By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
If the Boston Bruins are entering NHL free agency with the goal of bolstering their top-six forwards or top-four defensemen, their options are scarce.
The dilemma that the Bruins face on the forward front is that the best free agents on the wing are left shots. Taylor Hall is the biggest prize, and certainly an option for the Bruins to allocate the money they would have spent on Torey Krug, who is likely departing for a more lucrative offer. Hall is only two years removed from a Hart Trophy season with the New Jersey Devils in which he scored 93 points in 76 games, and is coming off 52 points in 65 games split between the Devils and Coyotes.
A more realistic option for a left-shot scorer is former Senators and Panthers winger Mike Hoffman. He is a true sniper, having scored at least 22 goals in six straight seasons. He scored 29 in just 69 games this past season, a 34-goal pace. He shoots the puck a ton, averaging 231.5 shots per season over the past six, and he's remarkably efficient with a career scoring percentage of 11.8 percent.
The best combination of realistic possibility and need may be right-shot forward Tyler Toffoli. After being traded to the Canucks mid-season, he looked rejuvenated with six goals in 10 games, and followed that up with two goals and four points in seven playoff games. He'd have potential to be a perfect fit on David Krejci's right wing - something we've heard a million times before, yes, but Toffoli would represent a legitimate offensive upgrade. He's averaged about 24 goals per 82 games over the past six seasons and he's still just 28 years old.
As much as the Bruins would love to find an answer on the top-six, they also need to make a marked upgrade over Nick Ritchie on the third line. Perhaps they give Bobby Ryan or Wayne Simmonds a call to see if they'd be willing to line up net to Charlie Coyle on an affordable one-year deal. They could use someone with size who actually has scoring potential for that spot. It's probably why they've been linked to Brandon Saad in the trade market.
With Krug likely headed elsewhere, the Bruins may look to replace him with a similarly productive left-shot defenseman. Problem is, that player doesn't exist for the Bruins among unrestricted free agents. It's why they've been one of the teams in on Arizona's Oliver Ekman-Larsson, although they may be caught in a game of chicken right now and aren't likely to flinch.
The big fish on the blue line this year is a right shot: former Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. He's expected to hit the open market and likely fetch an Ekman-Larsson-type long-term deal. He would almost certainly become the Bruins' highest-paid player and create a logjam on the right side. It would perhaps necessitate a Brandon Carlo trade, unless Don Sweeney and Bruce Cassidy envisioned a top pairing of Pietrangelo and Charlie McAvoy. Pietrangelo is a proven winner (sorry to remind you), one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL, and an upgrade over Krug, but the hockey fit wouldn't be perfect.
If the Bruins are hell-bent on dipping into the free agents to replace Krug with another left-shot defenseman, they'd have to go the route of Sami Vatanen, T.J. Brodie or Dmitry Kulikov, or someone of similar value (although Brodie could play on the right side). It would be a downgrade from Krug. Ultimately, they may be better off seeing what they have in their glut of young left-shot defensemen with Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon, Urho Vaakanainen, and Jakub Zboril, and decide on who is part of their future and who is not.
It sounds more and more by the day like Tuukka Rask is going to play out the last year of his contract here in Boston. So anyone wishing the Bruins would ship him out for an old shoe might be disappointed. But if Cam Neely and Sweeney decide they want to go in a different direction in net, the Bruins can't be blocked from trading Rask and they'd be flush with options among unrestricted free agents.
Henrik Lundqvist is expected to sign with the Washington Capitals, but he's more of a big name than a good value at this point in his career and wouldn't be a long-term option anyway. But Braden Holtby, Jakob Markstrom, Corey Crawford, Cam Talbot, Jimmy Howard, and Cory Schneider are all expected to hit the open market.
Robin Lehner just set the market with a five-year, $25 million extension with the Vegas Golden Knights, so the Bruins could find their next goaltender while saving a little money off Rask's contract. Lehner's signing opened up the probability of the Golden Knights trading Marc-Andre Fleury, who's due $7 million over the next two years. But if the Bruins want to make a change in goal, their best options are clearly in free agency.
We'll be sure to keep you updated on whatever the Bruins do (or don't do) as NHL free agency kicks off. They may also make a trade, perhaps a big one. Ty Anderson and I talked about all the possibilities in the newest episode of the Sports Hub Sidelines podcast, which you can listen to below.
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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at [email protected].