window was closing during the end of Claude Julien’s run.

But what if Father Time shows up to collect those debts in 2019-20?

A deep, draining run within one win of a Stanley Cup probably didn’t make the Bruins feel younger. Boston battled through 24 playoff games during that run, including two Game 7s. As much as a “Stanley Cup hangover” narrative focuses on motivation (and recovering from literal hangovers), the holdover fatigue can’t be ignored. Being on the losing end might be the greatest testament to such a thought, as players like Chara and Rask might feel some lingering effects from battling through June 12.

So, the Bruins probably can’t totally avoid absorbing body blows from fatigue and the aging process, yet they’d be wise to mitigate the damage.

  • Having aging veterans take one game of a back-to-back set off seems prudent.
  • Rask has already said how much it helped to have Halak carry some of the workload, so more of that?
  • Easing burdens even while players are on the ice is worthwhile. Not only do you make things less grueling for Bergeron/Chara/etc., but you might get some useful intel. Perhaps you can break up Marchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak during certain series where you’d be better off spreading the wealth? Getting a better idea of who works well with those stars could boost Boston’s versatility.

On paper, this could all run smoothly, but we’ll see when this team actually hits the ice again. After all, Father Time isn’t always polite enough to knock before barging in and messing everything up.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

It’s Boston Bruins Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Boston Bruins. 

2018-19
49-24-9 107 points (2nd in Atlantic Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost Stanley Cup Final in seven games to Blues

IN
Brett Ritchie
Par Lindholm
Brendan Gaunce
Maxime Lagace

OUT
Marcus Johansson
Noel Acciari
Lee Stempniak
Jordan Szwarz
Gemel Smith
Zane MacIntyre

RE-SIGNED
Danton Heinen
Peter Cehlarik
Connor Clifton
Steven Kampfer
Ryan Fitzgerald

2018-19 Season Summary

One more win, that’s all they needed. The Bruins fought off the Blues in Game 6 to force a do-or-die game in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. Unfortunately for them, eight years after they won a Game 7 to top the Vancouver Canucks for the title, they fell short in a 4-1 defeat to St. Louis.

The loss put a sour note on an otherwise great season for the Bruins. They finished tied with the Calgary Flames for the second-most points in the NHL during the regular season. Brad Marchand stayed out of trouble for the most part and recorded a career-high 100 points. David Pastrnak, while playing only 66 games, topped his previous career marks with 38 goals and 81 points. Jake DeBrusk scored a career high 27 goals, and Patrice Bergeron, in his 15th NHL season hit a personal best 79 points and tied his career high in goals with 32. With a lighter workload (46 appearances), Tuukka Rask posted his best even strength save percentage (.925) in five seasons, and the power play clicked at 25.9%, the best success rate the franchise has seen since 1980-81 (25.4%). 

Basically, everything went pretty swimmingly in 2018-19 for the Bruins. Head coach Bruce Cassidy continued the success that started after he replaced Claude Julien in Feb. 2017. Since that time the team has a 61% win percentage (117-52-22) and have accumulated the second-most points (256) in the NHL.

[MORE BRUINS: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

So it was no surprise the Bruins cruised through the regular season and played their way into Cup contender status as the playoffs began. Waiting for them in Round 1 were the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were vanquished yet again in seven games for the third time in seven seasons. Next, the Cinderella Columbus Blue Jackets were ousted in six games after taking a 2-1 series lead. In the Eastern Conference Final, the other surprise team, the Carolina Hurricanes, were swept, putting Boston in the Cup Final for the 20th time in franchise history.

There were few good moments for the Bruins in the final series against the Blues, one was the return of Zdeno Chara to the lineup in Game 5 at TD Garden after breaking his jaw.

But now as they rest up with a short summer in preparation to get back to the Cup Final and win it, the Bruins’ roster won’t be drastically different, at least at the start of the season. A cap crunch and needing to re-sign two important pieces on the blue line has kept general manager Don Sweeney from going out and adding big names to the lineup.

