By: Andrew Bluestein | Follow me on Twitter @adbblue
Bruins GM Don Sweeney has a lot of tough decisions to make during the 2023 off-season. Eight Bruins players are pending unrestricted free agents, and it is unlikely all of them will be retained. The pending UFAs include Dimity Orlov, Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Bertuzzi, Nick Foligno, Tomas Nosek, Garnet Hathaway, Connor Clifton, and David Krejci. It should also be noted that Jeremy Swayman, Trent Frederic, and Jakub Lauko are restricted free agents.
With Bergeron and Krejci possibly retiring and players like Orlov, Bertuzzi, and Cliffton undoubtedly asking for a higher per-season salary than their previous contracts, Sweeney and the rest of the front office may have to look elsewhere to fill the roster. Here’s a look at some potential outside options Boston could explore on the unrestricted free-agent market.
J.T. Compher is coming off a career-best season, scoring 17 goals and 35 assists for 52 points with the Colorado Avalanche. He is a solid two-way forward that can play both wings and isn’t afraid to go into the dirty areas of the ice. Compher is also a valuable special teams player averring 2:08 short-handed time on ice per game and 2:46 on the power play during the 2022-23 season and 14 power-play points. Compher is a solid third-line wing option who can play second-line minutes if needed.
At 28 years old and coming off his most productive season, Compher will likely have a steeper price than other free-agent options. His previous per-year salary was $3.5 million, so his following annual cap hit number is sure to rise. This would make him a less likely option for the Bruins. However, that could change if they look to move a player like Taylor Hall, which would free up $6 million in cap space, making Compher a possible option to explore.
Scott Mayfield is another player coming off the most productive season points-wise of his career, registering 24 with six goals and 18 assists for the New York Islanders. However, point production is not what Mayfield’s strength is. At 6’5, the right-shot defenseman plays a gritty stay-at-home style and is a solid net-front presence. The 30-year-old averaged 21:02 time on ice per game, including 2:42 short-handed, and ranked tenth in the league in blocked shots with 168 during the 2022-23 season.
Mayfield had an annual cap hit of $2 million on his previous contract and will undoubtedly get much more on the open market. If the Bruins cannot resign, Dimitry Orlov and Conor Clifton, who are both likely to test free agency, Mayfield could be an option for the Bruins to explore, especially if they decide to shop Derek Forbort or Matt Grzelcyk. Another thing to note is the Bruins currently only have two right-shot defensemen under contract.
Miles Wood should be a familiar name to most Bruins fans. In 21 career games against Boston, the left-wing has five goals and two assists for seven points. That may not seem like a high total, but Wood has been a bottom-six forward his entire career and has never cracked the 20-goal mark. He had 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points with the New Jersey Devils during the 2022-23 season. The 27-year-old power forward plays a heavy, sandpaper-type game and isn’t afraid to throw his weight around or drop the gloves.
Wood was in and out of the lineup in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a healthy scratch which could lower his price tag on the open market. His previous annual cap hit was $3.2 million, and it would be unlikely that many teams would be willing to go anywhere near that number again. This makes Wood a possible cheap fourth-line option for the Bruins. Wood also has ties to the area as he played his college hockey at Boston College.
Erik Gustafsson is coming off a productive season after his numbers dropped significantly since his 60-point campaign with the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2018-19 season. The left-shot defenseman tallied 42 points, seven goals, and 31 assists, the second-highest assist total of his career, this past season in 61 games with the Washington Capitals and nine with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 31-year-old was dealt at the trade deadline to Toronto. Gustafsson is a solid puck-moving defenseman with a strong D-zone to O-zone transition game and good offensive awareness who can play the point on the power play. However, he can be a defensive liability and is not a noted physical player.
Gustafsson had a previous annual cap hit of just $800,000 on a one-year deal. His point production will easily earn him more than that on the open market, but he should still have a relatively low price tag. If the Bruins decide to move Matt Grzelcyk, who is entering the final year of his four-year deal, they will save just under $3.7 million in cap space and explore Gustafsson as a cheaper option.
Nick Bjugstad is coming off a solid season where he started with the Arizona Coyotes and was traded to the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline. He put up 17 goals and 12 assists for 29 points and was a +13. The plus-minus stat is notable because Bjugstad played 59 games and was +seven with Arizona, with a team goal differential of -71. The 30-year-old two-way centerman is a significant presence standing 6’6 with a long reach and is and isn’t afraid to throw his weight around. He is a strong net crasher offensively and has good defensive awareness on the other side.
Bjugstad had a $900,00 annual cap hit last season, and that number will rise, but not significantly more on the free-agent market. Bjugstad could be a solid replacement in the fourth-line center role if the Bruins decide to move on from UFA Tomas Nosek. The annual cap number would likely be similar in price for the two players, who both kill penalties. Nosek did have a significantly better faceoff percentage last season at 59.3%, while Bjugstad was at 47.5%, but Bjugstad would be the better offensive option.
Ryan O’Reilly’s name always puts a sour taste in Bruins fans’ mouths after he dominated Boston in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final and was named the Conn Smythe trophy winner as the best performer in the playoffs. The 32-year-old centerman is coming off an obscure season. He started with St. Louis and was traded at the deadline to Toronto, where he was immediately sidelined for a month after suffering a broken finger. O’Reilly played just 53 games during the 2022-23 season and had 16 goals and 14 assists for 30 points. The lefty plays a superb two-way style of hockey and is a physical presence that can shut down his opponent’s top line any night and be a dangerous offensive threat. He plays on both special teams’ units and logs a lot of minutes, averaging 19:35 of time on ice per game in his career.
However, O’Reilly won’t be a cheap option, coming off an annual cap hit of $7.5 million, and the price isn’t decreasing, as teams will be willing to pay top dollar for the former Selke Trophy winner. If Patrice Bergeron and or David Krejci retire, O’Reilly is absolutely an option for the Bruins to look at. If that is the case, he will undoubtedly slot into the first or second-line center spot and would be an excellent replacement for Bergeron’s role.
However, if both Krejci and Bergeron return for the 2023-24 season, it’s doubtful Boston could afford the price of O’Reilly. The Bruins would almost certainly have to offload money anyway to be able to afford O’Reilley under any circumstance. Shopping Linus Ullmark or Taylor Hall could be a possibility to make room as they are set to be a combined $11 million cap hit next season.