By: Andrew Lindroth | Follow me on Twitter! @andrewlindrothh
The Boston Bruins recently let Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara walk during free agency with the front office’s message explaining their strategy of allowing the young prospects to play. Other than the additional depth signings, the Bruins also made one “big” signing, which was for forward Craig Smith (3 years/$3.1M AAV). This left many Bruins fans upset and confused at what Don Sweeney and Cam Neely have planned for the Bruins’ future. The season just started, so why are we already worried about the Bruins cap-space situation for the next off-season? Let me explain.
Right now, all Sweeney and Neely are focused on is next off-season as the Bruins have a lot of cap space that will be available due to the players’ contracts expiring. With that being said, the front office needs to see if their prospects (like Jakub Zboril, who was selected first round in 2015) are finally ready to jump to the NHL level or if it is time to move on and inquire about a trade or free-agent signing? With the pandemic still in full-swing, this shortened season will be a perfect opportunity for management to find out which players are in the team’s long-term plans. With individual players hitting the free-agent market at the end of the season, the Bruins may look to make a significant move. The Bruins will have roughly $32M in cap space.
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA)
As you can tell from the tweet above, several big names will be testing the free-agent market. First, David Krejci will be a UFA, and his situation will be interesting because he continues to be the highest-paid player on the team. Krejci’s contract currently stands at $7.25M AAV, but he certainly won’t be getting a deal as monstrous as his current one. It’s also important to note that Krejci is now 34-years-old, so it’ll be a significant risk signing the forward long-term.
But Krejci has been excellent for the Bruins, especially in the playoffs, so it could be worth working out a deal with him. Since the 2018-2019 campaign, Krejci has appeared in 148 games and produced a 33-88-121 statline with a plus-21 rating. In the past two playoff appearances, Krejci has dominated with four goals and 16 points in 24 games during the 2018-2019 playoffs and 12 points in 13 games during the 2019-2020 playoffs in the bubble. So far this season, Krejci has contributed six points in eight appearances.
The Bruins’ most significant decision lies within the goaltending situation, with both Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask becoming UFA’s this upcoming off-season. This predicament makes things interesting as Halak and Rask serve as one of the best A/B goalie tandems in the league and is one of the biggest reasons why the Bruins made it to a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2019. Some skeptical Bruins fans believe Rask’s departure during the 2020 playoffs serves as a legitimate reason to trade or release him, but the real story has come out, and Rask has made it known that he intends to remain a Bruin.
There’s also no denying that Rask is still performing at an elite level, leading the league last season in goals-against-average (GAA), with an impressive 2.12 GAA. He also led the NHL in goals-saved-above-average (GSAA, 22.51) and adjusted-goals-against-average (adjGAA, 2.25). He also won the William M. Jennings Trophy for the goalie with the fewest goals scored against. His current contract is worth $7M AAV, and with his age, the Bruins could attempt to make a team-friendly deal that would work for both parties.
The Bruins brought back 35-year-old goaltender Jaroslav Halak for one more season worth $2.25M AAV. If he can stay healthy and continue to perform consistently like he has been the past few seasons, I don’t see why the Bruins would not bring back Halak and allow the other goaltending prospects to develop for at least one more year. In my opinion, fans sometimes overlook the Rask and Halak goalie tandem’s significance and success, and the team would notice if either one of those players were to leave the Bruins next off-season. And let’s not forget that Halak stepped up in unprecedented conditions during the 2020 playoffs when Rask exited the bubble in the middle of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series against the Carolina Hurricanes and helped lead the team to win three straight games to eliminate Carolina.
During the 2018-2019 campaign, Halak managed to produce an astounding save-percentage of .922% and 2.34 GAA in 40 games played. He continued to dominate with Rask the following season, contributing a .919% save-percentage and 2.39 GAA in 31 contests. He also won the William M. Jennings Trophy with Rask last season. And, so far this year, he continues to look sharp through three games, recording a .938% save-percentage and 1.30 GAA.
The front office has their work cut out for them so far with Krejci, Halak, and Rask’s possible departures. While Krejci’s situation concerns a more in-depth analysis, there is no doubt the Bruins should continue keeping the best goalie tandem in the league while they are still Stanley Cup contenders.