The offseason has been quiet, aside from some minor additions and a few departures. Atop Sweeney’s to-do list is to re-sign restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. There’s currently a little over $7 million in cap room and it’s a question if one or both will still be unsigned when training camp opens next month. There’s plenty of confidence both will get extensions given that McAvoy is ineligible for an offer sheet, and while Carlo is eligible, NHL GMs have shown a general dislike in using them.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Thornton not ready for retirement; Best Lundqvist trade scenario

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Cam Neely and Jeremy Jacobs were impressed by Zdeno Chara‘s level of courage throughout the Stanley Cup Final. (WEEI)

• It’s going to be a really interesting off-season for Torey Krug. (Bruins Daily)

• The Canadiens should force the Jets’ hand by going after Nikolaj Ehlers. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Could the Capitals move up or down in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft? (NBC Sports Washington)

• ESPN looked at how former first overall pick Patrik Stefan was able to move on from a disappointing career. (ESPN)

• The Hockey News got to chat with Penguins star Sidney Crosby at the NHL Awards. (The Hockey News)

• Will Barry Trotz and/or Robin Lehner come away with major awards in Vegas? (Newsday)

• What does the ideal Henrik Lundqvist trade scenario look like? (New York Post)

Rasmus Dahlin had one of the best rookie seasons in Sabres history. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• It doesn’t sound like Joe Thornton is ready to hang up his skates just yet. (NHL.com)

• Flames forward Sean Monahan believes his teammates Mark Giordano is a no-brainer for the Norris Trophy. (Flames Nation)

• What do the Vegas Golden Knights look for in a draft pick? (Sinbin.Vegas)

Neal Pionk was shocked when he found out he was being traded to the Jets. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• Bobby Brink might be the first player from Minnesota taken in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. (Minneapolis StarTribune)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Should Bruins break up top line next season?

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The Boston Bruins and their fans are likely still smarting from falling one win short of a Stanley Cup victory against the St. Louis Blues, but the bottom line is that this was an impressive run. Really, it cemented the notion that Bruins management has done a lot right in finding ways to extend this group’s window of contention, where other teams would age out of elite play.

Still, there was one thing that bothered me about the Bruins: their lack of experimentation toward the end of the regular season.

Most teams don’t get the chance to tinker without big consequences

For a long time, it was clear that the Bruins would meet the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There was also plenty of advance notice that the Bruins were unlikely to slip from the second seed.

While other NHL teams can be dinged for a lack of experimentation as well, the Bruins (and Maple Leafs) were in a rare position in this age of parity: they basically knew where they were going to land in the playoff branches, and didn’t really face much of a threat of dropping out of their position for some time.

In other words, if the Bruins wanted to try a bunch of different things – treating the rest of the regular season as a virtual hockey science lab – they wouldn’t have faced severe consequences, even if those experimentations blew up in their faces in the form of losses.

Instead, the Bruins more or less played things out.

If there was one question I would’ve wanted answered if I were in Bruce Cassidy’s shoes,* it would be: “What if we broke up the line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak?”

* – And, make no mistake about it, this would be a bad deal for the Bruins, because Cassidy is overall a very bright coach, and I’d struggle to keep a team under one Too Many Men on the Ice penalties per period.

[More: How will the Bruins look next season?]

Hitting a wall at the worst possible time

Overall, it’s fine that the Bruins leaned toward not messing with a good thing. For the most part, that trio absolutely caves in opponents with their mix of smart defensive play, blistering passing, and dangerous sniping.

Unfortunately, that group hit some serious roadblocks during the postseason, particularly as the St. Louis Blues’ defense found ways to short circuit that top line, and the Blues’ own best players feasted to a surprisingly lopsided degree. This tweet really captures how one-sided things often were during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final:

Yikes. Yikes.

While wear and tear cannot be ignored during the grind of a deep playoff run, it’s fair to ask if the Bruins didn’t have enough of a Plan B for if the top line sputtered. To some extent, you can understand why: because they basically never ran into that problem during the regular season.

Yet, lacking alternate options might have made the Bruins easier to “solve.” Consider this striking excerpt from the latest edition of Elliotte Friedman’s “31 Thoughts.”

When it came to the Patrice Bergeron/Brad Marchand/David Pastrnak line, one Blue said they were determined “not to be fooled by their deception.” Those three are excellent at creating havoc through the neutral zone via the different routes they take. The Blues focused on where they wanted to get to (especially Marchand’s and Pastrnak’s preferred one-timer locations) instead of how they got there.

