Brad Marchand

By Tim Rosenthal

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COMMENTARY

Nostalgia kicked in on Tuesday as the Boston Bruins celebrated the 10th anniversary of their latest Stanley Cup triumph.

Now here we are 3,650-plus days later. The Bruins endured close calls in the Cup Final in 2013 against the high-octane Chicago Blackhawks and again six years later, falling in a bitter Game 7 loss to the St. Louis Blues. They also sustained a handful of second-round exits in that span, including their most recent defeat at the hands of the Islanders, a pair of five-game series losses to the Lightning in 2018 and 2020, and a Game 7 setback to the hated Montreal Canadiens in their 2014 Presidents’ Trophy-winning campaign.

Only four players remain from that 2011 Cup squad: Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask. The latter pair enter this offseason as pending unrestricted free agents. And barring any contract extension, Bergeron could hit the UFA market next season.

The 2011 quartet could all return for another run at hoisting Lord Stanley. Yet, Boston’s championship window keeps closing with every disappointing playoff exit. The heightened pressure to assemble a title-caliber roster unquestionably makes this Don Sweeney’s most important offseason of his seven-year tenure.

“I think we have to continue to add to the group. I don’t think you can expect to bring the band back together if it wasn’t able to complete and accomplish the ultimate goal in the last couple of years. And obviously, they’ve been extremely close on several occasions and having won it several years ago,” Sweeney said this week. “They put themselves back into a position to compete for it, and ultimately that’s really what they ask. They ask you as an organization to surround them with quality people like themselves, that can elevate their game and grow. To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

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The Islanders exposed Boston’s defensive depth without Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller. Now they’re sitting at home watching the Isles, Lightning, Canadiens and Vegas Golden Knights vie for the Cup.

So how can the Bruins get over that hump with their veteran core? It’ll be tough for sure, with the Seattle Kraken coming into the league for their inaugural campaign in 2021-22. Here’s a look at some pivotal offseason items for Sweeney’s to-do list.

The looming Expansion Draft decisions

The Bruins will lose one cog to the Kraken on July 21. This gives Sweeney and Boston’s front office nearly a month to ponder over their final decisions for their protection list.

Sweeney won’t have to protect any pending UFA like Hall, Krejci, Rask, Mike Reilly, or Sean Kuraly. That won’t mean the Kraken won’t select any of the aforementioned commodities before they hit the open market. But doing so would provide a significant risk for GM Ron Francis.

The Bruins will all but certainly choose the 7-3-1 format protecting seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. Marchand, Bergeron and Charlie Coyle all have no-movement clauses, thus providing automatic protection status. David Pastrnak and Craig Smith are locks on the forward list. Ditto for Carlo and Charlie McAvoy on the back end. And Dan Vladar likely gets the goalie spot.

That leaves two forwards and a defenseman left. On the back-end, I find it hard not to protect Matt Grzelcyk even though he had a bit of an up and down season. He’s certainly no Torey Krug, but his value on the power play and in 5v5 production trumps that over the rest of the defensive candidates.

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So now to the two forwards. The decision here will likely come down to 7th Player Award winner Nick Ritchie, a 2015 first-round pick in Jake DeBrusk, a pair of fourth-line cogs in Chris Wagner and Curtis Lazar, and a raw but speedy talent in Karson Kuhlman.

Even with the looming decisions, the Kraken will have plenty of options to snag out of Boston. They’ll likely go a defensive route with Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton as the odds on favorites to head to the Pacific Northwest.

The Bruins will receive a little extra cap space following the Expansion Draft. They’ll need it to address their glaring holes on the bottom-six and the left side of the blue-line, all while attempting to re-sign their top UFA’s.

Re-signing Krejci and Hall

A rejuvenated Hall arrived in Boston hoping to form chemistry with Krejci and Smith. Together, the trio formed a dynamic second line to complement the potent top scoring line of Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak.

The Islanders kept the second line in check in the final three games of the second-round series. But those disappointing results alone shouldn’t keep Sweeney from inking a longer-term deal with Hall and a shorter-term contract with Krejci.

Both Hall and Krejci expressed their interest to remain Bruins during their breakup day interviews. There’s some mutual interest on Boston’s part to re-sign Hall, Krejci, and Rask (more on him and the Bruins’ goaltending situation below). But Krejci will take a few extra weeks to evaluate his future before resuming talks with Sweeney and the front office.

