Despite sputtering out in the second round of the playoffs, the 2017-18 Boston Bruins smashed expectations.
Think about it. This was a team earmarked for, possibly, a wild card spot before the season began. In November, when injuries began to stack up, the Bruins seemed destined to be a lottery team in the 2018 NHL Draft. Then, four months later, they’re a top-three team in the league and a trendy pick to win the Stanley Cup.
The roster infusion of youth mixed with veteran leaders in their prime helped the Bruins re-open a championship window earlier than expected. The team was fun again. Hockey mattered in Boston after what felt like an extended drag of mediocrity.
But as the Bruins look toward the future, general manager Don Sweeney will have some difficult decisions to make as the proverbial good-problem-to-have scenario rears its beautiful head. The Bruins finally have an exciting pipeline of prospects ready to make the jump to the NHL. Unfortunately (but really, fortunately), that means the same roster that got the Bruins to where they were in 2017-18 definitely won’t resemble what’s to come in 2018-19.
Let’s take a look at the Bruins’ unrestricted free agents and the likelihood that they’ll return. As a note, all stats include regular season and playoffs while with Boston only.
Kenny Agostino (5 GP, 0-1–1)
Brian Gionta (19 GP, 2-4–6)
Paul Postma (14 GP, 0-1–1)
Sweeney has already confirmed the Bruins won’t be bringing back Agostino, Gionta, and Postma. I’m not sure how much clearer we need to be here.
Nick Holden (20 GP, 1-5–6)
Rick Nash (23 GP, 6-5–11)
Riley Nash (85 GP, 15–27–42)
Tommy Wingels (22 GP, 2-3–5)
I can’t really see a scenario where the Bruins bring back Holden and Wingels. Aside from a lack of confirmation from Sweeney that says otherwise, these two players are much closer to definitely gone than likely goners. It’s not because they weren’t suitable Bruins, either—they were. It’s more because there are players within who could replace their depth, production, and then some.
To me, the two Nashes are the intriguing ones here. Logic says they’re both gone, but not without some consideration from Sweeney. After his impressive season, Riley Nash is going to get paid to be a third-line center on a team desperate for stability at the position. Without speculating which team that could be, let’s just say it’s not the Bruins. Sure, it would be great for Riley Nash to return but for the money he deserves — potentially north of a $3 million AAV cap hit — the Bruins are better off looking within at options such as Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Jack Studnicka, Trent Fredric, or hey, maybe even natural center Ryan Donato.
Rick Nash is a bit trickier to predict. A team-friendly, one-year deal in the $4.5-$5m range seems reasonable enough for Boston, but probably not for Rick Nash who’s likely looking for a multi-year contract. Fair. The Rick Nash experience will forever be looked at as a failure (it shouldn’t be) because of how much the Bruins’ gave up for him. It’s a bit unfair when you factor in his concussion late in the season that caused him to miss several weeks. Just because the Bruins decided to go for it at the trade deadline, it doesn’t automatically marry them to the player they acquire.
A full season of Rick Nash on David Krejci’s wing could certainly boost offensive production for both players. But with his age, his history of concussions, and $6 million a year already committed to another power forward on the right side with similar issues, it just won’t work. Plus, the news of the Bruins’ interest in Ilya Kovalchuk makes it even less likely that the team circles back to Rick Nash.
Possible to return
Austin Czarnik (10 GP 0-4–4)
Tim Schaller (93 GP, 12-12–24)
I would like to believe that the Bruins aren’t giving up on Austin Czarnik. Yet. His skill at the AHL level is undeniable—he scored 25 goals and recorded 69 points in 65 games with Providence this season—but the bigger question is whether his game will finally translate to the NHL level. At 25 years old with less than 60 career games in the NHL, he’s still a prime candidate for a ‘show me’ type of contract: a one-year deal in the $1m range.
If he can prove to be a contributor, he’s easily in contention to be the Bruins’ third line center this season. The bad news? Czarnik is an unrestricted free agent and plenty of other teams will have interest based on his success in the AHL. Most of those clubs will be able to throw around more money and term than the Bruins, too.
Tim Schaller should also have substantial interest around the league. He was a part of a Bruins fourth line that blossomed into one of the team’s most dependable trios down the stretch. He also played in all but one of the Bruins’ games this regular and postseason, with only David Pastrnak playing in more.
Schaller can be the type of left winger who can move up and down the lineup and bridge the gap before other prospects fully make the jump. As a New Hampshire native, it’s hard to imagine Schaller not wanting to return to his hometown club. For all intents and purposes, the Bruins should be willing to make the offer, too.
See you next season
Anton Khudobin (31 GP, 16-6-7, 2.56 GAA, .913 sv%)
In a league where good backup goaltenders are hard to come by, it helps when one of the NHL’s best is on your team. Anton Khudobin loves being in Boston. Boston loves having him. While he’s certainly due for a raise from his $1.2m AAV, he should still be affordable enough for the Bruins to re-sign.
Khudobin played a huge role in the Bruins’ mid-season success, stealing games for the team when they turned to him as Tuukka Rask struggled. In his two stints with Boston, he’s been an ideal supplement to Rask, especially when playing in about 30 percent of the games.
It seems that out of all of the Bruins’ free agents this season, Khudobin is the most likely to return. The youth infusion will continue next season.