Top Off-Season Questions Facing the Bruins 

( Photo Credit: NHL.com )

By: Van Alan Clark | Follow me on Twitter @VanAlanClark

The 2021-2022 NHL season is over for the Boston Bruins. It was a fun year. In many ways, it was a successful one too. While the Bruins were denied the postseason run they wanted, Don Sweeney actually found a way to improve this team over the course of the year. He got the top-pair left defenseman they’ve needed for years at the deadline with the trade for Hampus Lindholm. He found a good second-line center on the cheap in Erik Haula.

Sweeney hung on to Jake Debrusk and was rewarded with a bounce-back year that re-established Debrusk as a top-six forward and rebuilt his trade value. And finally, he actually found a few prospects who could help the big club as early as next season. That said, there are some significant questions facing Sweeney this offseason, and that’s before we even start discussing the fact that Sweeney himself does not yet have a contract in place for next year.

Leaving that to the side, here are the six most burning questions facing Boston as they head into the offseason.

What Happens with Patrice Bergeron?

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The 2021-2022 Bruins season will ultimately be judged based on what happens with Patrice Bergeron this offseason. If he returns, this was a fun year where the Bruins took a step forward and put themselves in a better position to build a contender for next season. With Bergeron, they have a solid top-six forward group and an excellent top-four defensive group. If he walks, there is a gaping hole at center. One that Sweeney will likely have to do something drastic to fill.

With him, they’re a contender. Without him, they are in the worst possible position – stuck in the middle. Not good enough to truly contend but not bad enough to bottom out. They would likely be a nine or a ten seed, which is the worst place to be as an NHL franchise.

What Else Can the Bruins Do at Forward?

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Haula was a very good second-line center in the second half of this season. In the playoffs, he was inconsistent. The same could be said of Debrusk. Even with Bergeron returning, the Bruins should consider upgrading the center spot for several reasons. First and foremost, even if Bergeron is back, it will likely be on a one-year or at most a two-year deal.

The organization needs center depth with or without Bergeron. Second, adding another center would enable them to move Haula to the third line left wing. Adding Haula to the bottom six would inject speed, something that the group sorely lacks.

The Bruins could be in on Avalanche center Nazem Kadri. They could kick the tires on ‘Canes second-line center Vinny Trochek or Rangers forward Andrew Copp. Pierre-Luc Dubois in Winnipeg is an RFA. Claude Giroux is also a pending UFA.

The guy I’d like them to take a look at, though, is Jets center Mark Schiefele. Things aren’t good in Winnipeg, and it sounds a lot like Schiefele wants out. He can play center or right-wing. This could be ideal for the Bruins as it would enable them to either put Schiefele at the second line center position or play him on Bergeron’s right until he decides to hang up his skates, then kick him to center.

What Happens with Jake Debrusk?

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Debrusk is an impact player. He scored 25 goals in the regular season and was pretty good in the playoffs. He worked well on the top line with Bergeron and Marchand. He can play both wings. He kills penalties and plays on the power play. He’s valuable.

He also requested a trade earlier this season and has not rescinded his request as far as we know. He signed a contract extension to facilitate a trade at the deadline, then wasn’t moved. Doing right by the player would be dealing him, assuming he still wants to be moved.

Debrusk is a good player. If you are looking at the Bruins trade assets, short of something crazy like a Marchand or Pastrnak trade, Debrusk is their best. He could be part of a package to bring in another center. He could also be how the Bruins get back into the first round of the 2022 draft if they want.

The Bruins best prospect – Fabian Lysell – is a right-wing. A Debrusk trade would make space for him.

Do the Bruins Still Believe in Matt Grzelcyk?

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For the past two regular seasons, Matt Grzelcyk has been a terrific top-four defenseman. The Athletic wrote a long article identifying him as one of the ten best defensive defensemen in hockey. However, that same article noted that, according to the analytics, it is drastically worse in the playoffs. 

Unfortunately, this has played out on the ice each of the last two seasons. After a decent series vs. Washington, Grzelcyk struggled vs. the Islanders in the postseason last year. It got even worse this year as he was downright awful vs. Carolina. Bruce Cassidy scratched him for Games six and seven, opting to go with Mike Reilly instead, which would have been unthinkable just a few short weeks ago.

