The leaves are falling. The cap is flat. The fans are at home, the buildings are empty, and there might – might – be hockey again come 2021.
Strange, sure. But all that considered, the Bruins are set up reasonably well to navigate the most uncertain free agency period in NHL history, which opens at noon Friday.
They enter the market with a Presidents' Trophy (100 points in 70 games) and a projected $15.4 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly. That puts them in range of being able to keep the four mainstays – Torey Krug, Zdeno Chara, Jake DeBrusk, and Matt Grzelcyk – whose contracts are set to expire.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney could wait out Krug, who is said to have been offered a deal worth $6.5 million annually to stick around, or see him take $1 million more from another club looking for an offensive spark from the back end. Detroit, his hometown club, is an obvious and much-discussed fit. If he doesn’t find what he’s looking for, the Bruins would welcome him back.
Once the dust settles, Sweeney is likely to find a reasonable landing spot with Chara. The longtime captain will not expect front-line money if he returns for a 22nd NHL season, in which he will turn 44.
The Bruins have already retained the rights to DeBrusk and Grzelcyk, both restricted free agents, via qualifying offers, and have months to sign them (again, the NHL calendar has not been written in ink). Neither player is in line for a bank-breaking deal. A reasonable projection for DeBrusk’s AAV: between $4M-$4.5M. Grzelcyk could make $1M to $2M less.
Those are the moves that would keep the status quo. Sweeney could shake up the roster, if the right piece becomes available.
Taylor Hall would be a major boost to the top six, taking over DeBrusk’s role as David Krejci’s left-side winger. Hall, the 2018 MVP, had a down year in Arizona last season; he would have ranked fourth on the Bruins with a 16-36–52 line in 65 games. Hall’s value on the open market could approach $9 million.
Other forwards don’t have Hall’s combination of speed, tenacity, and skill. Mike Hoffman is good for around 30 goals a year, but he does most of his work while gunning on the power play. He would play on the No. 2 unit in Boston. Former Florida teammate Evgenii Dadonov, like Hoffman, has crested the over-30 hill. Tyler Toffoli, a Bruins trade target last deadline, could provide some punch (24 goals, 44 points last year.
The Bruins, looking to extend their championship-contending window, would be well served if youngsters on entry-level deals such as Jack Studnicka, Trent Frederic, and Karson Kuhlman can fill secondary roles. The thought of Studnicka carrying his AHL success as a 20-year-old last year into a full-time NHL scoring role will warm any Black and Gold household this winter.
If Krug walks from the Boston blue line, Sweeney could find a replacement via signing (Alex Pietrangelo) or trade (Oliver Ekman-Larsson), or add a mid-range, left-side UFA defender with offensive pop (Sami Vatanen, Erik Gustafsson) to push Grzlecyk and the pups hungry for minutes (Urho Vaakanainen, Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon).
Another interesting market to watch Friday: the non-QO RFAs.
Perhaps because of pandemic-related financial constraints with ownership, several teams have opted to cut loose certain RFAs, rather than sign them to qualifying offers, and then negotiate their significant raises.
Speedy winger Anthony Duclair, after a career-high 23 goals, finds himself without a team after Ottawa opted not to get dinged in a future arbitration hearing. Buffalo opted to skip a second contract for Dominik Kahun (31 points in 56 games). Andreas Anthanasiou, one of the game’s fleetest skaters but not known for his defensive game, wasn’t retained by Edmonton. Florida got hard-charging bottom-sixer Lucas Wallmark in the Vincent Trocheck trade, but he’s free to go. Pittsburgh saw a few flashes from Dominik Simon, but not enough.
All those players are 25 and under, which means they could have plenty more to give. That description, of course, fits more than a few Bruins. The solutions could be internal here.
Veteran help on the UFA market includes two-time Cup champ Pat Maroon, former Bruins captain Joe Thornton, Tyler Ennis, Ilya Kovalchuk, Mikko Koivu, and Wayne Simmonds. All are in the “stay away” bin.
Consider the situation in Tampa, where Stanley Cup-winning general manager Julien Brisebois might take a step back in order to keep star RFAs Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli. Or in Toronto, where GM Kyle Dubas has a roster that’s tight to the cap and leaking from the bottom.
Another division rival, Montreal, made a risky ploy Thursday in locking up Josh Anderson, a big-bodied winger once coveted by the Bruins, to a seven-year, $38.5 million extension, one day after shipping Max Domi to the Blue Jackets to get him. That’s $5.5 million annually to a player who missed all but 26 games last season because of a shoulder injury, and has one 20-goal turn in six NHL seasons.
Anderson, same as DeBrusk, scored a career-high 27 goals two seasons ago. Their goal-scoring outputs are similar – Anderson, 26, has 65 in 267 games. DeBrusk, who turns 24 next week, has 62 in 203 games – but Montreal sees Tom Wilson-like qualities in Anderson, who is 6 feet, 3 inches and 220 pounds. Boston has seen the slighter, speedier DeBrusk (6-0, 188) run hot and cold with his scoring touch, but some in the organization believe he could approach 40 goals.
Anderson could be Wilson 2.0. Or he could go the way of Matt Beleskey (UFA class of 2015) or David Backes (2016). Since those signings, Sweeney has been conservative with Boston’s checkbook on UFA Day. Given his cap space and wealth of options, his next moves may not follow the trend.