By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Much of the focus on the Bruins' offseason discussion will surround the defense, particularly how high they aim and how far they go to improve it.
Unfortunately, their short- and long-term problem is two-fold. They need to identify a relatively young left-shot defenseman who can, at a minimum, play big minutes on the second pairing. But ideally, they find someone who can play next to Charlie McAvoy on the top pairing. Next year, and hopefully well into the future.
On top of that, this kind of player is exceptionally hard to find. And not easily pried from another team.
The long-term answer could still exist in the Bruins' current farm system. But they also need an answer for the next 1-3 years, which could be the best window they'll get out of the remaining years of core players like Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, and David Krejci. That is, if any of their best days aren't already in the past.
McAvoy, still just 20 years old, is almost certainly going to develop into one of the top right-shot defensemen in the NHL down the road. So the Bruins don't necessarily need to shoot for the proverbial moon when they add another blue-liner. But can they land among the stars? Can they find a No. 2?
It would likely be a dice-roll, because easily their best options are only available via potential trades.
Krug on the Move?
Torey Krug immediately came up as a potential trade chip for the Bruins this offseason, which he may be - provided his recovery from a fractured ankle goes smoothly. As far as an NHL-ready player with a doable contract, Krug is arguably the Bruins' most tradable asset.
If he departs, the similarly under-sized, left-shooting, offensive-minded Matt Grzelcyk would be the logical candidate to take on Krug's roles. The Bruins would inevitably take a hit on the man advantage without Krug, because Krug is just a wizard with the puck in those situations. But Grzelcyk has shown the kind of hockey smarts and puck-moving ability that earmark him as the guy to settle in as a third-pairing defenseman and soak up extra ice time on the PP.
If the Bruins covet a top-pairing blue liner, ideally they find a trade partner for a package involving Krug that would bring back the upgrade they need on the back end. And in a perfect world, such a deal wouldn't involve moving Brandon Carlo, who is also recovering from a serious injury. In a perfect world, he's reunited with Chara on the second pairing while McAvoy gets a new linemate.
But who, exactly?
Even if the B's can't find a top-pairing defenseman to flank McAvoy next season and beyond, they're still going to have a top-4 spot to fill that isn't currently in the system. Grzelcyk, Kevan Miller, and Adam McQuaid (maybe even Nick Holden) are best suited to comprise the third pairing in some fashion. At worst, there needs to be a new left-shot D-man to park next to Carlo.
In the wake of the Carolina Hurricanes reportedly putting just about everyone out there for trades, a name you've already heard on the Sports Hub airwaves and will continue to hear about is the Hurricanes' Noah Hanifin. Left-shot defenseman. Grew up in Norwood. Big upside. As a player, the perfect target - provided he develops into the high-end defensemen he has the potential to be.
That last part is a bit up in the air at this point. Hanifin is still just 21 years old and started to realize his offensive potential with 10 goals and 32 points for the 'Canes last season, making his first All-Star team in the process. But Hanifin remains a work in progress defensively, and also struggled at times with his decision-making when he had the puck. He may be a very good defenseman for the Bruins in the long-term, but over the next few years there's still growing to do, which limits the upside of what he can bring to the Bruins immediately.
Additionally, the price for Hanifin - set to become a restricted free agent on July 1 - would likely be steep. Would Don Sweeney be willing to send something like Torey Krug, Anders Bjork, Jakub Zboril, and a draft pick to Carolina? A deal of that nature would require assurance that Hanifin would sign a long-term extension with the Bruins, much like Seth Jones did when the Blue Jackets got him from Nashville prior to him becoming an RFA. But the B's don't exactly have a Ryan Johansen they'd be able to move for a player like that, either. And would they be willing to ink Hanifin long-term before McAvoy, who's up at the end of next season?
If they want a defenseman that can step in and reliably play top-4 minutes in a variety of situations, they likely have to aim a bit lower. Arizona's Oliver Ekman-Larsson remains a premier offensive defenseman in the NHL, but might not cost them as much as someone like Hanifin would. Ekman-Larsson would certainly be able to keep up offensively on the Bruins' top pairing. He would not be an ideal fit in terms of conserving minutes for Chara in defensive situations, but the Bruins' power play would be just fine and a pairing of him and McAvoy would have potential to be the league's best scoring duo on the back end.
Sweeney and the Bruins have swirled around Wild blue liner Jonas Brodin in recent years, so he could remain a potential target. Brodin would essentially be a left-handed Carlo, but could spell Chara on the penalty kill and log a lot of minutes. He could move the puck well enough to keep up on a pairing with McAvoy, but Brodin wouldn't exactly be a slam-dunk top-2 guy for them. He's also coming off hand surgery.
Another player the Bruins might ask about out west is Jake Muzzin, who has played much of his Kings career to the left of Drew Doughty. He'd be able to play big minutes and potentially stick with McAvoy, but Muzzin is also turning 30 years old next February. So while he'd be a solid player to add in the short-term, he wouldn't necessarily be part of the Bruins' long-term plans.
On The Open Market...
As hard as it would be for Sweeney to find trade targets, he'd have even more trouble in free agency. The big fish in this summer's water is Capitals blue liner John Carlson, who has become a perennial Norris trophy candidate. But he's a right shot and will command an average annual salary of at least $8 million as a free agent with plenty of term. So in the context of the Bruins, Carlson is barely worth discussing as a realistic possibility, let alone a fit.
The Bruins dipping into the unrestricted free agent market for a defenseman wouldn't be a great sign. Jack Johnson will be out there, but is also 31 years old and has struggled to realize his big potential throughout his career. The Devils' John Moore is only 27, but he'd be another left-handed version of Carlo and maybe not a top-4 guy in the long-term.
The One Big Move
Fortunately, the Bruins aren't exactly backed into a corner. Regardless of any trades Sweeney may make this offseason, they will enter the 2018-19 season with most of their veteran core and high-end young talent intact. More could be on the way from the farm, too. But in the case of the defense, that's where Sweeney is going to have to make the one big decision on his plate this summer.
Let's just hope it's the right one. Because it won't be easy.
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].