Sunday, July 1, this year is the NHL’s Black Friday, the first day of free agency, when general managers bound out of bed early and often dash to that bridge too far, breathlessly pursuing the pricey roster gift certain to put his team in the thick of the Stanley Cup hunt nine months from now.
The Bruins will be in the chase, but to what level is uncertain. When their run for the 2018 Cup ended in early May, the top of the Black and Gold wish list was a lefthanded-shooting defenseman, a blue liner with some skill, size, and requisite heft who is capable of pitching in with 18-22 worthy minutes per night.
“In an ideal world,” noted team president Cam Neely, “if you can find a guy that can skate and retrieve pucks and is a big body on the back end, that is what we would love to have.”
Make that the Bruins and the rest of the wild and wonderful Original 31 with its 186 mandatory D slots to fill. Though Neely was not specifically focused on the left side, the need goes without saying for a club that has a pair of 5-9s, the diminutive duo of Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk, slotted at left defense behind Zdeno Chara, the 6-foot-9-inch Trencin Tower of Power.
Size problem, what size problem?
“The collective size of our group . . . ,” mused Don Sweeney, now three years on the job as general manager, “ . . . I mean, everyone points to the fact that Gryz and Krug are in the lineup together. I don’t know what it comes out to, but if you average what Z, Krug, and Gryz are all together, the average of our left side is probably OK.”
He intended that as a laugh, folks. When Steven Stamkos or Alexander Ovechkin comes barreling down the lane, the average of 5-9, 5-9, and 6-9 (6-1, if you’re scoring at home) ain’t worth all the Corsi on Causeway.
High-end defensemen, sure-fire fits in a club’s top four, aren’t enough in number even to fill the 124 big-minute jobs around the league. The Bruins have Chara, then a couple of enticing works in development (Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo), and then Krug, who compensates for his spotty five-on-five play with his oft-dynamic offense. He may be small, but only seven defensemen collected more points than Krug (59) last season. Yet he remains a tweener rather than a bona fide top four, particularly come the postseason when the ability to grind and deny around the net provides the oxygen of a playoff run.
The Capitals the other day tied up their No. 1 defenseman, John Carlson, with a whopping eight-year, $64 million extension before the 28-year-old reached Sunday’s open market. The league’s top-scoring defenseman (68 points) this past season might have commanded more with UFA certification, which was what compelled the Capitals last Saturday to deal away Brooks Orpik and his $5.5 million cap hit to make room for Carlson as their Cup-winning backline lynchpin.
Orpik was summarily bought out by the Avalanche, a $4 million hit they were willing to absorb in order to acquire goalie Philipp Grubauer in the same deal. Orpik was the tariff the Avalanche paid in order to acquire a backup they believe can be a No. 1. Colorado tied up Grubauer with a $10 million guarantee for the next three years.
Meanwhile, Sweeney sounds content to enter 2018-19 with the same three left defensemen and his stout group of four righthanded-shooting blue liners: Kevan Miller, Adam McQuaid, Carlo, and McAvoy. If you’ve still got the tape measure in hand, that foursome grades out at an average 6-3 and 209 pounds.
“Our right side isn’t lacking in size, in any way shape or form,” said Sweeney. “Every one of those guys is big and strong. Every one of those guys is over 200 pounds. Again, in a perfect world . . . but I think the world we have with these seven guys is still pretty good. Question is: Can it be improved?”
Answer: Yes. And Sweeney acknowledged that when he said, “We didn’t play till the end . . . so, not good enough.”
The fix on the left side is all the more pressing when considering that Chara, still amazingly fit and effective in his No. 1 shutdown role, is older and bigger than most of the ancient, towering Sequoias in Yosemite. He will be 42 in March, by which time, barring injury, he will be nearing his 1,500th regular-season game — a plateau reached by only 18 NHLers.
Safe to assume that the Bruins won’t find a straight one-for-one replacement for Big Z, not this Sunday, or all Sundays in perpetuity. Case in point: In the summer of 2000, just four months after dishing a frustrated Ray Bourque to Colorado, the Bruins made Paul Coffey their free agent fix for the role of franchise defenseman, hoping the great ex-Oiler would recover some of the offense, particularly on the power play, Bourque exported to Denver.
Coffey was an abysmal choice, as was the decision five years later to bring forward Alexei Zhamnov aboard as a UFA. Coffey was bought out after playing in only 18 games (0-4—4) and the injured Zhamnov also disappeared quietly, ultimately to collect all his money, after 24 games, one goal, and 10 points. July 1 can produce some chilling winds in the Hub of Hockey.
Unless he is playing coy, and that is doubtful, Sweeney won’t be tossing big money at a free agent defenseman on Sunday.
“Sounds like those are the guys you have to draft and develop,” said Sweeney, sizing up the UFA market a couple of weeks ago, “and not the guys you go out and trade for. Is that fair?”
In making his mid-June assessment, Sweeney noted that Carlson assuredly would command a big number.
“And we are not in a big-number game right now, unless we move something out,” he added. “We are in a decent spot. But we are also forecasting where some of our internal guys are going to go — because they are going to grow with us. So we are trying to be cognizant of it, balance and grow the group, and be very competitive. It’s what we’ve tried to accomplish — have we done it right, no, because we didn’t play till the end. But hopefully we are moving the needle in the right direction.”
Of all the UFA defensemen available as the weekend approached, perhaps the most interesting would have been Mike Green, 32, whose three-year deal at $18 million in Detroit expired. However, Green agreed to a new two-year deal Saturday morning, with a cap hit of $5.375 million.
Keep in mind, though, Green is a righthanded shot, which would not have solved Boston’s conundrum. His addition would have made dealing Krug a fait accompli, leaving Sweeney still in need of finding a reliable lefthander.
Some of the D-men, all with lefthanded shots, who were UFA available as the weekend approached: Toby Enstrom, Paul Martin, Jason Garrison, Jack Johnson, Alexei Emelin, and Orpik, the ex-Boston College standout, who logged an average 19:22 of ice time this past season with the Capitals. With the Avalanche buyout cash in his back pocket, Orpik would be a budget-friendly pickup, albeit it at age 38 before the puck is dropped on 2018-19.
In recent years, the game growing ever more specific and roles more specialized, coaches increasingly have tried to stock their game rosters with three lefthanders and three righthanders on the back end. It was not always the case. Bourque, among the game’s greatest defensemen, was a lefthander who often played the right side, and did so for many years with the left-shooting Sweeney as his partner on the left side.
“It fits their eye a little cleaner, that’s all,” said Sweeney, noting the coaching preference. “Some of it is the way the game is played and [their] being able to utilize it. But if the guy’s a good enough player, the coach will use whoever’s best. Best player plays.”
That will be true this Sunday and all the Sundays to come.