By Michael DiGiorgio | Follow Me On Twitter: @BostonDiGiorgio
The Boston Bruins eliminated the Washington Capitals Sunday night in five games to advance to the next round in the playoffs. The team and their fan base are riding a high right now and feel good about the currently constructed team. Playoffs always test a team’s depth, and the Bruins received news that Ondrej Kase’s season is over.
First of all, you HAVE to feel bad for Kase. He has been injured for most of his Bruin career, many of which have been deemed upper-body injuries. The NHL is vague on its players’ injuries, but Kase is likely dealing with a concussion. If that’s the case, you have to wonder if Kase is considering retirement, as this would be his fifth documented concussion. At the very young age of 25, it would be an unfortunate end to a promising and mostly untapped career.
If Kase can continue playing, it gives the Bruins something to think about. Kase will be a restricted free agent (“RFA”) this off-season. He is currently on the books for $2.6M and is eligible for arbitration. Cap Friendly has a great explanation of what arbitration means and who is eligible. Arbitration is a contract negotiation method using a third-party arbitrator to determine a fair contract term and length for an expiring RFA player. The last Bruin to file for arbitration was Matt Grzelcyk in 2020. The Bruins and Grzelcyk settled on a deal before arbitration, which is common. The last Bruin to go forward with arbitration and actually settle a deal with a mediator was Blake Wheeler in 2010.
An RFA will elect arbitration to put a bit of pressure on the team because the player has some say rather than just accepting what the team offers. RFA’s are not allowed to test full unrestricted free agency, as they are still under control by the team. Arbitration gives a little power back to the player to make his case to an independent party for more years or more money. A player like Kase may not reap the benefits of an independent mediator because he hasn’t played much since his acquisition, so he’s likely at the mercy of what the Bruins offer him. In 15 months, Kase has played just nine regular season and 11 playoff games with Boston. He had similar health issues in Anaheim, tallying just 198 games in four years.
The Bruins have several team members playing on the last year of their respective deals. David Krejci, Taylor Hall, Tuukka Rask, Nick Ritchie, Sean Kuraly, Trent Frederic, Brandon Carlo, Mike Reilly, Kevan Miller, Jaroslav Halak, and Zach Sensyshyn are all on expiring deals. The NHL’s current cap number is $81.5M. The Bruins currently have $374K in cap space left, as it stands today. There has been no word on what the cap number will be next year. We know the NHL reached a TV agreement with Turner Sports that should increase revenues with ESPN and TNT featuring most nationally televised games, though it seems more likely that the cap will remain flat for the near future.
With all of these potential departures, Sweeney is going to have his hands full this off-season. It’s likely he’s had internal discussions with some of the players’ agents and understands who is likely to stay and who is testing free agency. Hall, Krejci, and Rask are the three biggest names out of the lot, with Carlo and Ritchie not far behind on the priority list. The Bruins should be able to sign Frederic, Senyshyn, and Reilly to team-friendly deals, and it’s looking like Halak will leave in free agency with the emergence of Jeremy Swayman. Miller might have to consider retirement if his body doesn’t allow him to return this postseason. Kase’s contract is a low priority given the number of players needing new deals this off-season, which means the Bruins may not even have the cap space to sign him if he wants to continue his career.
To put even more pressure on Sweeney, he needs to protect some of his players for the upcoming expansion draft as the NHL welcomes its newest team to the league: the Seattle Kraken. The expansion draft will follow the same rules when the Vegas Golden Knights entered the league in 2017. Each team (except for Vegas) will have to submit a group of players they wish to protect that are not already protected under certain rules. The NHL is allowing teams to choose between one of the two protection methods established in 2017. Teams can either protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie or eight skaters and a goalie.
Most of the teams in 2017 chose the 7-3-1 route because it allows you to protect more players. All players with full no-movement clauses must be protected unless they agree to waive it and join Seattle. This means the Bruins MUST protect Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Charlie Coyle. If the Bruins go the 7-3-1 route, four of their seven forwards are already accounted for. Some of the other rules are laid out here and will be a great topic to talk about going forward.
Kase was brought to Boston to flank Krejci and fill the role that Taylor Hall is now in. Hall looks to have regained his confidence, finesse, and play-making ability. He should be a Boston Bruin for years to come. The top line is not going anywhere for at least two years. Nick Ritchie will likely file for arbitration, and the Bruins will settle with him before the hearing. Charlie Coyle has a no-movement and no-trade clause, so it’s unlikely the Bruins move him. Jake DeBrusk looks like a new player, given his time on the third line, and the Bruins are contractually committed to him for another year.
The fourth line has some slots open as some of its players could have new homes next year. Sean Kuraly may be given the Noel Acciari treatment, and the Bruins have many prospects who can fill the fourth line voids: Frederic, Karson Kuhlman, Oskar Steen, Zach Senyshyn, Jack Studnicka. Chris Wagner will almost certainly be left unprotected, meaning Seattle could use his services on their fourth line. So you may be asking yourself, given all of this information, where does Kase fit in?
There are two scenarios I see that could allow for a Kase return. The first is if the Bruins don’t re-sign Krejci. I find this unlikely as the Bruins (even some fans do not) know his worth and value to the team. After the year Charlie Coyle has had, the Bruins could be hesitant to give him the keys to the second-line center position currently held by Krejci, and he’s found some success playing on the third-line right-win position. If the Bruins are saying goodbye to Krejci, Kase could find himself a spot on the third or fourth line, but he has to stay healthy. It’s a big gamble, and we’re seeing that in real-time with Kevan Miller.
The second is if the Bruins are cap-strapped (which is likely, especially if the cap remains flat) and strike a deal to send DeBrusk out of Boston. DeBrusk has had a rough year on the ice. He started slow, hit a spark, but the flame went out too quickly. He has regained some of his form and confidence in the playoffs, scoring twice in two games. His $3.675M cap hit could free up space to sign one of the aforementioned free agents, and his roster spot could be given to Kase, who would likely be a cheaper option. DeBrusk spoke out about the difficulty COVID brought to players physically and mentally, and he’s seemed to shake it off thus far. It would be unfortunate to see DeBrusk’s energy leave Boston.
Unfortunately, Kase’s Bruin career looks bleak and seems predicated on a few other pieces falling into place. The Bruins will not protect Kase from Seattle; they have too many players ahead of him. The Bruins could trade his rights to another team, but he has little to no value right now with his injury history. Plenty of Bruins’ prospects are knocking on the door to play with the big club, and the Bruins already have a deep forward group. Kase’s Bruin career likely has ended after only 20 games.
Regardless of all of these scenarios, the biggest priority is Kase’s health. It would be quite unfortunate to see him walk away from his five-year career, but his health supersedes all playing time. I hope Kase can play again at 100% health, and if he is no longer on the Bruins, I wish him well on whatever team he lands on.