The remaining UFA’s are; Kevan Miller, Sean Kuraly, Par Lindholm, Steven Kampfer, and Gregg McKegg. Miller finally returned to action this season after missing nearly two years of ice-time due to a brutal knee injury sustained at the tail end of the 2018-2019 season. In my opinion, he has been playing well so far on the third defensive pairings with rookie Jakub Zboril and has stayed 100% healthy through eight contests so far. The 33-year-old is currently signed to a deal worth $1M in base salary and an extra $1M in performance bonuses (which Miller has earned half of so far). If he continues to stay healthy and hold up his end on the blue-line, then it might be worth it to bring the rugged defenseman back for another season.
For Kuraly and Lindholm, I believe from the Bruins’ recent history of not re-signing fourth-line players often will most likely lead to the departure of those two players. Kuraly has been excellent centering the fourth-line with his speed and amazing forechecking but struggled to capture that same success last season after Noel Acciari signed with the Florida Panthers and unfortunately Kuraly has not stood out much so far this year. Other emerging talents such as Jack Studnicka and Trent Frederic (both natural centers) will create a lot of competition in securing that roster spot, possibly leaving Kuraly and Lindholm out of the mix.
And of course, I predict Kampfer and McKegg will most likely walk during free-agency as the Bruins will probably look elsewhere to add depth pieces. The Bruins need to figure out the best line combination to revitalize their fourth-line if they wish to achieve the same success they had during the 2018-2019 campaign.
Restricted Free Agents (RFA)
Moving on to the future RFAs; Brandon Carlo, Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, and Trent Frederic. Let’s begin with shut-down defenseman Carlo. The 6’5, 212-pound defender will be negotiating for a substantial contract this off-season as he looks to cash in after his ‘prove-it’ bridge deal expires. He currently carries a cap hit of $2.85M, and I suspect he will be looking for $5M+ AAV for several years. The 24-year-old has been excellent for the Bruins’ blue-line the past four years, recording a 13-39-52 statline with a whopping plus-60 rating in 305 games. I believe the Bruins must re-sign Carlo and protect him during the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft.
The two players who were brought in during the trade deadline last year will be looking to earn a contract extension with the competitive Bruins team, Kase and Ritchie. Kase remains in a peculiar position because of his limited opportunities due to recurring injuries and sudden stoppages in the league because of the ongoing pandemic. Still, Kase does not have much to ride home about yet and will need to show drastic improvements if he wishes to re-sign. Kase suited up for six regular-season games with the Bruins last year but was most noticeable during the playoffs after collecting four points during the Carolina Hurricanes series. So far this year, the 25-year-old forward has appeared in just two games as he continues to deal with a lingering injury. His current cap hit stands at roughly $2.6M.
Nick Ritchie has undoubtedly made an interesting case for himself, starting with many Bruins fans quickly writing off the winger due to his penalty on Yanni Gourde of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2020 playoffs. But now, head coach Bruce Cassidy has been utilizing Ritchie on the first power-play unit and as a net-front presence, which the Bruins have desperately needed. It’s safe to say that so far, Ritchie has more than “found” his game and is nearly a point-per-game player this season, racking up four goals and seven points in eight contests so far. If he can consistently contribute points and use his size to make physical plays, it is worth re-signing Ritchie. His current cap hit stands at just $1.5M this season.
Finally, the last notable player to evaluate is forward Trent Frederic. The 29th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft created a lot of hype for himself after his unforgettable first game as a Bruin when he pummeled Brandon Tanev after a scrum in front of the net. Unfortunately, fights and toughness do not necessarily produce goals, but Frederic has drawn several penalties that have resulted in significant power-play goals. His new line-mates of Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith have created noticeable chemistry with Frederic, and Cassidy has taken note. The 6’2, 203-pound forward will face the challenge of performing at the top level each game as he still has a lot to prove if he wishes to continue his journey as a Bruin. The former first-rounder recently collected his first NHL point with a fantastic feed to Coyle.
Overall, I believe the Bruins are in a healthy situation regarding their cap space next off-season but have tough decisions to make. While many may question the thought process of already looking ahead, it’s important to remember it is a shortened season, and this will all be a reality in a matter of months. The Bruins will be heavily evaluating their prospects not only in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Providence Bruins, but the younger players that are currently fighting for an NHL roster spot every day.
If the Bruins ‘youth-movement’ fails this season, then the Bruins will have to make drastic changes if they wish to stay competitive. They will certainly have the cap space for a high-profile free-agent, but that may not be needed if the younger prospects can carry their weight. It’s possible the Bruins’ roster may look very different next year.