By Leon Lifschutz | Follow me @BruinsBreakdown
With the off-season hitting its dog days, most of the high profile free agents have long since signed on the dotted line. However, a number of well-known players remain on the market this year due to a flat salary cap and uncertainty around the logistics of the 2020-21 season. For example, proven 30-goal scorers like Mike Hoffman rarely are available at this point in time. While Hoffman is likely looking for a higher payout than the Bruins can currently afford, there may be a number of accomplished players Boston could acquire on the cheap.
Getting players at bargain contracts is not unheard of even in a regular year. Tyler Ennis has been a low-risk, high reward, signing three seasons in a row going to Toronto, Ottawa, and Edmonton respectively, and for under $1 million AAV at each stop. This year is ripe with additional examples. Detroit scooped up Bobby Ryan for cheap as he looks to reclaim his career, and his life, after a few down years and a stint in the NHL player assistance program. Toronto managed to sign aging but experienced players like Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton for minimal cap hits this off-season after securing the services of Jason Spezza last season on a low-cost contract. The reasons a player is available on a bargain contract does vary, be it trying to bounce back from injury, being at the late stages of one’s career, or in some instances a desire to come home. Regardless, these deals are low-risk for the team and have the potential to positively impact the franchise.
The Bruins are a team with limited cap space which will shrink even further once restricted free agent Jake Debrusk is signed. For this exercise, we will also assume the team brings back captain Zdeno Chara on another one-year pact. In a good scenario Debrusk signs for $3.5 million AAV and Chara for $1 million leaving Boston with just over $2 million in cap space to add to the current roster. That number could increase if any players start the year on long-term injured reserve but for now, let’s assume a full and healthy roster for opening day.
The Bruins, coming off a President’s Trophy, have a quality roster. At center, the team is three deep with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Charlie Coyle. The goaltending tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak is locked in. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand provide elite play at the wings on the top line. Having said that, there are some areas of the Bruins’ roster where improvement is warranted in order to compete for a Stanley Cup. Another offensive-minded middle-six winger, a top-four left defender, and an upgrade to a fourth line that had its struggles would further the quest to raise Lord Stanley’s silver chalice.
While many fans would like to see Boston sign a high-end scorer like Hoffman, his price tag does not fit with the Bruins’ current cap space. Instead, let’s take look at pragmatic options for each need that could actually fit into the team’s budget constraints. We will first select one current available UFA that could satisfy each category before discussing the internal options available to the organization.
Kovalchuk is currently with his family in Miami training and awaiting the right fit before signing on with a new team. After a disastrous stint with Los Angeles, Kovy was reinvigorated during a stint with Montreal and performed well in his limited time in Washington. Kovalchuk is no longer the forward who can play more than 20 minutes a night but showed last season he can provide secondary scoring when put into the right offensive role. A spot next to Charlie Coyle or David Krejci could be a good fit as both players can possess and move the puck to a scorer like Kovalchuk. While the Russian winger is not noted for his defense, he has not been an anchor in the defensive end when playing for a good team. On a minimum deal or even a contract in the $1-1.5 million range, this could be a great addition to the Bruins lineup.
Michael Del Zotto
While a player like Ben Hutton was strongly considered for this choice after coming off a strong season with a bad team, I ultimately chose to go with Michael Del Zotto. First, Hutton likely commands much higher than league minimum while Del Zotto’s played on such a contract last season. Second, Bruce Cassidy in his year-end press conference discussed the need to add more offense from the back-end. Del Zotto is a puck mover with a bit of offensive flair. He brings something to the table the Bruins back end is severely lacking outside of Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk. The former first-rounder never lived up to his potential after a very promising start to his career and has bounced around the last few seasons largely due to inconsistent and poor play in his own end. In the Bruins layered and disciplined defensive system, he would be more insulated than in recent stops. He may also prove a good fit on a pairing with a more defensive-minded player like Brandon Carlo. Having said that, it’s been a number of years since Del Zotto played in a top-four, or was even a guarantee to be in the starting lineup.
Boyle is a prototypical fourth-liner. He battles hard, kills penalties, and is strong on face-offs. He is the guy a coach loves to put on the ice late in a game. He doesn’t get you much offense but that’s not what you are expecting either. This past season, Boyle posted better than usual points totals but was terribly overmatched from a play-driving standpoint. The question is, was that a product of playing too high in the lineup on a bad Panthers team, or what can be expected from him at this point in his career. Betting on the former, and cast in the right role in Boston, Boyle could be a boon to the Bruins adding some additional size and tenacity to the fourth-line.
Young players on first and second contracts are another way to fill out a roster with minimal financial impact. The Bruins have a number in the pipeline who could be in line for promotions, or at least auditions, with the big club. All these players are already a part of the Bruins organization and have agreed to contract terms. All are on affordable contracts and most don’t even need to go through waivers to be sent down to the minors. However, there is some debate over each player’s upside and none are proven like our UFAs. You do never know what a player’s potential is though until they are given an opportunity.
At defense, Jakub Zboril seems the candidate to get a shot at left defense potentially slotting as high as the second pair to start the season. While Jack Studnicka is a center, he is likely the B’s prospect most ready to play higher in the line-up and did shift to the wing during his time in the bubble. Both Trent Fredric and Zach Senyshyn could compete to play on the fourth line. Fredric in particular brings the grit that many fans hope for at the bottom of a big bad Bruins line-up. All four players are awaiting their opportunity to prove they can stick in the NHL and play a key role on the big club.
The Bruins have a decision to make. Do they look to add to their line-up with a low-risk potentially high reward UFA signing? Or do they believe they have what it takes internally to fill their holes with cheap young players? General Manager Don Sweeney has often made lower of the line-up signings in the off-season but this year seems set to roll the dice on the young players he has drafted and developed. If the internal options don’t pan out, look for Sweeney to make moves mid-season. While that approach is to be lauded in many ways, it would be amazing to see Kovalchuk emblazoned across the back of a black and gold uniform.