By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Ask yourself a simple question: Are the Boston Bruins, a day-plus into free agency and with the majority of the big splash candidates officially off the board, a better team than they were on June 30? Are they even better than the team that flamed out in a second-round defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning this past May?
I think you’re a lunatic if your answer to either one of these questions is yes.
But how can I say that when this group has yet to have a single skate together?
Well, look at this way: On top of their failure to nab John Tavares, the Bruins lost two key components of their bottom six in Riley Nash and Tim Schaller. They were replaced with Joakim Nordstrom (signed to a two-year deal wort $2 million) and Chris Wagner (another two-year deal, but worth $2.5 million in total). At the top of the roster, second line deadline fit Rick Nash could be gone as well. But that won’t be known one way or the other until the 34-year-old Nash, whose season ended with some post-concussion woes in the postseason, officially makes a decision on his playing future. If Nash is indeed done, the Bruins are hoping that his replacement comes internally, be it Anders Bjork, Ryan Donato, or Danton Heinen.
The Bruins certainly bolstered their left-side defensive depth — John Moore, who had a career-high 22 points two seasons ago, is likely to be a better fit than Nick Holden — and you have to imagine that Moore’s a regular in their defensive mix if they’re handing out five-year deals. And backup goaltender Jaro Halak could be an upgrade over Anton Khudobin.
But the rest of their moves and non-moves? It’s simply a puzzle that doesn’t make a lot of sense right now.
For example, look at the Riley Nash decision. Now, this is a player that the Bruins were right not to go all-in on, but once you lost out on the Tavares sweeps (and as fringe top-six centers flew off the board), Nash should have been back in Boston.
The Bruins easily could have matched the Blue Jackets’ offer to Nash — three years, $8.25 million in total (a $2.75 million cap hit) — and kept an important piece of their forward group in the frame. Maybe you’re not of the belief that Bruins general manager Don Sweeney should make the same mistakes as Peter Chiarelli and overcommit to the bottom of his roster, sure.
But here’s the problem with that: Nash proved to be more this past season. This was a player that was a seamless fit on all four lines of your roster, can play both center and wing, and was your second-best penalty-killing center. (Given the mileage that the Bruins used to consistently put on Patrice Bergeron, that last point is a sneaky important part of this whole thing.)
Ultimately, if you’re giving me the choice of spending a combined $2.25 million on Nordstrom/Wagner for two years or spending $2.75 million on Nash for three, I’m going with Nash every time.
Nordstrom and Wagner can be nice players, and maybe they absolutely will be, but I’d like to think that we know what they are: They are fourth-line players that will contribute maybe 20 points at the very most. Nash, meanwhile, proved he can be a Bergeron stand-in in small spurts, and his absence (and return at less than 100 percent) was glaring in the postseason.
This is where the Bruins, as win-now as the rest of their division’s top competitors, could have afforded to extend themselves by way of a multi-year deal to Nash. If only to keep pace with the rest of their division in a seven-game series. Especially when it’s something as simple as $2.75 million, the exact amount freed up in 2019 when Adam McQuaid’s contract expires.
But no matter the price, if you’re going to commit dollars and years, do it with the players that can be more than one thing.
Wagner is a hard-hitting grinder, and you can love ’em to pieces, but he seems redundant with Noel Acciari on the roster. It’s also something you shouldn’t pay over $1 million for when Tommy Wingels could have been retained for near league minimum. (If you factor their ice-time into the mix, Wingels and Wagner dished out hits at a nearly identical pace, too.)
Nordstrom was a top penalty-killing forward for the Hurricanes… but their penalty kill was the eighth-worst in the NHL a season ago and he also scored two goals on 97 shots. Even Brian Gionta, using a cane as a stick, accomplished more than that.
Why on Earth are you finding yourself having to go multiple years for these players while trying to seriously suggest that undeniably better players and proven fits such as Schaller and Nash are not worth multi-year commitments?
Quick reminder: The B’s were a few points shy of being a Presidents’ Trophy winner. They were finalists for Ilya Kovalchuk and Tavares. This team has been afforded every possible luxury — both on the free agent and trade markets — thanks to their shrewd contract negotiations with their in-house budding stars and their obvious abundance of NHL-ready prospects.
So why were they spending like they actually had an obligation to lure fringe talent to Boston on July 1?
It doesn’t answer one question about next year or allow you to think that they’re in a better spot in a (now) tougher division.
The biggest question of all, though, is who centers the third line now? The B’s could believe that one of their prospects (Donato, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Trent Frederic, or Jack Studnicka) seize the role, but consider the landscape of your division. You’re now talking about an Atlantic bracket featuring a Toronto three-headed center monster of Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, and Tavares, and a Lightning win-now group with Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, and Cedric Paquette at center. I don’t care if this prospect is at the top of the Black and Gold’s ranking, they’re in for a massive challenge come April. And I’m not sure that the projected internal option (Sean Kuraly) is fit for such a challenge on a full-time basis.
You’re not convincing me that the Bruins got better in this area.
And this is a potentially massive hole, especially for a franchise routinely empowered by their depth down the middle.
Now, with all that in mind, it’s clear what the Bruins are doing. They’re figuring that their strengths — prospects, and newfound defensive depth, particularly on their left side with a potentially redundant Matt Grzelcyk-Torey Krug combo — will allow them to swing some sort of deal to address their other weakness (namely another top-six forward on the right). Sweeney is just going to see if he has internal solutions beforehand, which is better than a desperation deal at the start of free agency. They’ll have company in such a pursuit, though, and in an absolute arms race in the Atlantic, the Bruins are no longer dealing from a position of strength. Everybody in the league knows that Sweeney is not done looking for an upgrade.
So when we analyze the Bruins in the now, it’s worth mentioning that is an obviously unfinished product.
Where and when that product becomes finished, however, remained totally unanswered by anything accomplished on July 1.
Ty Anderson 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 Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.