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“Even when Taylor got here, he’s expressed interest, mutual interest, to have him back. Had an early conversation with his representatives and obviously, we’ll have to see where all of the pieces fit together,” Sweeney said.

“[Krejci] asked to have a little bit of time in the next few coming days to allow him, on his own, to have conversations with his family, and then we’re going to sit back down and have a real honest conversation. I do believe David does want to continue to play. And he’s made it pretty clear that if he’d like to continue his career, this is the place he’d continue to play should he chose to stay at the NHL level.”

The Bruins will roughly have over $27 million of projected salary cap space to work with after the Expansion Draft. They can take advantage of a friendly cap situation signing Hall and Krejci to hometown discounts. Neither will command as hefty of a cap hit compared to their previous AAV’s of $8 million and $7.25 million, respectively.

Sweeney addressed the rotating door on the second line after adding Hall at the deadline. Given the thin internal options for potential second-line replacements, he’d be wise to bring Hall and Krejci back for another go-around.

Adding a veteran goaltender

An outspoken fraction of the anti-Tuukka crowd turned their volume as loud as possible as he attempted to play through a torn labrum. Well, they can take a break from spewing their takes as he’ll all but certainly miss the first few months of the 2021-22 campaign following offseason surgery.

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Like Krejci and Hall, there’s a mutual interest between Rask and the Bruins to ink a new deal in the offseason. Even so, the Bruins will likely look at bringing in a veteran backup.

Jeremy Swayman is primed for a full season of NHL work. Dan Vladar, like Swayman, provided a promising development filling in for Rask and Jaroslav Halak in the regular season. But, beginning a new season with two netminders combining for a mere 15 games of NHL experience is quite a tall ask for a team with championship aspirations.

Regardless, the Bruins will risk putting Vladar on waivers whether they bring in a veteran or not. The free-agent goalie class includes a handful of short-term No. 2 options, including Laurent Brossoit — a backup to 2020 Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg — Jonathan Bernier, and Carter Hutton.

Even with Rask’s potential return and a backup in place, the Bruins will begin to usher in the Swayman era at some point next season. A stable veteran situation will only help Swayman in the long run.

Find a minutes-eating, left-shot defenseman

The Bruins allowed Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug to walk in the offseason. With significant holes on the left side of the blue-line, Bruce Cassidy’s coaching staff hoped to fill the vacancies with some of the younger defensemen complementing the likes of McAvoy, Carlo, and Miller.

Grzelcyk had a bit of a setback but didn’t look out of place in a top-four role. Lauzon battled through hiccups and injuries but looked more comfortable in a second or third pairing assignment. Adding Mike Reilly at the deadline provided a puck-moving dynamic, but he didn’t move the needle one way or another. Clifton thrived later in the year but looked overmatched in his increased role during the latter half of the Islanders series.

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In the six months of the shortened season, the Bruins used a total of 12 defensemen. Eight blue-liners sustained concussions at some juncture of the 2021 campaign. By the end, the Bruins sorely needed another reliable left-shot blue-liner to offset the injuries to Miller and Carlo.

The glaring top-four left-shot defensive need became front and center on Boston’s off-season to-do list after Cam Neely’s comments in his year-end Zoom call.

“As we saw, you can never have enough D and we never seem to have enough. For some reason or another, we get banged up. I think our D this year had maybe eight concussions, which is something I don’t know how to combat,” Neely said. “But that position is something that we’ve been looking for, for a while. And hopefully, we can do something to grab someone that’s going to help maybe play 20 minutes a game for us.” 

If they play their cards right, the Bruins could look at an intriguing free agent option to fill that need. Alec Martinez’s stellar season in Vegas could make him a top commodity on the open market. Surely, the Bruins would rather have a similar younger option. But even at 34, Martinez’s two-way blue-line skillset would mesh well in a top-four role, at least for the short term.

Martinez and Alex Goligoski highlight the top left-shot defensemen on the open market. If the Bruins want to look at the trade route, they could pursue Vince Dunn from St. Louis or even Oliver Ekman-Larsson from Arizona as long as the Coyotes agree to retain some of his $8.25 million cap hit over the next six seasons.

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Though they have some flexibility this offseason, the years of failed drafting and developing — notably the trio of 2015 first-round selections — have put the Bruins in a rather precarious spot this offseason. They don’t have many chances left to win another Cup with their prized core. 

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Source : https://www.boston.com/sports/boston-bruins/2021/06/17/bruins-free-agents-expansion-draft-offseason/

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