The 30 NHL teams who fell short in 2021 enter an intriguing off-season with their own question marks. Some teams, like the Buffalo Sabres, hope to put a plan in place for future success in their seemingly never-ending rebuild. Others, such as the Boston Bruins, aim to upgrade their roster for one more Stanley Cup run with their veteran core.
But first, every squad sans Vegas faces crucial decisions ahead of submitting their Expansion Draft protection list before Saturday’s deadline. Come next Wednesday, the Seattle Kraken will select from a pool of roughly over 300 players to kick off their inaugural season.
For the second time in five seasons, the Bruins will likely protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. Here’s our stab at projecting Don Sweeney’s final protection list.
The locks: Brad Marchand (NMC), Patrice Bergeron (NMC), Charlie Coyle (NMC), David Pastrnak, Craig Smith, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk and Dan Vladar
McAvoy, Carlo and Grzelcyk lock down the three defensive spots. With Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak as pending UFAs and Jeremy Swayman on the exemption list, the Bruins have a painless goalie decision in protecting Vladar over Callum Booth.
Coyle has the benefit of his no-movement clause to stay put. Even without it, the Bruins would’ve likely protected the Weymouth-born forward despite his disappointing 2021 campaign.
Smith played his way into a protection spot with a stellar first season in Boston. He’ll remain a solid second or third line option even as Sweeney looks to improve his forward depth through trade(s) or free agency.
The potent top line of Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak completes Boston’s list of locks.
The least likely candidates: Chris Wagner and Curtis Lazar
Wagner aims for a bounce-back season in 2021-22. Lazar brought some stability to the fourth line upon his arrival in the Taylor Hall deal. Neither will see themselves on the protection list, yet they’re likely staying in Boston for another year, barring any unforeseen development.
The wild cards: Nick Ritchie and Jake DeBrusk
Ritchie enjoyed a bounce-back season following a disappointing first impression inside the Toronto bubble. Yet, his play fizzled during Boston’s second-round matchup with the New York Islanders.
DeBrusk unquestionably encountered the worst season of his four-year tenure in Boston. The 2015 first-round selection found himself as a healthy scratch on a handful of occasions, struggling to gain any traction or consistency playing mostly on his off-wing.
Ritchie enters the off-season as an RFA. The Bruins may try to use DeBrusk as a trade chip. Both would’ve likely been protected from Seattle if it weren’t for one of their teammates recently inking a contract extension.
The new candidate: Trent Frederic
Sweeney could’ve waited to sign Frederic until after the Expansion Draft. But the two sides recently agreed to a two-year deal worth a little over $1 million per season, thus putting an interesting wrinkle into things.
Frederic showcased glimpses of promise with his physical tone early in the regular season. But he found himself on the outside looking in after sustaining a mid-season non-COVID-related illness. By the time he recovered, the Bruins had rounded out their forward core with Hall and Lazar arriving from Buffalo.
A handful of vocal supporters called for Bruce Cassidy to insert Frederic into the lineup against the Islanders as Boston’s bottom-six struggled to gain traction in the final three games of their second-round matchup. Surely, the 23-year-old could improve his offensive touch, but he’ll certainly find himself in contention for a bottom-six role come training camp.
The final list: Marchand, Bergeron, Coyle, Pastrnak, Smith, DeBrusk, Frederic, McAvoy, Carlo, Grzelcyk and Vladar
Though the Kraken would likely select a defenseman from Boston’s list, they’d likely want something in return for DeBrusk. Frederic’s new deal finalizes the seven forward spots, leaving Ritchie unprotected following his 7th Player Award campaign in 2021.
The prime choices for Seattle: Jeremy Lauzon, Connor Clifton and Jakub Zboril
Lauzon had his share of ups and downs during his first year of an increased workload with Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug departing for new homes last off-season. Whether he becomes a top-four regular is anyone’s guess, but the Bruins risk losing that potential in exposing the 24-year-old to Seattle.
Clifton settled into a solid bottom-pair defensive role during his three years in Boston. He provides an intriguing option for Seattle GM Ron Francis to round out his blue-line.
Zboril provides the biggest offensive upside of the trio. The 2015 first-rounder struggled to adapt to the speed and physicality of the NHL level, tallying nine assists in 42 games. Yet, his friendly $725,000 price tag might provide an enticing option for Francis to use a low-risk, high reward selection on Zboril.
Given the options, the Bruins will lose one of these defensemen to Seattle. But a crack at establishing a footing in the Pacific Northwest might not be a bad thing for Zboril, Clifton or Lauzon. On the flip side, this route will open up a roster spot for Sweeney to address one of his crucial off-season needs on the left side of the blue line.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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