The question the Bruins have to answer is how much of Grzelcyk’s struggles were injury-related? We know he was playing through a shoulder injury. He’s never been a physical player, but he’s also never been one to run away from contact. That happened multiple times in the postseason – Carolina’s opening goal in Game five, for example, was the direct result of Grzelcyk seeing an Andrei Svechnikov hit coming and bailing out, coughing up a puck that the ‘Canes put in the net about 15-seconds later. 

In this writer’s opinion, that isn’t something a healthy Grzelcyk would do. That is the instinctual reaction of a player in pain who saw a crunching hit coming and reacted before he could stop himself. Injuries make you do things you otherwise wouldn’t do. Anyone who has ever tried to play hurt knows that.

Grzelcyk has two years left on a very reasonable contract. If the Bruins decided to move him, a package of Grzelcyk and Debrusk would yield a significant return. But the Bruins would be gambling on some combination of Mike Reilly, Jakub Zboril, and Jack Ahcan being able to assume Grzelcyk’s role at the second-line defensive pairing. 

If they still believe in Grzelcyk and are prepared to chock up his poor postseason to a bum shoulder, one or more of the aforementioned players could be on the move instead.

Is there are Market for Some other Forwards?

Craig Smith totaled 16 goals and 30 points in 74 games this season. On the surface, those numbers are acceptable. When you consider that Smith did virtually nothing for the first 50-games of the year, went on one ~20-game heater, then disappeared again before finally putting up a goose egg in the playoffs, it’s actually a pretty disappointing season.

Like Grzelcyk, there’s a good chance Smith was playing through an injury. He missed time early in the year. However, the Bruins would be well served to see if there’s a market for Smith, who has one year remaining on a reasonable deal. His Game seven performance hurt the team in a big way.

Nick Foligno wouldn’t yield much, but the Bruins may need to somehow shed his $3.75 million. Tomas Nosek also had a disappointing season after a promising start and is taking up space that the Bruins might prefer to see in the hands of a younger player. There might also be a market for Haula, though the Bruins would probably prefer to keep him around. Bottom line – if the Bruins want to add a center, which they probably do, a couple of other forwards might need to move.

What Internal Solutions Exist?

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Trent Frederic had a rough playoff. However, eight goals and 18 points in 60 games represents a solid step forward for the young winger in his sophomore season and compares favorably to the first two seasons of Tom Wilson’s career. Frederic looked more confident with the puck this season than at any point last year. The Bruins will have a lot riding on Frederic continuing to get better next year.

Meanwhile, the Bruins prospect pool is not deep, but there is more help on the way than in previous seasons. For starters, Fabian Lysell is in the midst of torching the WHL playoffs. The Bruins will likely try to put him in Providence next season but may have difficulty keeping him there. In fact, they might be better off simply opening the season with Lysell riding shotgun with Bergeron and Marchand.

They’ve done this for other highly touted prospects before, most notably Pastrnak. So have other organizations – the Hurricanes have 20-year-old Seth Jarvis playing on their top line with Sebastien Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. Lysell could inject some youth into a roster that needs it.

2019 first-rounder John Beecher is also a name to watch. The bottom six, much improved for the regular season, came up small in the playoffs. Their lack of foot speed was evident vs. Carolina. 

Whatever else he is, speed is something that Beecher has in spades. He doesn’t offer a ton in terms of actual offense, but the size and speed he has boatloads of. He will push for the fourth-line center spot next year.

There are a few other names to keep an eye on. Georgii Merkulov is the real wildcard. The former Ohio State Buckeye has legitimate top-six skills. If Sweeney added a top-six center on the undrafted free agent market, that would be a legitimate rabbit-out-of-the-hat move. Oskar Steen and Marc McLaughlin will also have a chance to compete for spots. And the book is not yet closed on Jack Studnicka or Jakub Lauko.

To sum it up, the Bruins have questions to answer. If Bergeron returns, they will be pretty good next year and have a chance to further improve the team this offseason. If he walks, things could get weird.

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