(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

By: Michael DiGiorgio  |  Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio

Due to COVID-19, the NHL has neither increased nor decreased the salary cap, making it a flat cap. The stagnant cap number puts even more pressure on general managers to make necessary moves for future years.

The Bruins are entering the 2020 off-season with $15M in cap space. Their priority list is large needing to sign unrestricted free agents Joakim Nordstrom, Zdeno Chara, Kevan Miller, and Torey Krug and restricted free agents Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzylcek, Zach Senyshyn, and Karson Kuhlman.

The Black N Gold crew have written numerous articles on the Bruins’ future signings. Jake DeBrusk’s future with the Bruins relies on Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara because of the limited cap space. If Krug decides to sign elsewhere, the Bruins find themselves with more money to spend, but a sudden need to replace scoring on the blue line. If Krug decides to stay, the Bruins’ cap space is significantly smaller, making DeBrusk likely sign a bridge deal. However, if DeBrusk is unwilling to sign a bridge deal, a trade could be in his future.

If Krug were to receive a better offer elsehwhere, the Bruins’ left-handed blue line depth would deplete. The Bruins rostered left-handed defensemen include John Moore, Chara, and Grzelcyk, which will not cut it. The Bruins, however, will have at least $7M to spend on a new face.

The impending free agent defensemen class is plentiful, but not with a seamless Krug replacement. Alex Pietrangelo, Tyson Barrie, and Justin Schultz round out the top three D-men on the board, but they’re all right-handed shots. T.J. Brodie and Dimitri Kulikov are available left-handed defensemen, but neither come close to matching Krug’s offensive numbers.

The limited free agent pool likely turns Don Sweeney to the trade market. A near-perfect replacement for Krug is Shea Theodore (as mentioned in a recent article). The Vegas Golden Knights’ defenseman recently signed a 7-year, $36.4M contract, which carries a $5.4M cap hit. The Bruins would pay Theodore $200K more than Krug’s current deal for the next four years. Theodore ended the year with 46 points in 71 games and would fill Krug’s shoes nicely with his offensive prowess and great vision.

Acquiring Theodore sounds like a long shot after he just re-signed to a long-term contract. However, the Knights were just bounced from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five games after failing to score consistently and could look to the trade market for scoring.

The Bruins would send DeBrusk’s rights to Vegas, which enables the Knights to re-sign the left-wing before free agency. The trade could be a one-for-one, though it’s more likely the teams would throw in draft picks, having the Bruins tossing in a mid-round selection.

Another great Krug replacement is Oscar Klefbom out of Edmonton. Klefbom is a former first-round pick who’s had an up and down career with the Oilers. The 27-year old left-handed defenseman has two years remaining on his 7-year, $29M contract that carries a $4.167M cap hit. He ended the year with 34 points, which is four points shy of his career-high. Unfortunately, he has been plagued by a few injures the past three years, but a change of scenery could help the young blueliner reshape his game.

The Oilers badly need a dynamic winger for their superstar Connor McDavid. McDavid would welcome DeBrusk with open arms if the Bruins were to strike a deal. The Oilers have $10.5M in cap space and can certainty afford DeBrusk’s next contract. Again, draft picks would be part of the agreement and maybe even AHL prospects.

Now let’s switch gears and assume Torey Krug and the Bruins agree on a contract that leaves the Bruins with $8M cap space, and DeBrusk is not willing to sign a bridge deal. The remaining money split between Zdeno Chara and Grzelcyk leaves the Bruins with approximately $4M in cap space. The Bruins need for a left-handed defenseman is no longer as imperative, and Sweeney could set his sights on another need: consistent wing scoring.

There have been some discussions that the Winnipeg Jets are willing to trade Patrick Laine. He was the second overall draft choice in 2016 and had a cap hit of $6.75M. He is a restricted free agent, and has been in his coach’s doghouse too often this past season.

There’s a presumption the Jets are listening to offers, and the Bruins should most certainly inquire. However, the Jets will expect AT LEAST a first-round draft selection (which the Bruins don’t have until 2021), a top prospect (John Beecher, Jack Studnicka, Urho Vaakanainen), and a top-nine forward (Jake DeBrusk, Ondrej Kase).

