By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Bruins didn’t win the Eastern Conference or even the Atlantic Division on Sunday, the first day of free agency in the NHL.
What they did was get deeper without blocking the path of some of their prospects that may be ready to graduate to regular NHL duty. They didn’t break the bank and commit to any insane deals that will fall into Matt Beleskey or David Backes territory. And they probably made themselves a better team for nights when Tuukka Rask doesn’t play goal.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney’s addition of defenseman John Moore came with a five-year commitment but at short money ($13.75 million). The Bruins now have eight NHL defensemen and four left-handed shots on the blue line. In the aftermath of the first few hours of free agency, Sweeney once again rehashed how the Bruins went through 10 defensemen in the playoffs two years ago, and used eight last season. He doesn’t want to be caught having to throw in green rookies at crucial times, because there aren’t any Charlie McAvoy types waiting in the wings.
Of course, few believe the Bruins will really take the eight defensemen they have into training camp, let alone still have these eight guys on the roster at playoff time in 2019. A trade could be in the offing once teams around the league assess where they stand. But keeping these eight defensemen wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.
First, we’ve seen in the past what it costs to pick up a bottom-pair defenseman at the trade deadline, and inevitably every contending team is shopping for one that time of year. The Bruins gave up Rob O’Gara and a third-round pick for Nick Holden. At or around the trade deadline Joe Morrow was moved for a fourth, Mike Reilly a fifth, Ian Cole a player and a third, Brandon Davidson a third, Michal Kempny a third. Do you see the trend? The Bruins have saved themselves a mid-round pick for the small cost of Moore’s salary-cap hit.
Then there’s the makeup of the defense corps. It’s unprecedented for any team, let alone one with Stanley Cup aspirations, to attempt to succeed with two 5-foot-9 defensemen playing regularly. The Bruins came up short last season with Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk in their top six, although Brandon Carlo’s absence hurt their cause.
Sweeney complimented Moore’s skating and his ability to play well against certain matchups by defending with his feet the way coach Bruce Cassidy wants his D corps to play. Perhaps the Bruins are considering making out lineups based on matchups. Bigger teams would face Moore instead of Grzelcyk. Instead of Kevan Miller playing through being dinged up after a physical game, maybe the Bruins put Moore on the right side of a third pair to get the most out of Miller over the course of the 82-game grind. The Bruins are going to have a 15-game March again, and it would be a luxury to be able to straight-out rest guys during this stretch to keep them healthy and ready for the postseason.
It’s outside-the-box thinking but something a team would be wise to consider.
As for adding more depth up front, the Bruins lost Riley Nash, Tim Schaller and Austin Czarnik, but signed Chris Wagner ($1.25 million AAV) and Joakim Nordstrom ($1 million AAV) to two-year contracts. When you’re filling out a bottom six, you need players that are willing to accept the role and know they may find themselves out of the lineup if they’re outplayed by a younger player. Nash signed a three-year deal (for $2.75 million per season) with Columbus, where he’s obviously been promised a prominent role. He may have had a role for the Bruins this year similar to last, but beyond this season there’s no way the Bruins could’ve promised him the playing time he’ll want while he’s still younger than 30. Similarly Tim Schaller’s two-year, $3.8 million contract probably comes with a chance to be more than a fourth-liner.
Wagner and Nordstrom come to the Bruins for minimal money and provide versatility. In Wagner’s case, he probably wasn’t going to get much more elsewhere, so the Walpole, Mass., native may as well risk being a healthy scratch or even a Providence demotion close to home.
Lastly comes the change at backup goalie, with Jaroslav Halak in and Anton Khudobin out. Let’s be up front and admit, Khudobin was fun to watch and quote but he’s a lesser goalie than Halak. It’s a bit surprising that Halak was willing to go somewhere where he’s only guaranteed to play about 30 games. But he’s a Bruin on a two-year contract worth $5.5 million. The way the backup goalie market went you can’t blame the Bruins for paying $500,000 more for Halak than Khudobin (who went to Dallas for two years and $5 million). Sweeney said he views Halak as a goaltender that will benefit from playing behind the Bruins’ defensive system and penalty kill, and has postseason experience. Halak should push Rask more than any backup Rask has had since taking the starter’s job full-time in 2013. And as far as the money, we don’t know the Bruins could’ve had Khudobin for what the Stars gave him. He could’ve been looking for Halak’s money and when the Bruins decided to give it to Halak, the Stars were the next best offer.
The Bruins didn’t close the gap on Tampa Bay, which eliminated Boston in the playoffs. Toronto completely changed the complexion of its team with the addition of John Tavares, although you still have to wonder how the Maple Leafs are going to fare in their own end of the ice with their defense corps still facing a talent gap on the rest of the league’s elite.
But the Bruins continued their commitment to youth, with Jack Studnicka, Trent Frederic and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson seemingly being given a chance to win the third center job; with Anders Bjork, Danton Heinen and Ryan Donato still in position to compete for a top-wing wing spot; and with Ryan Fitzgerald and Karson Kuhlman still in the mix to battle for bottom-six forward spots. And you can’t rule out Zane McIntyre pushing Halak come fall.
Most importantly, we’re still three months from the first games of the 2018-19 season. After the draft, free-agent interview period and first day of free agency, teams are now going to start deciding what trades they need to make. Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds and Columbus’ Artemi Panarin are two high-end forwards in precarious contract situations with their current teams that could become available. The Bruins are positioned both with their depth and their salary-cap flexibility to be in on both, as well as any other forwards that might become available when another team is shopping for a Krug or Carlo-type defenseman.
Considering how he’s struck out on July 1 in the past (Matt Beleskey, David Backes), Sweeney was smart to show restraint this year with the pickings slim for game changers. His coffers are still full for a trade for someone already available or someone that might become available because restricted free agency doesn’t go well or their team goes in the tank early in the upcoming season.
The Bruins challenged for the top spot in the Eastern Conference in 2017-18, and they haven’t gotten any worse since they lost Game 5 to Tampa Bay. And there’s still plenty of time and opportunity to get better.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.