Arguably no NHL team added more depth than the Bruins on Wednesday, the opening day of free agency across the league.
General manager Don Sweeney, hoping to make another Stanley Cup run in the Patrice Bergeron era, added $18.925 million in salary cap hits spread among six players. Unsigned mainstays David Krejci and Tuukka Rask were not among them.
Though they added three forwards — including former Columbus captain Nick Foligno — and two top-six defensemen, the largest investment came in net. With Rask’s future unclear after hip surgery and former backup Jaroslav Halak off to Vancouver, the Bruins brought in ex-Buffalo starter Linus Ullmark on a four-year, $20 million deal.
Ullmark’s $5 million annual salary cap hit nearly doubles his previous one ($2.6 million). Signing the Swede, who turns 28 on Saturday, means the Bruins have no plans to rush Jeremy Swayman.
Swayman, the rookie whose brief stint last year opened eyes, does not require waivers to move back and forth between Boston and Providence. He will open the season competing with Ullmark for starts. Dan Vladar, last year’s third-stringer, was dealt to Calgary for a third-round pick in next year’s draft.
The door remains open for Rask, who turns 35 in March. Sweeney checked in Wednesday with the unsigned veteran, who recently had hip surgery and will be out until at least January.
“I think we’ve always left the door open for Tuukka to return,” Sweeney said in a Zoom call. “I think it allows Jeremy to continue to progress at a natural rate, but also give him the opportunity to be at the NHL level.”
The GM didn’t sound concerned about a potential logjam if Rask is ready to return.
“I see that as us having extremely good goaltending,” he said.
Ullmark appears to be a legit No. 1. He had a .917 save percentage and 2.63 goals against average in 20 games with Buffalo last year, playing behind one of the league’s worst teams. The career-long Sabre has a .912, 2.78 in six seasons, with a 50-47-13 record.
Ullmark’s 2020-21 season — in which he went 9-6-3, while all other Sabres goalies went 6-28-4 — ended early because of a lower-body injury that he apparently suffered in Boston on April 13. It was his last game of the year. Sweeney said Ullmark is healthy.
“He’s big,” Sweeney said of Ullmark (6-4, 214). “He stops a lot of pucks, way above expected, especially in five-on-five situations … He’s in the prime of his career.”
Sweeney said he remains in contact with Krejci, 35, who is keeping private his reasons for delaying his decision. As for the No. 2 center hole, the Bruins are prepared to go “a little bit by committee” if Krejci opts to move on.
With Krejci’s future unclear, Charlie Coyle coming off knee surgery, and prospects Jack Studnicka and Trent Frederic still proving themselves, Sweeney looked for versatility in signing Foligno (late of Toronto), Erik Haula (Nashville), and Tomas Nosek (Vegas).
“All of them good on draws, all of them on the penalty kill,” Sweeney noted. “Several of them have played power-play situations and providing depth throughout our lineup was really important.
Foligno, who turns 34 in October, hooked on for two years and a $3.8 million AAV. Highly complimentary of the Bruins’ style and structure, he said a phone call from Bergeron helped push him toward the B’s.
“Really cool just being able to speak to Patrice and kind of pick his brain a little bit,” Foligno said. “That excites you as a player.”
Foligno, a 14-year veteran, is a left shot capable of playing all three forward spots (his role here: “I think I’ve heard everything but goalie,” he said). He appears to be an upgrade on Nick Ritchie, who was not signed by the Bruins on Wednesday. Foligno’s production has declined over the last several seasons, down from a high of 31 goals and 73 points in 2014-15, but he remains an intelligent, disciplined checking forward. In last year’s playoffs, an upper-body injury knocked Foligno (0-1–1 in four games) out of the Leafs’ seven-game loss to Montreal.
Haula, who signed a two-year deal ($2.375M AAV), is another candidate to play on the third line. He scored 29 goals and had 55 points in 2017-18 as one of the original Golden Knights, but the Finnish attacker has put up 76 points in 162 games since, a 38-point pace, bouncing from Carolina to Florida to Nashville. He broke into the NHL in 2013 with Minnesota, as a rookie with Coyle.
Nosek, (two years at $3.5M per) could be a replacement for Sean Kuraly, who signed with his hometown Columbus Blue Jackets. Nosek brings more offense (8-10-18 in 38 games last year). He also wins faceoffs at a good clip (52.6 percent career).
“They can play with better players, they can play down with their lines and drive their lines,” Sweeney said of Haula and Nosek. “They’re both comfortable starting the defensive zone.”
On defense, the Bruins’ replacement for Jeremy Lauzon (Seattle expansion pick) is Derek Forbort, who agreed to a three-year deal at a $3 million hit.
Forbort came up with the Kings and spent last year with Winnipeg (2-10–12 in 56 games). He is 29, a left shot, large (6-feet-4 and 216 pounds), and plays a simple offensive game. With Lauzon gone, Kevan Miller retired, and Jarred Tinordi signing with the Rangers, Forbort will pick up heavy penalty-killing duty. Last year, he was tied for 24th in the league in PK time on ice (2:43 per game).
Left-side holdover Mike Reilly also returned on a three-year deal worth $3 million annually.
The Bruins also signed several players to two-way contracts: Goalie Troy Grosenick (one year, $750,000), forward Samuel Asselin (two-year entry-level contract, $750,000 each), forward Steven Fogarty (one year, $750,000), and defenseman Tyler Lewington (one year, $750,000).