By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Before the U.S. celebrates Independence Day, the NHL celebrates free agency.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney’s first two years on the job have featured some marquee signings – Matt Beleskey on July 1, 2015 and David Backes on July 1, 2016 – in addition to some lower-level acquisitions on the first day of free agency.
Based on Beleskey and Backes’ bang for the buck, Sweeney hasn’t fared particularly well on July 1, but that probably won’t discourage him from partaking in the festivities this weekend. According to CapFriendly.com, the Bruins have about $12 million in cap space. However, they have to get new contracts done with restricted free agents David Pastrnak, Ryan Spooner and Tim Schaller, who were all presented qualifying offer by the deadline last week.
With Joe Morrow set free, the Bruins will be shopping for depth on defense if they don’t land a top-four defenseman. And up front they’re still shopping for a top-six wing, although they might just settle for reinforcing their bottom six. There might also be a competitor for Anton Khudobin at the backup goaltender position on Sweeney’s shopping list.
Here’s a quick position-by-position look at who’s available and who the Bruins might target after noon on Saturday:
There are reports Kevin Shattenkirk might already be headed back to Boston. The former Boston University defenseman is probably the No. 1 target of teams looking for help on their back end. Unfortunately for the Bruins, locking up Shattenkirk for the type of money and term he probably wants would defeat everything they’ve been trying to accomplish the past couple seasons. Putting aside questions about Shattenkirk’s abilities (especially based on his poor playoff performance this spring), with Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo emerging as legitimate top-four cornerstones, and other prospects in the pipeline, it just doesn’t make sense to commit to a Shattenkirk type—unless Sweeney is going to move some of those future assets to land a big-fish forward and go all in this season after making the playoffs for the first time in three years. The only other way this would make sense would be if Shattenkirk’s market isn’t where everyone assumes it is, and he’s willing to join Boston on something for four years or less at a $4 million or so cap hit.
Cheaper alternatives if the Bruins decide to ignore handedness and just sign a right defenseman are Michael Stone or Cody Franson (Brendan Smith would have fit, but he’s remaining with the Rangers). As far as left-handed defensemen go, Karl Alzner probably doesn’t fit the bill for numerous reasons. Michael Del Zotto, Trevor Daley, Dmitry Kulikov and Johnny Oduya are probably more the Bruins’ type. Sweeney would be wise to let someone else set the market and then dip his feet in these waters, because the Bruins have been caught overspending in the past.
Assuming the Bruins are going to keep the Spooner project going and Riley Nash will replace Dominic Moore as the fourth-line center, the Bruins would probably stay away from pursuing a bigger-name center. Sam Gagner or Martin Hanzal, though, would sure be a better fit for the Bruins than Spooner should it become possible to trade Spooner.
Focusing exclusively on the wing then, the Bruins can’t really get involved on the Alexander Radulov bidding based on his reported demands, even if he would be a huge difference maker. With David Backes signed for the foreseeable future, the Bruins probably don’t want to get much older up front, so adding someone like Patrick Marleau or Shane Doan won’t make much sense. The same goes for Patrick Sharp, unless the bottom falls out on his market and he wants a short, incentive-laden contract. Kris Versteeg would have made sense as a versatile, right-shot veteran that’s just 31, but it appears he’s sticking with Calgary. The Bruins could also return to Drew Stafford, who served a purpose as a placeholder down the stretch last season and could be useful in a similar role if he’ll work cheap.
Cross your fingers the “big, bad Bruins” don’t try to pursue Chris Neil or Scott Hartnell.
Competition for both Khudobin and Tuukka Rask would go a long way toward keeping both men at their best. The problem is with Khudobin on a one-way contract, he has to be waived to be assigned to the minors. Anyone joining the Bruins would be in danger of a similar situation. So that probably rules out someone like Antti Niemi, who might not need a big payday after Dallas bought him out but wouldn’t want to risk being cut loose in October. Minnesota’s Darcy Kuemper might get overlooked in a free agent class heavy on accomplished No. 2 goalies and younger goalies looking for their first chance to compete for the No. 1 spot. The Bruins could also trade Khudobin in order to lure a better backup to town and they would still have Zane McIntyre, Malcolm Subban and Daniel Vladar for depth. If Ben Scrivens is coming back to North America, he might be worth giving a professional tryout if the search for a backup in free agency doesn’t bear fruit.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.