By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins exceeded just about everyone's preseason expectations with a surprise thrill ride in the 2017-18 season. But their run also ended with a disheartening four-game playoff losing to the Lightning that exposed their flaws and underscored the immediate and developmental needs they still have.
Most glaring is the B's pressing demand for an improvement on the blue line. While Zdeno Chara will be back next season and Charlie McAvoy could blossom into a true No. 1, there's still a clear opening on the left side for someone more consistent and reliable in a top-4 role. There's also going to be some decisions to be made on offense, particularly at the wing spots.
There are four key areas where Bruins GM Don Sweeney will need to make crucial moves - in some cases, major ones - in order to put the B's in a better position to get past Tampa next season, let alone become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. We'll get to each of these items in more depth in the coming weeks, but here's a quick look at what the Bruins will need to do between now and October:
As well as guys like Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Matt Grzelcyk, and Adam McQuaid performed at times when tasked with top-4 roles, they aren't suited to playing those kinds of minutes or situations on a night-in, night-out basis. Ideally, two of those players end up on the third pairing, and Sweeney finds a left-shot defenseman to play next to either McAvoy or the returning Brandon Carlo.
Of course, that won't be easy. The free-agent market is as barren as you'd expect for the kind of defenseman the Bruins seek. Trade candidates are out there, but would be either expensive or less-than-perfect fits for a top-4 role. Still, left-shot defense is the big one for Sweeney. Top prospects like Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon won't be ready to make that jump in 2018-19, so that will only make this need more immediate.
2. Balance out the wings
The Bruins have a logjam of left-shooting wingers. Brad Marchand isn't going anywhere as the No. 1 left winger. Jake DeBrusk is the ideal second-line LW. And behind them they'll have Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen, and Anders Bjork. Meanwhile, behind David Pastrnak are only David Backes and Noel Acciari as right-shot wingers, assuming Rick Nash moves on.
Heinen could move to RW, since he's already shown the versatility to play either side. But barring a trade, they may inevitably need to make one of their young wingers play on their off-wing in order to find the right mix and get everyone they want into the lineup. Moving Backes back to center is also an option, but not necessarily what Bruce Cassidy wants to do - which brings us to item No. 3...
Assuming Sean Kuraly comes back on an RFA deal, the Bruins' fourth line is pretty much locked in as well as the first. David Krejci will again be the No. 2 center. So with Riley Nash likely departing via free agency, that leaves No. 3 center as a hole to fill this summer.
If Backes doesn't move there - and at this point, he's probably better suited as a right wing - then they could look to a young prospect to make the jump. Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson has already had a cup of coffee at the NHL level and could offer enough two-way ability to play well if he takes over Riley Nash's spot between Heinen and Backes. Trent Frederic, who recently signed his entry-level contract, could also be a candidate to get the call.
Once again, backup goalie will be a question mark entering the offseason. Khudobin will be an unrestricted free agent and played well enough to get a raise, so he could be gone if a team is willing to offer him crazy money. But it's likely he'll want to stay in Boston.
It would behoove the Bruins to sign Khudobin to a one or two-year extension in the $3-4 million range, which would give him the bump he deserves after he played a key role in sparking the Bruins' regular season hot streak. Zane McIntyre may not be an NHL goalie and 20-year-old Daniel Vladar likely won't be ready next season, so keeping Khudobin around another year or two would probably be the best move for this spot.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].