Don Sweeney wants fast, strong, skilled, and belligerent players. The qualities the Bruins general manager seeks are housed within the Black-and-Gold No. 17 jersey that has rumbled through the league for 566 games.
“All of our players have to understand that the four teams playing this week all have different attributes of skill, size, speed, and grit,” Sweeney said Wednesday at TD Garden. “But they have a sacrifice level that it takes to win in the playoffs. You have to have a blend of that to get there. We have to have more aggression in our game.”
Sweeney also wants cap flexibility. The Bruins have approximately $60 million invested in their 2015-16 roster. Dougie Hamilton, Brett Connolly, and Ryan Spooner require new contracts. The Bruins need a backup goalie.
Milan Lucic is in the last year of a deal that averages $6 million annually. It is a high sum for a player for whom 18 goals and 26 assists was considered a disappointment. Sweeney does not want to play limbo too closely under the ceiling, which is projected to be approximately $70 million next year. Trading the 26-year-old winger with cap relief as an objective would help Sweeney gain breathing room.
“We have some challenges,” Sweeney acknowledged. “We have some flexibility issues that we have to get back out in front of and that we have to address head-on.”
Moving Lucic, however, would mean losing the NHL’s signature power forward. If he and David Krejci stay healthy, Lucic’s presence and production will grow next year. Trading Lucic would not necessarily improve the team in 2015-16.
Determining Lucic’s future is one of Sweeney’s most immediate decisions. It is also one of his hardest.
Lucic is the organization’s onion, not just because he prompts tears when he’s playing sleepy hockey. He is a multilayered specimen whose future revolves around value, longevity, consistency, and identity.
When he’s right, there is no player in the league like Lucic. He is president Cam Neely’s current iteration: a bull who can change a game when his blood reaches 212 degrees. No power forward rivals Lucic when he’s on, whether it’s Wayne Simmonds, Dustin Brown, Scott Hartnell, or Bryan Bickell. Lucic brings Garden fans out of their seats with a goal, a hit, or a fight.
The issue, however, is when Lucic isn’t on. Last year, that was too often. He was coming off wrist surgery. His head was still clouded from the second-round setback against Montreal. Krejci, his usual center, played only 47 games. Not many wings can play effectively when their disher is out for half the season.
During five-on-five play, Lucic averaged 1.69 points per 60 minutes of play, his lowest output since 2009-10, when he had just 50 appearances. In comparison, Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins’ best player, averaged 1.95 points per 60. In each of the four previous seasons, Lucic averaged more than 2.0 points per 60.
Next season, if Lucic and Krejci enjoy good health, the power forward should be back to his usual self. He turns 27 on June 7. He will have a full offseason to train.
The Bruins’ concerns, however, are not about 2015-16.
Lucic never played an AHL game. He’s been in the league since he was 19 years old. He’s already a high-mileage player, and one that plays a demanding role.
For Lucic to be effective, he has to skate in straight lines and make bodies hurt. In general, players who fill this job description do not have time on their side. Legs get heavy. Bones wear down. If Lucic isn’t skating, his game tumbles off a cliff.
Lucic will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2016. One agent predicted that his asking price could be as high as $8 million annually. This alone would be a high price for the Bruins to pay.
Their bigger worry is Lucic’s prospective term. Given his projected career path, the safest play would be a three-year extension. A team desperate for a power forward, however, may be willing to go longer. If that happens, the Bruins would have to step back and say goodbye.
They would be free of his $6 million annual obligation. But they would see Lucic walk for nothing.
On the other hand, they could move him with term remaining on his current deal for assets. Edmonton and Vancouver, where former Bruins executives Peter Chiarelli and Jim Benning are familiar with Lucic, could be interested. Neither Chiarelli nor Benning has a widebody on his roster with Lucic’s pedigree and punishing play.
But Lucic also has a no-trade clause.
“It all starts with No. 17,” said an NHL source. “They’ve got to listen on what they could get for him.”
The Bruins need young, fresh legs. They also need cap space. Lucic could bring both. But it’s difficult to determine whether trading Lucic would improve the team.
Sweeney will take his time to decide Lucic’s fate. The new GM is creative, resourceful, and patient. On calls this tricky, it’s good to have an open mind.