The sting of their Game 7 loss to the St. Louis Blues will last an entire off-season and beyond. But the Boston Bruins still have a core in place for another long playoff run in 2019-20.
The window for another championship with Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask is shrinking. But a young solid core featuring Charlie McAvoy, David Pastrnak, Brandon Carlo, Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk and Danton Heinen (to name a few) along with a deep prospect system provides a solid foundation for the next decade of Bruins hockey.
The Bruins will have their hands full next season. Tampa Bay is bound to bounce back after getting swept by Columbus in Round 1. John Tavares and Auston Matthews provide a potent 1-2 punch at center in Toronto. Montreal took a surprising stride forward under former Bruins bench boss Claude Julien.
That’s just an example of what the Bruins will face in the Atlantic Division once the puck drops in October. Boston’s progression under Bruce Cassidy got them within a game of hoisting the Cup, but Don Sweeney has a little work to do to help put the Bruins over the top.
With that in mind, here’s a look at four major items on Sweeney’s off-season to-do list.
Re-sign McAvoy and Carlo to long-term deals
The biggest in-house item Sweeney faces regards his two right-shot defensive stalwarts.
The Bruins have a luxury that very few teams have. Both McAvoy and Carlo are in their early 20’s and both are due for long-term contract extensions.
McAvoy made significant strides in his professional development since being thrown into the proverbial fire in Boston’s 2017 first round series with the Ottawa Senators. The smooth-skating, two-way blue-liner capped off one of his better three-month performances in a Bruins uniform during this postseason run.
He’s done everything that Cassidy asked him since arriving in the spring of 2017. And now McAvoy seeks compensation and a long term desire to anchor the Bruins’ blue-line following the bitter Game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup Final.
“I don’t want to go anywhere. It’s the best place on earth. This is home for me now, and, you know, I love it here and I want to be here forever,” McAvoy said during the team’s breakup day at Warrior Ice Arena on Friday.
“I think losing in the manner that we did, I just want to win so bad and just be a part of it. This is a city full of champions and everyone here delivers and they all won at one point, and I just want to be a part of that so freaking bad — and we were so close — but we just have to believe that we’ll be back.”
Carlo shared the same sentiment. The Colorado Springs native enjoyed his most successful season to date that included his first postseason action after missing time to injury during the Bruins’ first-round loss to the Senators in 2017 and their 2018 second-round setback against the Lightning.
“I love it here. I love the city and I love the fans and I like you as media people,” Carlo said drawing a round of laughter from the press.
“But no, it’s fantastic. I couldn’t imagine playing in another place, so the situation has been a blessing for the past few years and I couldn’t enjoy the experience any more.”
The Bruins enter the off-season with a little more than $14 million of projected salary cap space according to Cap Friendly. McAvoy’s salary projection would likely be somewhere between $7 and $8 million with Carlo coming in somewhere between $4 and $5 million.
Sweeney might have to move some pieces to afford both, all while trying to fill some roster holes. This all ties in with the next item.
Find a top-six upgrade for Krejci and DeBrusk
A year after the Rick Nash trade, the Bruins thought they’d fill the second line role with some of their younger talent during the season. Danton Heinen, Anders Bjork and former Bruin Ryan Donato had their chances, but didn’t make the most of said opportunity.
Sweeney acquired Marcus Johansson at the trade deadline to help fill that void. The Swedish winger found some chemistry upon arriving in Boston, but an injury and a dynamic partnership with Charlie Coyle on the third line kept the second-line void open during the postseason.
David Backes and Karson Kuhlman had their moments filling the second line void. The former provided a physical lift after being a healthy scratch for the first time in his postseason career. The latter gave the Bruins a spark upon his re-insertion into the lineup during Boston’s 5-1 win over St. Louis in Game 6.
The Bruins don’t want to go into training camp searching for that key top-six cog. The internal options are few and far between unless Cassidy opts to move highly-coveted prospect Jack Studnicka from center to wing.
So who’s available on the market? Artemi Panarin is the biggest name, but the Bruins won’t have the cap flexibility to sign him barring any significant salary dump — I.E. trading Backes or Krejci. Joe Pavelski could give the Bruins a little flexibility and added leadership but it’s highly doubtful that Sweeney would offer the Sharks captain more than $6 million — the salary of his last contract — at age 34. Mats Zuccarello is fresh off a hot playoff performance in Dallas, but the former Ranger would only provide a short term fit.
This is Sweeney’s biggest off-season external task after the Blues exposed Boston’s top-six during the seven-game series. It will also be his toughest.
Make a decision on Johansson
Johansson didn’t fill the top-six void the Bruins hoped he would. But he certainly made an impact.
A new contract seemed like an afterthought heading into the postseason. But the former Capitals and Devils winger found his groove during the postseason with Coyle flanking him at center. The third-line duo delivered clutch goals and found instant chemistry with one another, combining for 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists).
Johansson’s versatility could only help the Bruins heading into next season. The Swede spoke highly of his time in Boston since coming over in February, and from the sounds of it, wants to come back for another season.
“This experience has been unbelievable,” Johansson said. “Coming here and going to battle with this group of guys every day has been unbelievable. I’ve only got things to say about this group of guys. It’s special.”
Johansson still has some good years ahead of him at 28. His next contract might be his most lucrative after making north of $4.5 million over the last three years. Johansson’s asking salary and contract length raise may make things tough for Sweeney’s long-term plans
Find a suitor or buy out Backes
Signing Backes to a 5-year, $30 million contract in the summer of 2016 marked one of Sweeney’s sore spots during his GM tenure. And now here we are three years later where Backes himself raised uncertainty about his future after a tumultuous three years in Boston.
“I guess maybe a culmination of six, seven days before that of uncertainty, and, you know, feelings and possibilities and potential opportunities [elsewhere] and all those certain things,” the former Blues captain said. “It’s a swirl and a whirlwind of emotions that I haven’t fully gripped and I don’t know that I will in the near future. I don’t know if my situation and all of the extra layers of things helps [or] hurts so yeah, [those are] my random thoughts for today.”
For sure, the Bruins appreciated Backes presence in the locker room. His leadership qualities didn’t show up on the stat sheet as the B’s were a team in transition upon his arrival.
Backes turned 35 in May. The bruising power forward lost a step as the game transitioned — contrary to what we saw from the Bruins and Blues in the Stanley Cup Final — from a big bruising style of play to a more flashy and high-scoring game. The game has certainly passed him by.
The Bruins wouldn’t gain much salary cap if they opt to buy out Backes’ remaining contract. They’ll likely have to eat some of Backes’ salary in a potential trade. Backes has a modified no-trade clause on the final two years of his deal.
Sweeney still has a strong core intact that will again be among the favorites to hoist the Cup in 2020. A tough, but important off-season awaits as he hopes to see the long-term plan that he installed in the summer of 2015 come to fruition.
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