The Bruins may be able to sell the Jets on David Krejci for Laine, along with other assets, of course. The former 70-point right-winger would undoubtedly make the Bruins a tough team to beat and alleviate the top line’s pressure to create all the scoring opportunities. It’s a mystery whether Sweeney would even entertain the the steep price tag to pry Laine from Winnipeg.

The other side of the coin is Patrick’s contract. Laine will want a contract north of his previous 2-year, $13.5M deal. The Bruins can afford that if they trade out players who own more massive cap hits, like David Krejci. They could undoubtedly trade John Moore and try to scrape away at the cap ceiling, but it’s more likely they’ll have to rid themselves of a larger contract to squeeze under the cap.

The Bruins could also walk away from signing Krug and make the deal for Laine, but that leaves a giant hole on the blue-line. Keeping Krug almost definitively puts them out of the running for a player of Laine’s caliber. Sweeney needs the future cap space, mainly if the salary cap stays flat in the coming years.

One trade target the Bruins have a reasoanle shot at acquiring for DeBrusk is Anthony Mantha. The Detroit Red Wings had the worst record in the NHL last season and robbed of the first overall pick. They have $34M in cap space and can certainly afford whatever number DeBrusk has in mind. Mantha is also a restricted free agent and a former first-round draft choice. He is a behemoth left-wing at 6’5, 234 pounds, and has breakaway speed. He ended last season on the Wings first line but would almost certainly play on the Bruins second or third line.

Mantha is coming off of his rookie deal of 3-years, $2.77M. DeBrusk and Mantha have had comparable point totals in the past three seasons: DeBrusk netting 120 points in 203 games and Mantha with 134 in 190 games. Mantha has more points in fewer games, making him an enticing option.

The Wings require a profound identity change and a fresh start. They’ve fallen to the bottom of the standings dramatically and could use a jump start from a new face, who learned from some of the game’s best leaders, and who’s performed deep into the playoffs. The Bruins could send DeBrusk and a mid-round draft choice or prospect in exchange for Mantha and a low-round draft choice.

Another potential trade target for Jake DeBrusk is Minnesota’s, Kevin Fiala. Fiala was also a former first-round draft selection in 2014 by the Nashville Predators. Fiala had a tough time finding his game in Nashville, only playing 204 games and scoring 97 points. The Swiss forward was traded to Minnesota for Mikael Granlund last season. Fiala has one year left on his 2-year, $6M contract and will still be a restricted free agent.

The change of scenery benefited the 24-year old. Fiala potted 67 points in 83 career games with the Wild. He scored 23 goals last season and has participated on the Wild’s first power-play unit.

So why would the Wild give up a player they just acquired? The Minnesota Wild hired Paul Fenton (former Predator Assistant GM) in 2018, which was viewed as a great hire around the NHL. Fenton acquired Fiala after overseeing his development in Nashville. A surprise move a year later, the Wild fired Fenton after finishing fifth in the wild card standings.
The Wild hired former Dallas Stars great, Bill Guerin, within a month of firing Fenton. Wild’s ownership created an environment where mediocrity is not going to cut it, putting even more pressure on Geurin.

The Wild snuck into the Return to Play pool only to be eliminated by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round. Guerin needs to show his ownership he has a plan to further this team’s future, and making a trade for a player like DeBrusk would benefit both parties. The Wild could make DeBrusk their number one left-wing and sign him for the next five to six years and genuinely integrate himself as a mainstay.

Thankfully for the Bruins, Fiala’s cap hit is significantly lower than what DeBrusk has asked for, and the Bruins can afford him, barring a salary dump of John Moore. They’ve also had a great trade rapport with the Wild when they acquired Charlie Coyle two seasons ago. Fiala would make for a great second-line winger and a power-play beneficiary.

The Bruins would ask for a bit more in return than Fiala’s return, such as a mid-round draft choice or prospect. The move delays the contract conversation one more year, but it would allow the Bruins a bit more flexibility without shelling out two large contracts this off-season.

It’s no surprise that Sweeney has his work cut out for him each year because that is what it takes to avoid a mid-league finish in the standings. There may be one or two moves Sweeney makes that will shock the NHL, and it’s necessary. The Tampa Bay Lightning outmatched the Bruins in a 4-1 series victory, and their size and inconsistent scoring played a significant role. If the Bruins want to keep up with the Tampa Bay Lightning for years to come, the time to make the moves is now.

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