The Bruins came up four goals and one win short of clinching the Stanley Cup Wednesday night, and now it’s up to general manager Don Sweeney to decide whether the roster he shored up in February with the deadline acquisitions of forwards Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson is enough to keep challenging for a championship.
Sweeney and his entire squad remained unavailable Thursday, and it’s likely he already has plotted his strategy around his roster decisions. He has little choice. The NHL Draft is next week (Friday and Saturday) in Vancouver, and the annual free agent flea market — where the Bruins secured captain Zdeno Chara in 2006 — will take place July 1.
And before those key dates, keep in mind that the annual two-week buyout period begins Saturday. Could David Backes be on the move?
It’s an interesting time for Sweeney, with team coffers stuffed with cash after the third trip to the Cup Final in nine seasons. He has to decide whether to keep intact an aging core, still with a handful of guys who were central to those Cup runs, or whether now is the time to attempt a significant makeover, be it by moving out a forward or two (David Krejci and/or Backes) or perhaps his top-scoring defenseman, Torey Krug, on target to be an unrestricted free agent a year from now.
When breakup day comes, it’s very unlikely that Sweeney will make his plans public. While we wait to hear from the tight-lipped former blue liner, here’s a view of some of the key roster factors at play in the offseason that officially began when the Garden game clock ran to zero Wednesday at 10:41 p.m.:
■ Returning: David Backes, Patrice Bergeron, Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, Sean Kuraly, Brad Marchand, Joakim Nordstrom, David Pastrnak, Chris Wagner.
Bergeron, Marchand, and Chara are the only players on the roster who have guaranteed no-trade deals. They can be dealt, but not without their OK.
Sweeney hasn’t shown a penchant to move core players. In June 2015, he wheeled Milan Lucic to the Kings and defenseman Dougie Hamilton (restricted free agent) to the Flames and then bought out Dennis Seidenberg the following June.
Sweeney is not expected to touch the current core group, but he may kick the tires on moving Backes and Krejci, whose combined cap hit is $13.25 million.
Backes, with two years left on his deal ($6 million cap hit), also could be a buyout candidate. However, the incentive to buy him out is limited in terms of savings, because he is due a total $8 million over his final two seasons, and half of that is in the form of a signing bonus. Per the CBA, signing bonuses cannot be bought out. The Bruins would save a total of only $1.33 million.
Perhaps what would appeal more to Sweeney would be to wheel him to one of the eight teams Backes is now obligated to accept in a deal.
The 35-year-old former Blues captain also could volunteer to expand his trade list. He was not a happy camper, relegated to the press box for the final three games.
Meanwhile, the 33-year-old Krejci, who contributed a meager 0-2—2 line in the Cup Final, has two years left on a deal that still has him No. 1 on the payroll at $7.25 million. He is now obligated to provide Sweeney with a list of 15 teams he would accept in trade. That’s a substantial amount of flexibility, even if Sweeney had to retain a percentage of Krejci’s salary, as he did when he dealt Lucic.
■ Likely to go: Marcus Johansson.
Upon his arrival, it appeared the ex-Capitals first-round pick was here solely as a rental, in part because he carried a high ticket ($4.58 million per annum). But he was effective, not only when paired at even strength with Coyle, but also on the power play, sometimes riding with the first unit. Good wheels and ability to hold on to the puck at speed and in some traffic.
For now, he remains likely to sign elsewhere. But if Sweeney were to get creative and clear out some of that $13.25 million tied up in Backes and Krejci, perhaps Johansson can be kept around for a slight raise. If he wants to push for more than $5 million, which he very well might find in the open market, then he’s as good as gone.
■ Free agents possible to return: Danton Heinen (restricted) and Noel Acciari (unrestricted).
Sweeney will try to keep both, particularly Heinen, who still needs to iron out the inconsistencies and scoring droughts in his game. Given inflation, he might pull down $3 million a year over a two- or three-year deal.
The rock-jawed Acciari, a favorite of coach Bruce Cassidy, has proven valuable at both center and wing on the grinding fourth line, riding with Kuraly. The ex-Providence Friar earned only $750,000 this past season, and Sweeney will try to keep him at something around Kuraly money ($1.275 million cap hit).
■ Kids who may be ready to advance: Anders Bjork, Peter Cehlarik (restricted), Trent Frederic, Karson Kuhlman.
All four have had limited looks, and Bjork (two shoulder operations across two seasons) began 2017-18 playing first-line right wing. They’ll all get good looks in training camp.
■ Returning: Zdeno Chara, Connor Clifton, Matt Grzelcyk, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, John Moore.
The interesting name here is Krug, whose outstanding work in the playoffs somewhat diminished the constant speculation that he’ll be traded. He has one year left on his deal, at $5.25 million, and can walk July 1, 2020, as an unrestricted free agent.
The only sure bet about Krug is that Sweeney won’t allow such an asset to skip out of town without getting something in return.
The case for keeping Krug: He is still their No. 1 option to quarterback the power play. As such, he has delivered 163 points over the last three seasons. Here’s the punch line: Only four NHL blue liners have collected more: Brent Burns, Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson, and John Carlson. Their combined salary this past season: $37.5 million.
The case against keeping Krug: the $9.375 million the aforementioned defensemen averaged in 2018-19. It’s easy to knock Krug because he is only 5 feet 9 inches, but he has delivered the points to argue for a bump to at least the $8 million-a-year level.
■ Likely to go: Steve Kampfer (unrestricted free agent).
Solid citizen, and filled the reserve role while remaining upbeat. But he’ll be 31 in September and has played in only 201 NHL games. He’ll want to go somewhere for steady work.
■ Free agents possible to return: Brandon Carlo (restricted), Charlie McAvoy (restricted).
No question Sweeney wants their names on contracts. It’s about price and term. Figure Carlo at three or four years in the $3.5 million-$4.5 million range.
Unlike Carlo, McAvoy cannot accept an offer sheet from another team until July 1, 2020. Be that as it may, Sweeney will try to lock down the budding No. 1 blue liner long-term, perhaps with a deal much like the six-year/$40 million pact that Pastrnak finalized at the start of 2017 training camp. That sounds a little rich right now for McAvoy. But if he grows into the role, then $6.7 million per year will look like a bargain by the time 2024-25 rolls around.
■ Kids who may be ready to advance: Jeremy Lauzon, Urho Vaakanainen.
They’re both lefthanders, and both could make serious runs at varsity work in September. No telling how the composition changes if Sweeney decides to get ahead of things and moves Krug. By the way, if asked, Krug must hand over a list of 23 teams he will accept in trade. Such flexibility only increases the odds he’ll be moved.
■ Returning: Jaroslav Halak, Tuukka Rask.
Rask in 2018-19 set the mark for most wins (280) in franchise history and was stellar in the playoffs. Had the Bruins survived Game 7, he would have been the Conn Smythe winner as postseason MVP.
Technically, yes, Rask can be dealt (to any of 15 teams of his choosing), but to what end? He has two years remaining at a $7 million cap hit, and Sweeney last year added the perfect partner in Halak.
If there were a kid ready to go in the minors, maybe the equation would change. Maybe. But right now it’s status quo with Rask and Halak.
■ Free agent possible to return: Zane McIntyre (unrestricted).
■ Kid who may be ready to advance: Kyle Keyser.