By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Peek around the pillars of need that prop up the Bruins’ offseason, and you’ll find a series of smaller posts. In actuality, this summer looks more like a circus tent, only without the clowns and acrobats. There’s one big center pole (top-4, left-shot defenseman) providing some breathing room for the rest.
One of those lesser needs that Don Sweeney needs to fulfill is the Bruins’ next third-line center. When the team was fortunate enough to play with a clean bill of health, that role belonged to Riley Nash. But after a season in which he set new career highs in multiple categories, the B’s may need to look for a replacement.
Nash is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, along with the other Nash, Rick. And there’s a chance Riley could score a deal with more term and average annual value than the Bruins could feasibly afford in the first place. For reasons beyond Nash’s control – priorities on pricier long-term deals chief among them – the Bruins would be best suited filling his role as cheaply as possible. If Nash wants to maximize himself financially, he’ll likely need to sign somewhere outside of Boston.
Producing at a higher level than ever on Boston’s third line and filling in respectably when tasked with centering the top forward group, Nash took his performance to another level in 2017-18. His 15 goals, 26 assists, and plus-16 rating were all career highs. The Bruins also depended on him as a second-unit penalty killer, as he finished behind only Tim Schaller in shorthanded ice time among Bruins forwards. And when he needed to fill in for Patrice Bergeron during multiple injury stints, Nash delivered a reasonable facsimile of the Bruins’ best three-zone player.
That performance would make him a reliable third-line pivot for the Bruins moving forward, but he could easily be that guy for another team. Two of his last three deals have been for two years. Still just 29 years old, Nash may have proven enough to earn that third year on his next deal.
At this point, he should also be able to find a team willing to pay him well over $1 million per season. He earned $1.15 million in the last year of his deal with the Carolina Hurricanes when he re-signed as a restricted free agent. Now unrestricted, he’ll hit the market in as a strong position as he’s ever been in after earning every bit of his $900,000 for the Bruins in 2017-18.
Among all impending UFA centers, Nash finished fourth in scoring, behind only John Tavares (83 points), Paul Stastny (53 points), and Tyler Bozak (42 points). He had the best plus-minus of any UFA center. On that list, he’s also one of only two in the top-10 in scoring who will be under 30 years old (Tavares is 27, Nash recently turned 29) when he hits the market.
Nash is going to have his suitors. And barring the proverbial Hometown Discount™, that’s why it’ll be tough for the Bruins to retain him.
In The System…
Fortunately, the B’s wouldn’t necessarily be bereft of options if Nash departed. They’re not backed into a corner. It could be relatively easy to wiggle out of this predicament if it came to pass, and that’s in part because they have talent coming through the pipeline.
Former second-round pick Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson has played just one full season in the pros and exactly one NHL game. But he’s also entering the final year of his entry-level contract. The Bruins are going to need to give “JFK” an opportunity and/or make a long-term decision on him at some point. Projected as a playmaking two-way center in the vein of David Krejci, Forsbacka Karlsson could get the first crack at earning that No. 3 center spot – if the Bruins don’t keep Nash around, make a trade, or sign a replacement off the scrap heap.
Another possible candidate is 2016 first-rounder Trent Frederic, who has top-six upside but could be staring at a floor of exactly what the Bruins will need out of the Riley Nash slot. He would immediately bring the kind of size (6-foot-2, 203 pounds) and two-way ability that could make him an impact player on the third line and penalty kill right away. The Bruins could use that kind of size in general, and preferably out of someone with younger, fresher legs.
But that would be the best case scenario. It’s possible that the B’s need to wait for Frederic or Forsbacka Karlsson to get more seasoning, which could necessitate a swap or a cheaper free agent. If the Bruins end up extending themselves to keep Nash, that would be a less-than-promising sign for the development of the aforementioned prospects.
However, re-signing Nash would also be a much-deserved reward for a guy who had legitimate seventh player award potential for the Bruins last season. His playoff run didn’t quite live up to how he performed in the regular season, but Nash didn’t forget how to kill penalties or play a smart, responsible game overnight. Fully recovered from his late-season injuries, he’ll have a chance to be a solid contributor next season wherever he ends up.
It could turn out that Nash kills his next penalty in a different jersey. And if he does, his spot could also turn out to be one of the easiest to fill. As far as offseason decisions for Don Sweeney, this one should be the one with the least pressure, the least support for the tent. A newer, cheaper part isn’t likely to cause a collapse.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.