The Bruins are proud of Milan Lucic’s career path. Lucic is the standard of how organizations want to build their rosters.
He was the Bruins’ second-round pick in 2006. In 2007-08, when he was expected to be the captain of his junior team, Lucic willed himself into the NHL. Since then, Lucic won a Stanley Cup, became the personification of the Black-and-Gold brand, and defined himself as the NHL’s singular power forward.
The lifelong Bruin may have a new employer this offseason.
The Bruins have personnel decisions to make. They need a reliable backup for Tuukka Rask. They’ll consider bottom-six options to replace Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille. They’ll determine whether Joe Morrow and Zach Trotman are ready to take over for Matt Bartkowski and Adam McQuaid.
There is no bigger decision than whether to trade Lucic. The left wing has a no-trade clause.
Lucic, 26, had a disappointing season. In 81 games, Lucic scored 18 goals and had 26 assists while averaging 16:21 of ice time per outing. He buried 12.8 percent of his shots on net. Before this season, Lucic’s career shooting percentage was 14.9 percent.
When Lucic was on the ice in five-on-five situations, the Bruins attempted only 60 more shots than they allowed. It was the lowest difference since his rookie year. Lucic was not as effective in puck possession as he was in previous seasons.
The shifts in which Lucic multiplied his mass and acceleration did not occur regularly. Lucic, a game-changer at the peak of his powers, was quiet for too many stretches. Pucks clanged off his stick. He regularly snapped his heavy shot into traffic or wide of the net.
The question the Bruins have to answer is how much of Lucic’s downturn is because of David Krejci’s injury-shortened season. They have been linemates since 2010-11. It’s not easy to be at your best when your regular disher is either not available or skating at limited strength. It’s even harder when minor leaguers such as Seth Griffith and Craig Cunningham were auditioning for the role once filled by Jarome Iginla, the former right wing for Lucic and Krejci.
“With Krejci gone and just having Lucic left from last year, your whole top line is gone,” said coach Claude Julien. “You try and compensate in different ways. I thought we did a pretty good job with some major injuries to kind of stay in the hunt for a playoff spot. Maybe at the end there, we started getting some guys back. Krejci came back. But when you’ve missed another month after that, it’s not easy to find your groove.”
Krejci scored seven goals and had 24 assists in 47 games. Krejci played in the last nine games after returning from a partial MCL tear in his right knee. But Krejci didn’t show enough jump for Julien to consider reuniting him with Lucic permanently.
Instead, Lucic took most of his shifts in February, March, and April with Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak. They had their offensive chances. But they were scattershot in the defensive zone. Lucic couldn’t consistently chip pucks out of the defensive zone. Spooner struggled with coverage. Opponents overwhelmed Pastrnak on the walls. They spent too much time chasing the puck instead of controlling it. No player, especially a lumbering Lucic, plays well this way.
Next year, Lucic and Krejci, skating with Brett Connolly, could return to earlier thresholds. An uptick in Lucic’s play is more likely than not.
The question is what happens after next year’s expected resurgence.
Lucic will be unrestricted after next season. On July 1, 2016, Lucic will be 28 years old. A long-term extension would be a risky play because of Lucic’s job description and mileage. Power forwards do not age well. Anything beyond a three-year extension would invite the uncertain. Another team desperate for Lucic’s presence may be willing to sacrifice long-term uncertainty for short-term results. Players such as Lucic are in high demand and low supply.
Lucic will enter the final season of his three-year, $18 million contract. It will be the Bruins’ opportunity to acquire assets for a player who might walk for nothing at the end of 2015-16.
The Bruins have options on the right side. Connolly and Pastrnak are young, shoot-first right wings. Loui Eriksson was one of the team’s most valuable do-it-all forwards. Reilly Smith had a disappointing season. But the 24-year-old has the speed, shot, and stick skills to be a good wing if he can straighten out the mental shortcomings of his game. Griffith and Brian Ferlin are depth players. If the Bruins trade Lucic, they could move Eriksson to left wing.
The Bruins don’t have to trade Lucic. They’ll be free of the nearly $4.8 million of dead money they had to carry as their overage penalty from 2013-14. They can afford the raise Dougie Hamilton will receive.
But they need forwards who can skate and make plays with the puck. They learned the hard way that dumping pucks in, leaning on defensemen, and crashing the net doesn’t necessarily translate into offense. Goalies and defenses are too good when they have time to set up. They’re not as good when they’re retreating against speed and numbers.
Exit meetings take place Monday at TD Garden. The evaluation will continue after the players are gone. The Bruins will take their time to decide Lucic’s fate. A decision so important demands thorough deliberation.