By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The strides the Bruins took this season by going from a two-time playoff watcher to a participant in this season’s Stanley Cup playoffs are undeniable.
General manager Don Sweeney largely achieved his goals of keeping the Bruins competitive while developing younger players and not tapping into his trove of prospects and draft picks to minimally improve the roster.
By many accounts the Bruins have the type of talent in the pipeline now that will either flourish in the NHL or be usable in trades to get players that will make the Bruins a formidable force. They should be just two or three years away from competing for the Stanley Cup.
However, with the acquisition of high-end talent comes the ability to retain that talent. Fair or not, the Bruins earned a reputation as a team that couldn’t keep its young players happy enough to stay since Dougie Hamilton, a 2011 first-round pick (9th overall), exited his entry-level contract and forced Sweeney to trade him to Calgary.
The Bruins have had plenty of veteran players re-sign, like Brad Marchand and his eight-year, $49 million deal that was signed last September. But it’s a whole other story to get players in their early 20s to make the Bruins their home into their late 20s.
David Pastrnak, who set career-highs with 34 goals and 70 points this season, will be the next test for the Bruins. Pastrnak is a restricted free agent but has no rights for arbitration. Although the Bruins hold the leverage, they have to avoid antagonizing the player and paying for misbehavior later, especially if the next contract winds up being a so-called bridge deal.
The Bruins and Pastrnak seemingly are starting out at a positive position with Pastrnak singing Boston’s praises at the conclusion of the season.
“Obviously I love it here, you know. This is where I started and where I got the opportunity to play in the NHL. This is not what I was focusing on,” Pastrnak said.
Bruins president Cam Neely had similar sentiments.
“We want David and David certainly reiterated a number of times that he wants to play here and stay here, he loves it here. So I feel confident we can get something done with him,” Neely said.
Every player’s personality is different, and there is no proof the Bruins did anything wrong with Hamilton. It’s widely believed there was an issue between the player and coach Claude Julien, but Julien’s gone. Whereas Hamilton offered “no comment” at his breakup day before entering his last summer as a Bruin, Pastrnak was positive.
Neely believes communication is key and the Bruins have been doing a better job of making it clear to players they’re wanted and they’ll be put in positions to succeed.
“But there’s more dialogue with players, especially when their contract year is up … it’s almost like because these players are starting to sign longer-term deals that you’re in this together, it’s not us vs. them. So we want them to feel we’re all in this together,” Neely said.
Then there’s the case of Anders Bjork, who if he signs with the Bruins could be the next impact forward. A Bruins fifth-round pick (146th overall) in 2014, Bjork is with Team USA at the World Championships and weighing his decision to return to Notre Dame for his senior season or turn pro. There’s no doubt what the Bruins’ desire is, but Bjork has a chance to challenge for the Hobey Baker Award, playing in the 2018 Winter Olympics and then go to free agency in August 2018 if he returns to school.
One summer after the Bruins lost out in the bidding for the services of Harvard free agent Jimmy Vesey, the Bruins don’t want to find themselves in the same predicament Nashville was in with Vesey. Just like there’s no way to know Vesey’s real motives for forcing his way to the New York Rangers (outside of truth serum), there’s no way to know what Bjork’s thinking. The Bruins would plug him right into a top-six role this fall if they could.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can. He had a very difficult decision right after his season was over. I think it was overwhelming for him,” Neely said. “Our hopes are that he sees where we’re at as a team and some of the young players we’re putting in the lineup. We hope he understands that he’s a player that we think very highly of that can step in and contribute here.”
The Bruins have been doing mostly wise things in terms of building a perennially competitive team in a salary-cap league (aside from throwing $6 million annually at David Backes) since Sweeney took over. Another prong of that process is retaining young, cheaper talent and maybe being attractive enough as an organization to get veteran free agents to sign without breaking the bank. Beyond Pastrnak and Bjork, we’ll see this summer if the Bruins are such a destination, as they should at least consider signing Washington left-shot defenseman Karl Alzner or Rangers right-shot defenseman Brendan Smith.
But even if the Bruins don’t enter the free-agent sweepstakes this summer, we’ll learn a lot about their standing in the eyes of high-end players by what happens with Pastrnak and Bjork.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.