By Matt Kalman
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney typically plays his cards close to his vest, and he continued this approach Friday when he declined all comments on John Tavares’ situation and the Bruins’ meeting with the New York Islanders unrestricted free agent from earlier this week.
Sweeney is consistent with his message, or his non-message, and that’s part of what has made him successful.
That doesn’t mean Sweeney keeps everything secret. He made no bones about putting it out there that the Bruins and goaltender Anton Khudobin haven’t been having the greatest negotiation and may be parting ways come the opening of free agency on Sunday.
“I think the goaltending one probably is going in a different direction at this point,” said Sweeney while explaining that he’s been in touch with camps for all the Bruins’ UFAs that haven’t been ruled out yet.
Some of Sweeney’s answers to questions were a bit more vague, but it was easy to read between the lines when he was asked if the Bruins have to acquire a top-six wing after Rick Nash announced he’s not going to sign right away (and may not play again) and Ilya Kovalchuk chose the Los Angeles Kings last week.
“I think we feel pretty comfortable that some of our players have emerged to be able to handle some of those things. Then there’s a graduating aspect to that to make sure that they definitely can,” he said. “So I think we feel from where our depth and where our youth is at that it’d be a good exercise to go through and guys should be able to push through. But until you get there you always sort of have your eye towards what is sort of known, an element that is known. And that is why we were in on the other players. But we’re actually feeling really comfortable in terms of where our younger guys are and whether that’s next guy up.”
So it would seem that the Bruins are interested in top-six upgrades, but they’re not going to overpay in the UFA market. As far as backup goaltender, Sweeney is determined to get someone with experience that can duplicate Khudobin’s “fabulous” 2017-18 performance. As for top-four defense, well that’s almost irrelevant because there aren’t any legitimate ones available as UFAs since John Carlson re-signed with Washington.
With these things in mind, here’s an abridged look at the Bruins’ dalliance into the UFA market:
Without even getting to free agency San Jose’s Evander Kane set the wing market with his $7 million over seven years. That deal should put James van Riemsdyk, James Neal and David Perron out of the Bruins’ reach, especially when it comes to the term the high-end forwards will get.
Then come the mid-level guys and you have to wonder if they’re also not going to price themselves out of the Bruins’ range, especially when you know the Bruins don’t want to go beyond three or four years and put themselves in another David Backes situation. There are too many young players that will be deserving of longer term and high salaries in the years ahead. To me this group consists of Michael Grabner, Patrick Maroon and Thomas Vanek.
The trickle-down effect from where those guys land in terms of contracts will then determine if it’s worthwhile to bring in a Blake Comeau or even bring back Drew Stafford on the cheap and risk blocking a kid from a job. If you’re just bringing in someone for competition, might be best to wait until you see who’s taking camp invitations because that list has seemingly lengthened every offseason since the last lockout.
Although the Bruins have Trent Frederic, Jack Studnicka and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson to compete for the third center job (not to mention Sean Kuraly’s potential to move up), the Bruins might also need help at this position if Riley Nash leaves. Nash earned the right to get at least a four-year contract in this market and the Bruins rightfully might not want to make that commitment.
In this case, Austin Czarnik seems like the most logical guy to re-sign and cast as a young Nash who can play center or wing, kill penalties and maybe play some second power play minutes. Reports have said interest in him has been high but maybe a one- or two-year chance to really prove himself could pay off down the road for Czarnik. Derek Ryan and Jay Beagle have proven themselves as bottom-six guys and would fit if the money was right.
And here we are for the first time in two years looking for another Bruins backup if Khudobin doesn’t slide in. Jonathan Bernier might be the best backup available but he made $2.75 million and should probably get a raise. That might make him too expensive. Kari Lehtonen has made a bundle with Dallas the past several years and one wonders if he’d be willing to back up his countryman Tuukka Rask for a cool $2.5 million the next two years. At 34, it’s probably time to embrace a lesser role.
Chad Johnson made the most of his time here and has struggled since he left. At 32, he might not be ready to relegate himself to a 30-game guy. Michael Hutchinson is another goalie the Bruins are familiar with and most believe he’s strictly a backup at 28, but these types of guys tend to have at least one or two suitors willing to at least make them a 1A and that’s not what the job is in Boston. Jaroslav Halak would also be appealing if he’s ready to transition to a 30-game role at 34.
My best guess: the Bruins wind up with Lehtonen or Johnson on a one- or two-year contract worth $2.5-3 million. They also stay out of the forward market until late and then go two or three years with a Maroon or someone else that falls into their hands after the market doesn’t play the way that player aniticipated.