By: Zach Carlone | Follow me on Twitter! @zcarlone21
The Bruins experienced a true roller-coaster of a season in the shortened 2020-21 NHL regular season, but one of the team’s biggest weaknesses all season long and especially in the playoffs, was their strength on defense. Right-handed defenseman Charlie McAvoy emerged as the consistent leader for the Bruins defense corps, with others like Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo playing well, too, despite being sidelined for much of the season.
With so many concerns facing the defense, such as durability, depth, and stability as the team gears up for another run for the Stanley Cup next season, it might be time to make some changes for the better. Charlie McAvoy, 23, finished in 5th place in the Norris Trophy voting results, making him a future franchise cornerstone on the back end. McAvoy finished his fourth NHL season with 30 points in 51 games along with a +/- of 22. He’s still relatively young for the NHL level, and McAvoy’s play and numbers should only improve for the next handful of seasons at the very least.
The stronger of the two sides of the defense, in my opinion, is the right. For the majority of the season, this side consisted of McAvoy, Carlo, and one of Kevan Miller or Connor Clifton. Miller’s durability over the season was a major concern due to his lingering knee injuries, and Clifton’s play was exciting at times and inconsistent at others. Carlo also spent much of the season sidelined with a concussion.
Carlo is an RFA this offseason, meaning he’ll be getting a better deal as a shut-down anchor behind McAvoy. Miller is a UFA, and his future with the team should be in question due to his limited playing ability as a result of his history of multiple injuries. It was noticeably tough for him to bounce back into full-speed NHL play this season. If the Bruins let him walk, they could be looking for a right-handed defenseman for the third pair too.
The depth on the left side of the defense was seemingly what dragged the Bruins to a rough patch against the New York Islanders in the second round of the playoffs, along with Miller and Carlo missing time with injuries of their own. The Bruins started the season with Jeremy Lauzon, Matt Grzelcyk, and Jakub Zboril occupying the spots on the defense, yet the Bruins acquired Jarred Tinordi from a waiver claim and acquired former Ottawa Senators defenseman Mike Reilly prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. Once Reilly was in the mix, his play kicked Zboril off of the second pair.
Reilly is currently a UFA and could be worth re-signing. His play sparked the Bruins defense at times and even ignited the offense with his smooth transition game. Even if Reilly is re-signed or let go, the Bruins should still gaze the market for one or two more left-handed defensemen to skate behind Matt Grzelcyk and potentially Reilly. Lauzon and Zboril’s futures with the team should be in question, especially with the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft approaching. Tinordi is also a pending UFA but shouldn’t be brought back.
It’s no doubt that both sides could use improvement, but the most obvious needs should be to the left side, as the Bruins arguably don’t have a “number one guy” on that side and don’t have the strong depth that other powerhouse teams in the Eastern Conference have. With an estimated $23.5 million in cap space for the Bruins via CapFriendly, the Bruins should be interested in these pending UFAs below.
Martinez, 33, just concluded his first full season with the Vegas Golden Knights, accumulating nine goals and 23 assists in 53 games. While his age could be a concern, most of the Bruins veteran core lies around the same age, and adding Martinez would bring more leadership and experience to the mix. The left-handed defenseman played the entirety of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a broken foot, making him a durable and grit-filled option.
Martinez should most likely be asking for anywhere in the $3-5 million AAV range for his next deal, making him an affordable improvement for the Bruins. His wealth of playoff experience should put him over the top and make him the Bruins first option in free agency. Martinez has laced up the skates for 103 career playoff games. He scored the unforgettable Cup-clinching goal against the New York Rangers in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and collected two Stanley Cup victories with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014.
The 6’7″ shut-down defenseman put up 14 points in 56 games with the Dallas Stars last season and was relied on heavily for logging minutes. He averaged 20:29 TOI per game last season, nearly five minutes more per game than the 2019-20 regular season. According to General Manager Don Sweeney, the Bruins are looking to add a left-handed defenseman who can log a lot of minutes on a nightly basis, and Oleksiak, 28, fits the bill. Oleksiak’s next contract should be somewhere in the $2-3 million AAV range.
Gustafsson is currently playing for the Bruins rival Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final after being traded there from the Philadelphia Flyers prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. Gustafsson, a UFA at season’s end, finished the regular season with 12 points in 29 games along with a +/- of -1. In 15 games this postseason thus far, he has three points. The 29-year-old isn’t a stand-out by any means but could be a reliable cheap option for the left side of the Bruins defense, most likely making anywhere between $1-2 million AAV on his next deal.
Known as a leader for the under-achieving Buffalo Sabres, McCabe hasn’t had any luck being part of a successful team but still brings a defensive-minded strategy to the ice. The 27-year-old UFA missed much of last season with an injury but posted three points in 13 games. Injuries throughout his short career thus far are concerns, but if the Bruins want to bring in another body that could log minutes and support others on the blue line, signing McCabe could be a risk worth taking.
Goligoski, 35, could still have more fuel left in his tank. He posted an impressive 22 points in 56 games last season and led much of the Arizona Coyotes’ power play on the back end. With 924 career NHL games under his belt, the left-handed defenseman could be another veteran option that the Bruins may eye. He’s a player that the younger players can learn from, making a cheap signing of Goligoski a win-win situation for the black and gold.
There’s a lot of work to be done for general manager Don Sweeney to turn the Bruins into a true Stanley Cup contender. After a disappointing end to the season and anticipation ramping up for new faces to be brought along, the Bruins should be eyeing leadership and durability in any defenseman they want to potentially add. We can all agree the Bruins need to do something to improve their defense, and this is where they should start if they want to reach the goal of bringing the Stanley Cup back to Boston in 2022.