By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Boston Bruins emerged from day 1 of free agency with some help on the way at the bottom of the roster, but questions remain at the top. Where will they turn for a top-six right wing? How about a legitimate top-4 left-shot defenseman?
Answers to those questions may ultimately lie within the Bruins organization. And it’s a risk that Don Sweeney sounds willing to take.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday after the NHL’s first wave of free agency moves, the Bruins GM addressed the moves that they both did and did not make. Among the players added were depth forwards like Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner; new backup goalie and potential part-time starter Jaroslav Halak; and an affordable long-term option on the left side of the defense in John Moore.
Among the moves Sweeney didn’t make was John Tavares, who ended up signing with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs for seven years and $11 million per season. And based on Sweeney’s comments, the Bruins were happy just to be in the discussion for the superstar center, who’s move to Toronto is arguably the biggest free-agent signing in NHL history.
“We put our best foot forward and it didn’t fall our way,” Sweeney said. “But, again, to be in that situation is something that our group should be happy about, and it’s probably a reflection of what we’re trying to do and trying to accomplish, but I wish it had fallen our way.”
An upgrade to Tavares over David Krejci at the second center spot may have indirectly helped the Bruins find a viable right wing for either him or Patrice Bergeron. But now, the B’s are left with the original task at hand, to find someone who can flank Krejci and Jake DeBrusk or be a good-enough fit to play on the right side with Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
Sort of how the 2017-18 season started, the Bruins may simply hold an audition for one of their young prospects to seize a spot. Anders Bjork started last season as the first-line right wing, which allowed David Pastrnak to slide down and play with Krejci. Sweeney sounds comfortable trying a similar strategy again if they decide against making a trade.
“Potentially [we could add a right wing], but we have some strong internal candidates,” said Sweeney. “I think Danton Heinen deserves an opportunity; I think Ryan Donato deserves an opportunity. We have other players that we’re going to take a look at.”
Third-line center is also a hole that still needs to be filled, now that Riley Nash is officially out the door after signing a three-year deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Sweeney was even more definitive in saying that the B’s will identify their C3 with someone already in the system.
“It’s likely internal at this point, yes, and we have some very strong candidates,” said Sweeney. “We have some young players that certainly want that slot, and we have a couple of guys internally that I think can move up and play that slot. At times when Anaheim was really injured at the first part of the year, Chris Wagner played in third-line roles, more of a shutdown situation, which we’ve used our players as. Sean Kuraly is certainly a player that wants to have a bigger role, and then you have the three younger players that we feel, and we also have a couple of other guys that we’ve added to the group that we’re going to go to work with and see where they fit in.”
The Bruins are reportedly working on an extension for Kuraly. Sweeney wants to get it done, but as expected, can’t make any promises.
“Yeah, we’ve had really good discussions with Sean, so I would expect [a deal] at some point in time in the near future, but I might have felt that with a couple other guys too without going through it,” Sweeney said. “Until you get a deal on paper it doesn’t exist. But we’ve had many discussions and our intentions are to find a good spot.”
The Bruins also have prospects like Trent Frederic, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Jack Studnicka who will get shots to make the NHL roster this fall with the bottom-two center spots essentially up for grabs. But assuming the rest of their moves are handled internally, how much confidence would this forward group give you this coming season?
And never mind the defense, which now has depth on the left side but not necessarily a clear choice to man the second pairing with Brandon Carlo. Certainly not an option to slide Zdeno Chara down to the second pair and play with Charlie McAvoy.
That option likely wouldn’t be Moore, who’s signed for the next five years at $2.75 million. To be fair, Moore won’t be overpaid at that rate, especially if he ends up playing top-four minutes. It’s not necessarily a bad deal for the Bruins, just not one that really improves their defense where it needs to be improved.
Sweeney described Moore as, essentially, a new depth defenseman. One that, if called upon, will be a good fit for the Bruce Cassidy Bruins mold.
“I just think, the makeup of our group, we felt that the opportunity to add a player of that nature fit into how Bruce [Cassidy] wants to play: getting back to retrieve pucks, be able to defend with his feet against faster, bigger, stronger players complements the group we have,” Sweeney said.
The need for a top-four defenseman is still clear, and barring a trade, Sweeney and the Bruins may simply have to wait for Urho Vaakanainen or Jakub Zboril to pan out. Especially now that Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Ryan McDonough have re-upped for the long term with their current teams, the potential pool of left-shot defensemen who could immediately improve the Bruins’ roster is even more shallow than it already was.
Then again, Sweeney hasn’t ruled out trading a defenseman, either. He admitted that the Bruins “haven’t been able to rule anything out,” in fact. So when looking at the Bruins as currently constituted, it’s an incomplete work. It’s not a roster to make definitive judgments on at this point, even if the B’s go internal to fill out the rest of their needs.
But be prepared for that very thing to potentially become a reality, because Sweeney sounds as prepared to do that as anyone.
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.