By Matt Dillane
With speculation over Bruins head coach Claude Julien being removed put to rest during last month’s press conference, the organization is adamant on retaining as much of its core as possible. General manager Don Sweeney does not believe the team needs a “major overhaul” and is asking for fans to be more patient with younger players.
Despite this belief, there is no ignoring the fact the Bruins need to make some significant changes this offseason after missing the playoffs two seasons in a row. With the front office and head coach returning, these changes need to come within the roster. Sweeney should have a busy summer on his hands. Here are a few ideas on what should be done to get the Bruins back into playoff contention (as well as set the team up for a successful future).
- Acquire a Franchise Defenseman (and a No. 2)
The Bruins’ most glaring weakness came on the back end this season. Zdeno Chara has aged dramatically in the last few years and is no longer capable of playing big minutes. Dennis Seidenberg is a shell of himself, and Torey Krug and Adam McQuaid should not be playing top four minutes like they have been. The Bruins have been overextending their top four defenders’ abilities. While the unrestricted free agent market will not be teeming with number one d-men, there will plenty of complimentary blue-liners who will be looking for work. If the Bruins can acquire a top defender via trade, a few signings will boost the backend nicely.
- Re-Sign the Right Players
The Bruins have 12 pending free agents to deal with this offseason, and Sweeney definitely should not be bringing all of them back. In fact, Sweeney should not bring most of them back. However, there are a few worth keeping around.
After scoring 30 goals this season, Loui Eriksson will look for a pay raise this summer. The Bruins will try to match that figure after failing to move him at the trade deadline, but this front office will not overpay the talented winger after stressing the importance of staying away from salary cap ceiling during both press conferences last month. Coming off major surgery, Torey Krug should be priority number two, as the Bruins cannot afford to lose a legitimate defender and power play specialist. The Bruins should pay him if the number’s reasonable.
Young forward Landon Ferraro provided solid results on the 4th line and should be re-signed cheap to continue playing that role. Defender Zach Trotman has shown nothing but growth from being the last pick in the 2010 NHL Draft to being on the cusp of playing regular NHL minutes. He should be brought back so long as his cap hit stays south of $1 million.
The John-Michael Liles rental did not provide the Bruins with the help the team hoped, finishing the season as a minus-10. He’ll be turning 36 next season and will likely be looking for a deal to carry him through to retirement. He should find that outside of Boston. Winger Lee Stempniak will try to cash in on a strong year that saw him earn 51 points between the Devils and Bruins. However, the last season he earned more than 30 points came in 2012-2013 with the Flames. Stempniak is a journeyman who will probably end up on his 10th NHL team after this summer. The Bruins should not reward catching lightning in a bottle.
In addition to trade deadline additions Liles and Stempniak, the Bruins should move on from the remaining players on the RFA/UFA list. This includes Brett Connolly, Jonas Gustavsson, Chris Kelly, Kevan Miller, Joe Morrow, and Tyler Randell. These are all players the team can afford to lose from its payroll. The Bruins have a little over $48 million locked up in contracts next season, leaving Sweeney with about $23 million-$26 million to work with depending on the NHLPA’s decision with the escalator clause.
- Move Tuukka Rask
The Finnish netminder is the NHL’s third-highest paid goalie and has a cap hit of $7 million through the 2020-2021 season. Rask finished the season ranked 28th in goals against average (2.56) and 30th in save percentage (.915), having his worst season since 2010-2011 when Tim Thomas backstopped the Bruins to the Stanley Cup. Think back. When is the last time Rask single-handedly won the Bruins a meaningful game? The Bruins can do just as well if not better without someone who literally craps his pants before the most important game of the season.
While teams can sometimes ride a hot goaltender to a championship like the Bruins did with Thomas in 2011, elite teams do not need always elite goalies. Case in point: The Chicago Blackhawks. This season, Corey Crawford’s GAA of 2.37 was ranked 22nd in the NHL. He will probably never win a Vezina, but he has two Stanley Cups (so far) thanks to the skaters in front of him. This is not to diminish Crawford, he is a very good goaltender. But he is far from the focal point of his team. His game is improved by having strong defensemen help him out. Stars netminder Kari Lehtonen played in about half of Dallas’ games this season and posted a pedestrian 2.76 GAA (39th in the league). Despite inconsistency with who was between the pipes, the Stars found themselves as the number one seed in the Western Conference with 109 points. Anyone watching an exciting first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs also witnessed a completely Flueryless Penguins dispose of King Henrik and the Rangers in just five games. Behind 21-year-old Matt Murray, the Penguins are now in the Eastern Conference Finals.
By moving Rask, the Bruins can either acquire the franchise defender the team so desperately needs, or use his money to pursue high-caliber free agents and invest in other areas. You can’t disagree that Steven Stamkos or Kyle Okposo would look incredible in black & gold.
- Move and Replace Old and Broken Parts
Patrice Bergeron should be the only true “untouchable” on this roster. However, we can assume Brad Marchand will stay as well, especially after last season. David Krejci has finally seemed to shake the asterisk reading “streaky” that’s been attached to his name after leading the team in assists and coming in second for points. He is a legitimate first line player when he’s on his game, especially in the postseason. Krejci just underwent major surgery however after dealing with a nagging hip injury. This problem hampered him at the end of the season when the Bruins needed him most, scoring just three goals in the final 23 games. Assuming he’ll stay in Boston next year, Krejci will continue to be a top offensive option. However, he holds tremendous trade value for any team looking to add some immediate offense, and he could be an integral piece in helping the Bruins acquire a top two blue liner. The Bruins should be taking calls on the recently turned 30-year-old.
Sweeney should cut losses and move on from right wingers Brett Connolly and Jimmy Hayes who failed to turn out positive results for the first year GM. They do not fit the Bruins mold and lack the character necessary to have a deep team on the ice and in the locker room.
Zdeno Chara’s tenure in Boston has been long overstayed. The team missed a prime opportunity after the 2013-2014 season to move the then 37-year-old after he contributed 40 points to the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins. Since then, the aged captain has continued to look slower by the game. The Bruins should look to move Chara to a team looking for defensive depth for the next few seasons, as a changing of the captaincy to Bergeron is overdue. However, the current value for the future hall of fame defender remains to be seen. Together, he and Seidenberg account for $11 million of the Bruins payroll. Getting that number off the books and invested in younger defensemen would be huge.
The Bruins missed the playoffs on the final weekend of play following a late-season collapse, showing they are a team not far away from being a true competitor. Keeping the some of the core together is fine, but certainly not all of it. Sweeney needs to make some big time moves and send legitimate pieces out to get players necessary for a Cup-winning team in return. The biggest challenge may not be finding a trade partner, but dealing with several players having either no trade clauses or no movement clauses in their contracts. A little over a year removed from his firing, former GM Peter Chiarelli still has some control over the Boston Bruins. This is another obstacle Sweeney, Neely, and the rest of the front office must overcome if they want to keep their jobs next year. Missing the playoffs two seasons in a row upsets the fans, but it upsets the owner even more. Jeremy Jacobs will be watching everyone this year.