The Bruins start the new NHL season in 97 days, and they found out Thursday that No. 61, Rick Nash, won’t sign here Sunday to resume his role as the club’s second-line right winger.
In fact, his agent gave further indications that Nash’s career could be finished.
Nash, who suffered a concussion March 17 in his brief Black-and-Gold stint, let it be known through his agent, Joe Resnick, that he will not entertain contract offers Sunday, the start of the NHL’s free agency period.
Resnick essentially confirmed Boston general manager Don Sweeney’s comments over the weekend in Dallas, following the draft, that Nash remained uncertain whether he wanted to continue his career.
“Rick remains undecided on playing next season,” TSN’s Darren Dreger tweeted, relaying Resnick’s comments, “and will forego the July 1st signing period.”
Nash, 34, a veteran of 1,060 regular-season games, noted in his time here, following the March 17 hit in Tampa, that he has sustained a number of concussions. Upon his return to the lineup to start the playoffs, he was not nearly as productive, or as physically engaged, and posted a mediocre 3-2—5 line in 12 games.
The big push the Bruins hoped Nash would deliver, providing the kind of secondary scoring that is essential in the playoffs, never materialized. Nash debuted as advertised, using his speedy legs and 6-foot-4-inch frame to his advantage in his first few games after entering the Boston lineup Feb. 25, but it all petered out after taking the knock to his noggin in Tampa.
“Not his fault,” Sweeney noted after the playoffs. “He was injured.”
Dreger’s tweets did not refer to Nash’s concussion history, but it is widely believed, and logical, that it’s that latest concussion that now has him pondering his playing future, and his life after hockey.
Hockey players, and athletes across all sports, have gained a heightened awareness about concussions in recent years, particularly in light of the ongoing Boston-based research around CTE, the debilitating neurodegenerative disease that experts believe can be triggered by concussive and subconcussive contact.
The news on Nash came only five days after the Bruins failed in their pitch to acquire high-profile free agent Ilya Kovalchuk, the renowned Russian scorer. Upon revealing that Kovalchuk, 35, was on Boston’s radar a couple of weeks ago, Sweeney said he would not have the financial wiggle room to employ both Kovalchuk and Nash. It was an either/or proposition.
Now the Bruins have come up empty sweaters on both.
Resnick’s comments do not preclude Nash at a later date, perhaps even deeper this summer, proclaiming that he would like to return to NHL action. By that time, however, most clubs will have firmed up their training camp rosters and, more important, buttoned down their 2018-19 budgets.
If Nash cares to return, and pushes for the same money Kovalchuk pulled down from Los Angeles (three years/$6.25 million per), Sweeney might not care to pay that price. Also, based on the other assets Sweeney ties up over, say, the next 30 days, he may have precious little cap room left to sign anyone — never mind someone with Nash’s scoring pedigree and salary history ($89.4 million since entering the league in 2005).
To date, the only free agent roster player Sweeney has re-signed has been defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, who this month hitched on for two more years at $1.4 million each.
Nash was among a group of Bruins free agents, including Riley Nash, Tim Schaller, and Sean Kuraly, who were vital cogs throughout the season. All remain free and able to accept offers from any of the 30 other NHL teams as of Sunday. Unlike the others, Kuraly is a restricted free agent, and the Bruins would retain the right to match an offer.
Team president Cam Neely said six weeks ago that it was essential to secure a backup goalie and lauded the work of Anton Khudobin.
“I thought he had a great year for us,” praised Neely. “He really stepped in when Tuukka [Rask] was struggling a little bit, and gave us an opportunity to win hockey games. If we didn’t have that, we certainly wouldn’t have had the year that we had.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Khudobin also remained sans contract, with agent Kent Hughes offering no indication that he and Sweeney were close to a deal. Khudobin made $1.2 million each of the last two seasons, and is about to enter a free agent market expected to offer backups around twice that amount, which means he reasonably could request in the $2.1 million-$2.6 million range.
With Rask on the books for three more years at a $7 million cap hit, it could be that Sweeney is reluctant to dedicate upward of $10 million in the goalie position. Others suitors for Khudobin could include Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, St. Louis and perhaps the Islanders.
Sweeney was in Los Angeles earlier this week with Neely and coach Bruce Cassidy to meet with free agent John Tavares, and should learn in the next 48 hours whether the prized free agent pivot would like to make Boston his home for perhaps the next seven years.
Tavares has until Saturday night to cut a maximum eight-year deal with the Islanders, his home team since entering the league in October 2009. Come Sunday, the max term on any deal for Tavares would be seven years, at a pay rate not to exceed $15.9 million per season. Rumors in recent days have the Islanders already on the table with an eight-year, $88 million offer.