(Photo Credit: Steve Babineau)

By: James Swindells | Follow me on Twitter @jimswindells68

We are approaching two weeks since the Florida Panthers struck the final nail in the coffin of the 2022-23 Boston Bruins record-breaking season. The first-round exit of the Jim Montgomery-led Bruins left a region and a legion of fans stunned, and it rapidly became apparent that the price to pay for this final Cup run with this current squad was going to constitute a vastly different-looking squad when training camp kicks off this fall at Warrior Ice Arena.

General Manager Don Sweeney swung for the fences at the NHL trade deadline and brought Tyler Bertuzzi, Dmitry Orlov, and Garnet Hathaway on board. The price to pay for that trio was steep as a 2023 First Round selection, 2024 First and Third Round selections, and a Second and Fourth Round selection from 2025 all left the Bruins’ draft cache as the franchise went all-in pursuing its seventh Stanley Cup Championship.

The future assets lost in Sweeney’s deadline deals won’t come back to haunt the Bruins for years. Still, the immediate future sees the organization heading into an uncertain offseason and the possibility of serious roster upheaval due to a salary cap crunch and the uncertain returns of a slew of ten restricted (RFA) or unrestricted (UFA) free agents. It has been rumored that the NHL’s salary cap will rise by just one million dollars for the 2023-24 season, adding further pressure on Sweeney to come up with roster solutions to piece together a lineup by opening night of the upcoming season.

As Sweeney, Montgomery, and team president Cam Neely faced the press in their year-end media availability, Sweeney readily admitted, “Roster changes are coming. We’re not going to be the same team”. The futures of veterans Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci and whether they retire will be answered in due time. What becomes of the other eight free agents? Who will the Bruins’ hierarchy decide to prioritize as targets to re-sign? Will the Bruins be a participant in the free agency frenzy when it gets underway on July 1st? Will the Bruins have to trade away roster pieces to get cap compliant? Will an influx of young talent be brought in from the AHL’s Providence Bruins? If a legitimate roster purge is coming this offseason, what options does Sweeney have with the Bruins’ AHL affiliate? And if the purge within Boston’s roster is deep and cutting, how many prospects toiling at the AHL level are ready for prime-time games and minutes?

In terms of players that have seen a progression in their game in the “A” or in brief stints at the NHL level, Oskar Steen, pending UFAs Jakub Lauko and Joona Koppanen, and a pair of RFAs Marc McLaughlin and Jack Ahcan are potential candidates. With as many as six UFA forwards possibly departing from Boston’s roster, the foursome of Koppanen, Lauko, McLaughlin, and Steen may never get a better chance of sticking with the Bruins in a long-term capacity. Possible openings left by Bertuzzi, Hathaway, Nick Foligno, and Tomas Nosek leave the door more than slightly ajar for the mostly unproven quartet.

Lauko’s 2022-23 campaign was a step in the right direction after a dismal and forgettable 2021-22 season. He appears to have the best chance at earning a roster spot after a successful stint in which he showed the willingness to forecheck effectively and used his speed as a weapon. With potentially significant changes in the bottom six forwards and salary cap issues, Lauko could be a nice piece to transition to a younger forward group.

With the likely departures of defencemen Orlov and Connor Clifton, Jakub Zboril could be in line for a serious uptick in playing time. Appearing in only 22 games this season, Zboril was the odd man out but could finally develop into a full-time blueliner as the Bruins will likely shift their focus in-house to round out their defensive corps. That leaves UFA Jack Ahcan as the only option to challenge Zboril from the Ryan Mougenel-led P-Bruins. Ahcan had an impressive second half of the season with Providence. Ahcan’s willingness to engage offensively and his intelligent, aggressive puck movement fit the style Montgomery looks for from his blueliners.

Once camp gets underway at Warrior, the Bruins’ brass will better gauge where the trio of John Beecher, Fabian Lysell, and Georgii Merkulov fit into the big squad’s immediate needs for the 2023-24 season. Beyond next season, it is hoped that this trio is among the next wave of talent in the pipeline to succeed the aging core currently in place.

Former first-round selections Beecher and Lysell had strikingly different seasons at the AHL level. Lysell battled through injuries and illness and posted 14 goals and 23 assists in 54 games. The second half of his season saw Lysell struggle in the back two-thirds of the ice and scored only six goals in 34 games after his appearance at the IIHF World Junior Championship. It remains to be seen if there is a need to rush Lysell to the NHL stage or if he could greatly benefit from further seasoning in Providence.

Beecher started sluggishly and struggled with adapting to the pace and speed of the game. As the season progressed, Beecher’s game rounded into a well-balanced mix of physicality, speed, and dependable play through all three zones. He became one of Mougenel’s go-to players in PK situations and took the lion’s share of critical late-game faceoffs. And as his game filled out, his late-season production numbers dwarfed his output in the season’s early stages. If Sweeney looks internally for a replacement resembling Nosek’s style, Beecher’s and Koppanen’s games come closest.

As for the undrafted free agent Merkulov, no P-Bruins player had a season that showed more growth than the 22-year-old Russian native. His early season consisted of large droughts in goal scoring, but his creativity with the puck kept him on the scoresheet regularly. His defensive game was a work in progress early on, and he made great strides in that department as the season rolled along. However, it remains the one facet of his game that still needs the most nurturing. Merkulov’s goal output increased when veteran Vinni Lettieri missed time with a pair of injuries. Once Merkulov became the focal point of the Providence offense, 16 of his 24 goals were produced in the final 29 games of the season. Along with Lysell, Merkulov’s development would greatly benefit from additional time with the P-Bruins rather than being rushed to Boston.

There are some intriguing possibilities in the Bruins’ developmental pipeline. From the outside looking in, it would appear that more roster spots will be available from the onset of camp than at any time in recent memory. Unless there is some magic to be performed regarding the Bruins’ salary cap issues, players that win these open roster spots will be given a longer leash than had been seen in previous years and will finally give way to answering the question of whether or not they have futures in the Bruins organization.