By Carrie Salls | Find me on Twitter @nittgrl73
For all the talk of how the Boston Bruins are going to find the elusive second-line right wing and third-line center to shore up the front 12 going into the 2019-2020 season, the fact is that many more questions remain about just who will be defending the blue line when the season begins on Oct. 3 in Dallas.
Let’s start with what we know. Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Matt Grzelcyk, Connor Clifton and Steven Kampfer are the members of the defensive corps that saw regular playing time for the Bruins last season who are currently under contract and presumably healthy coming into camp in September. They are healthy, that is, if Chara and Grzelcyk have fully recovered from injuries and concussion symptoms, respectively, that forced them to miss some games in the final round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
To arrive at this point, the Bruins re-signed free agent Kampfer and awarded Clifton’s play with a three-year contract extension. The Bruins’ front office likely considers Clifton to be a key piece of the team’s future on defense, so he was locked up while so many other pieces of the puzzle were still jumbled. For his part, Kampfer proved himself to be a valuable asset to the team last year, playing the difficult-to-find role of the veteran presence who was willing to sit out for long periods with no complaints and play a reliable, solid game when called upon.
Connor Clifton has a challenge ahead even after his new contract.
That brings us to the unknowns. The two biggest questions, of course, are the statuses of restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. The Bruins made qualifying offers to both of these players, and general manager Don Sweeney said he has been in talks with both young stars’ camps. However, despite rumblings that Carlo may be close to coming to terms with the team, no official word has come from the team as to how close the Bruins are to making a deal with either of these young defensemen.
Hearing Bruins and RFA Brandon Carlo are making significant strides towards a new deal. Source close to the team says both sides are in same “ballpark” with length of contract, but still working on coming to terms with the money and AAV aspect. #NHLBruins
— Bruins Network (@BruinsNetwork) July 7, 2019
The main roadblock the Bruins face in re-signing McAvoy and Carlo is the team’s extremely limited salary-cap picture. It looks like the possibility of Sweeney being able to dump some or all of David Backes’ $6 million salary is essentially non-existent. The fact that restricted free agent forward Danton Heinen has elected salary arbitration, with an answer on how much his contract will cost the Bruins not coming for at least a couple of weeks, complicates the matter even further.
Sweeney said that he feels the team is likely finished signing unrestricted free agents after he added several depth pieces in early July. As a result, the focus turns to potential trade scenarios that may help the team clear up some additional cap space. However, the defensive outlook is further clouded by the fact that potential trade pieces could include Krug, whose point production and power play prowess make him a valuable target, as well as two Bruins D-men who have yet to be mentioned, Kevan Miller and John Moore.
Moore was signed to a five-year deal by the Bruins in the summer of 2018. He saw occasional runs of decent playing time throughout the 2018-2019 season but was often the odd man out when the full complement of defensemen was healthy. The problem is, Moore, soldiered through much of the playoffs with an upper-arm injury that required surgery when the season ended. As a result, he may not be healthy enough to return to game action until January, all but eliminating him as a trade candidate.
An additional injury update per #NHLBruins GM Don Sweeney:
John Moore suffered an injury on Apr. 6 in the final game of the regular season against Tampa and will have surgery next week. Moore appeared in 10 playoff games following the injury. pic.twitter.com/JAQJArNsen
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) June 18, 2019
While Miller may be well ahead of Moore in rehabilitating a broken kneecap, nearly the entire 2018-2019 season was lost with one injury after another costing Miller significant playing time. Given his history of injuries, the trade market may not be all that deep for the gritty veteran.
Given all of the uncertainty brought on by injuries and contract issues, two prospects, in particular, could be called upon to provide defensive depth in the upcoming season: Jeremy Lauzon and Urho Vaakaneinen. Lauzon spent some time filling in for an injury-depleted defensive squad last season, appearing in 16 games, and played well. Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Vaakaneinen played just two games for the big club but appeared to have the potential to fight for a spot on the NHL team. Whether these two top defensive prospects will get more playing time in Boston or perhaps be traded to clear cap space remains to be seen.
With Chara, who will turn 43 this coming season, signing just a one-year extension in March and Grzelcyk and Krug facing free agency next summer, Bruins management will likely have tough decisions to make on the defensive front for the foreseeable future.