By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins don’t have a ton of roster spots to address this offseason, assuming all of the major pieces remain intact. But at those open spots, they have to decide whether to add from outside or look internally – and in the latter case, one resolved opening could create another.
Don Sweeney’s biggest moves this summer will involve players who are already under team control. Defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo will be restricted free agents and could be in line for extensions. And there’s a chance that he fills all of their impending roster openings from inside the organization.
Unfortunately, it didn’t totally work out when he took that route this past season. That’s especially true for his top-six forward group, which never quite found that sixth guy to fill out the right side. A revolving door of Karson Kuhlman, David Backes, and Danton Heinen isn’t likely going to cut it if the Bruins want to make it back to the Stanley Cup Final as soon as next season.
With that in mind, here’s a rundown of the spots that Sweeney will have to address this offseason one way or another.
— Top-six right wing. Sweeney never adequately addressed the Bruins’ need for a legitimate right-shot winger to either park next to David Krejci or complement Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Marcus Johansson could have been that guy, but he eventually settled on the third line. Fellow trade addition Charlie Coyle has been discussed as a possibility for the top-six, but that would open up a hole at third-line center. Sweeney acknowledged during his end-of-season press conference that Coyle could conceivably move to right wing if a prospect like Trent Frederic could take his place at center.
Would a move like that necessarily make the Bruins better? Maybe Frederic is a better all-around option in a vacuum than Kuhlman, who was playing second-line right wing in the final two games of the Stanley Cup Final. But that alone was a tacit admission that the Bruins still haven’t solved this problem. They went internal for that spot last season, in part hoping for an emergence and healthy season for Anders Bjork. But it most certainly didn’t pan out like they hoped and it cost them in the end.
There’s no one on the free-agent market who could feasibly perform in that role. So unless Sweeney swings a massive trade, there’s a chance the Bruins promote from within once again. If Coyle turns out to be that guy, that opens up another need that already exists…
— Third-line forward. The obvious internal option to play third-line center, if Coyle moves to right wing, is Frederic. Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson is a restricted free agent and may not live up to his second-round status at this point. Sweeney indicated on Monday that 2017 second-round pick Jack Studnicka will need time to develop before next season, and he’s not a third-line kind of player anyway. Frederic at his best would bring size and two-way acumen to the Bruins lineup, and ideally he’s ready to fill a bottom-six role next season.
If he isn’t? Perhaps Coyle sticks at center. That might leave Bjork, whom they expect to be ready for camp in the fall, as a candidate to fill the void left by Johansson on that line. Danton Heinen has shown the ability to play either wing and ideally he’s facing lower-level matchups as a bottom-six forward.
This spot should be easier to fill than the one on the top-six, but assuming Johansson departs via free agency, it will begin the summer as a question mark.
— Right-shot defense. Kevan Miller injured basically everything last season, and ultimately had to miss the postseason after breaking fracturing his kneecap late in the regular season. His status for the start of next season is uncertain. Steven Kampfer is a free agent and unlikely to come back. That could leave Connor Clifton as the third-pairing right defenseman to start next season, with nothing realistic behind him.
The Bruins have plenty of depth on the left side of the defense, but not so much on the right. Clifton has proven to be an NHL-caliber defenseman after a solid playoff, but not necessarily as an entrenched third-pairing guy for a full season. They could stand to add a bigger defenseman for that spot, considering Miller would have been their guy if he were healthy and they missed his heavy game against the Blues in the Cup Final.
The good news is, big depth defensemen aren’t the hardest to find. But the Bruins will be better off addressing that depth over the summer rather than at some point during the regular season. There’s no right-shot defenseman besides Clifton in the system who can make an imminent impact; 2018 second-round pick Axel Andersson has a long way to go.
— Fourth-line forward depth. There’s a clear candidate to fill this need: Noel Acciari. But he’s an unrestricted free agent, and if he finds himself a decent market a la Tim Schaller, he may be tough to retain without out-bidding other teams for his services.
Acciari doesn’t score, but he skates well and brings energy plus a huge physical edge for a 5-foot-10 forward that teams still value for the fourth line. If a team offers him something like two years and $3.8 million, which Schaller got from the Canucks, it could be hard for Sweeney to retain him.
The Bruins will get Chris Wagner back next season after he fractured his arm in the Eastern Conference Final against the Hurricanes. So while they will have an intact fourth line with Sean Kuraly at center and Joakim Nordstrom at left wing, they like to use a rotation. These guys won’t all stay healthy throughout the season, either, due to the nature of their positions and styles of play. So if Sweeney doesn’t look within – is 2015 first-rounder Zach Senyshyn ready? – he’ll need to tap into free agency or make a low-cost trade to add depth for the bottom-six.
Though most of the Bruins’ spots that need to be filled are relatively minor, the decisions they make have a chance to complicate others. It won’t be easy to address them all. But ultimately, it should all trickle down from their choice for a top-six right wing. From there, the Bruins’ offseason plans will become a little clearer.
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.