Attached at the hip

The Bruins certainly provided the Blues and other opponents with a lot of “tape” on the top line, so to speak, as they kept them glued together during the regular season.

Via Natural Stat Trick, Patrice Bergeron played more than 729 minutes with Brad Marchand at even-strength during the regular season, while Bergeron was only away from Marchand for less than 46 minutes. David Pastrnak saw a little bit more time away from that duo, but still spent far more time with them.

It’s striking, actually, that Pastrnak spent almost as much time away from Bergeron and Marchand during the smaller sample of the playoffs (123:12 without Marchand, 134:07 without Bergeron, in 24 games) as Pastrnak spent away from them during the regular season (202 away from Marchand, 182:27 away from Bergeron), and injuries exaggerated those regular season numbers.

You could argue that Pastrnak was moved around because of desperation, rather than inspiration, during the postseason, as things weren’t clicking. So it wasn’t exactly as if those swaps were happening in ideal circumstances.

But what if the Bruins had more combinations in their back pocket?

Roads less taken

Cassidy had the luxury of finding out a little bit more about how other duos or trios might click, but he chose not to do so. Could Marchand and Bergeron really propel their own lines, and how much does Pastrnak need at least one of those guys to thrive? Might Marchand find chemistry with David Krejci, and could Bergeron really click with Jake DeBrusk? If the drop-off from spreading the wealth vs. going top-heavy was small, then the Bruins might have been able to throw different looks against the Blues, rather than playing into their hands.

So, with all of that in mind, how much should the Bruins consider breaking up the top line for 2019-20, or at least portions of 2019-20?

Interestingly, there might be a political element to consider, too: would they grumble at being broken up? In particular, it could be a tough sell to pitch that idea to Bergeron and Marchand, specifically.

Expanding Marchand’s even-strength minutes from 2015-16 to 2018-19 with Natural Stat Trick, the results are pretty comical. Marchand spent 2,461 minutes and 40 seconds with Bergeron during that time period, and just 368:46 without Bergeron. That’s the hockey equivalent of a common law marriage.

If there’s no argument for breaking up the veterans, then maybe continued experimentation with Pastrnak is in order. Theoretically, Bergeron and Marchand could carry a lesser linemate, as that’s the general pattern around the NHL, as teams just don’t often enjoy the option to load up with their three best forwards and still have some talent left over not to get bombarded when their other three lines are on the ice.

Consistency vs. versatility

Again, the Bruins have done an impressive job finding other players, and this post is mainly asking the question regarding whether they can get even better, or at least more versatile.

This interesting piece by Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald discusses David Krejci wanting a more stable partner on the right wing to go with Jake DeBrusk on the Bruins’ mostly effective, but occasionally hot-and-cold second line.

To be fair, Krejci wants stability, where I would argue that the Bruins should try a number of different looks:

“We did touch on that a little bit, but that’s not really something I can control,” Krejci said. “We have lots of good players here who can play on that side, so I’m not worried about that. We have lots of players. But what I would like to have is consistency of the lines so you create some chemistry. You always go through some ups and downs. Everyone does. But if you stay together as a line, in your difficult time of the year, the two other guys can lift you up, or the other way around.”

Conroy brings up some options as right-handed shooters, from Pastrnak to interesting young forward Karson Kuhlman. I’d also throw Charlie Coyle‘s name in the hat, as while he’s mostly served as third-line center for the Bruins, Coyle also played at RW at times during his Wild years.

The thing is, coaches do what Krejci doesn’t like, and get the line blender going for reasons. During an 82-game season, you’re going to experience streaks, but also injuries. You also must battle stagnancy and predictability.

But, really, finding different looks comes down to the playoff contests after the 82-game season.

***

Would the Bruins have won it all if they could have kept the Blues a bit more off balance? Maybe, maybe not. You could also argue that staying the course helped the Bruins get as far as they did, in the first place.

Either way, these are the questions the Bruins should grapple with, and experiments they should undergo more often than they did in 2018-19. Chances are, their cap situation won’t allow them to add much and will probably force them to lose a nice asset like Marcus Johansson, so it’s about getting the most out of what they already have.

Cassidy & Co. deserve credit for getting a whole lot out of this group, already, yet maybe there are a few more answers that simply haven’t been explored, or explored enough to truly know?

LOOKING BACK, AND AHEAD, FOR BRUINS

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.