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Don Sweeney entered one of his most pivotal off-season to date of his seven-year tenure. With the Bruins in win-now mode, Sweeney went on a spending spree during the first day of free agency.
Sweeney began the day hoping to add a minutes eating left-shot defenseman, depth on the bottom-six and a veteran netminder. He checked off his to-do list after signing defenseman Derek Forbort, goaltender Linus Ullmark and forwards Erik Haula, Nick Foligno and Tomas Nosek to multi-year contracts.
“We were aggressive today to fill the holes,” Sweeney said during his Zoom call with the media “We’re in win mode…”
How will the newest Bruins impact the roster as they hope to win one more Cup with their veteran core? And what other moves could Sweeney make between now and the start of training camp? Here are four takeaways from an eventful opening day of free agency.
The Toronto Maple Leafs wanted both Taylor Hall and Foligno at last year’s trade deadline. They opted for the latter in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets, relinquishing their first-round pick in this year’s draft in return.
Foligno didn’t provide the upgrade the Leafs were hoping for late in 2021. Now he’s off to Boston, hoping to bounce back and provide help to the bottom six.
Influenced by a conversation with Patrice Bergeron and his daughter receiving life-saving treatment for a heart condition in Boston, the ex-Columbus captain captain to a two-year deal worth $3.8 million per season. Playing for a perennial championship contender in a tight-knit culture only added to Foligno’s desire join the Bruins following years of physical matchups — including six tightly contested tilts in a 2019 second round series — during his nine seasons with the Blue Jackets.
“I think the track record speaks for itself. Playing against them all these years, they’re a team that I’ve admired from afar,” Foligno said. “Their culture, their structure. They’re always in the thick of it. They’re always a team that seems to have a chance to win on any given night and also in the postseason. So, that, topped with a conversation I got to have with Bergy, which was really cool just being able to speak to Patrice and kind of pick his brain a little bit before. How excited they would be to have me join. That excites you as a player.”
The Bruins weren’t done there, adding a pair of veterans in a versatile forward in Haula and a heavy fourth liner in Nosek.
Fresh off a four-point outing in Nashville’s six-game loss to Carolina in the opening round, the veteran Haula provides versatility to the middle of Boston’s lineup. Haula signed with his sixth team on Wednesday, agreeing to a two-year contract worth $2.375 million per season.
Nosek’s addition — at two years and a $1.75 million cap hit — capped off the forward depth signings. His energy, physicality and occasional offensive touch provided a good fit on Vegas’ fourth line over the last few seasons. The 28-year-old arrives in Boston fresh off a career high 18 points (8 goals, 10 assists) in 38 games a year ago.
Sweeney went all in on upgrading his bottom-six depth after the Islanders exposed the third and fourth line mismatch in the second round. It didn’t keep him from adding more depth on the back end either.
Though he struggled with an increased role at times, Jeremy Lauzon showcased some potential of one day becoming a top-four regular in 2021. Forbort went through a similar development cycle during stops in Los Angeles, Calgary and Winnipeg.
Injuries to Kevan Miller and Brandon Carlo put the Bruins in a tough spot in the second half of the Islanders series. The likes of Mike Reilly — returning to Boston after inking a three-year, $9 million deal — , Connor Clifton, Matt Grzelcyk, Jarred Tinordi and Lauzon couldn’t make up the difference against Barry Trotz’s heavy squad.
The Bruins entered the off-season looking for a minutes eating left-shot defenseman. Forbort fit that need. On Wednesday, the two sides agreed to a three-year deal with a $3 million cap hit.
“It was a really active market, pre-draft and obviously coming into this period. Trying to navigate players that were returning to their current teams or maybe exploring changes Derek was a player we identified through our own scouting staff and analytics staff that would come in and complement our group,” Sweeney said of the defensive market and the Forbort signing. “He’s played extended minutes. He’s healthier. He had a rebound year from not being healthy the previous season — went in and played a much-elevated role. Primary penalty killer, which is also important.”
He isn’t an offensive specimen by any means, tallying 65 points in 331 career games. But the Bruins added a solid stay-at-home blue-liner with size and endurance. During his only season in Winnipeg, Forbort averaged a little over 20 minutes of ice time and led his team in shorthanded time on ice at 2:43 per game.
Forbort serves well as a second or third pairing defenseman. He may not provide the sexier upgrade like Ryan Suter in Dallas or Jake McCabe in Chicago, but Forbort’s blue-collar work ethic should suit him well among a passionate and loyal Bruins fanbase.
The Buffalo Sabres were historically bad in almost every statistical category in 2021. Somehow the defensive ineptitude in front of Ullmark never rattled him.
In 20 games last season, the Swede posted a .917 save percentage and a respectable 2.63 goals against average to go along with his 9-6-3 mark. The five other Sabres’ goalies — Michael Houser, Carter Hutton, Dustin Tokarski, Jonas Johnsson and Ukko-Pekka Liukkonen — went 6-28-4 and ammased a .896 save percentage. They all ended their season with a GAA above 3.00.
Ullmark won’t have to worry about that shoddy Buffalo D anymore. The Bruins signed Ullmark to an eye-opening four-year contract with a $5 million annual cap hit.
The soon to be 28-year-old comes into a stable organizational structure. Yet, his addition provided an interesting wrinkle to Boston’s goaltending prospectus.
Swayman provided a breath of fresh air in relief of an injured Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak in the middle of the 2021 campaign. Barring any unusual developments, he’ll begin the season sharing duties with Ullmark. Yet, Sweeney’s investment in Ullmark left many fans wondering if Rask’s tenure in Boston has come to an end.
Rask, a UFA, recently underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum. Sweeney said they’ll remain open to bringing their all-time winningest netminder back for another go-around. But they have time on their side before returning to the negotiating table.
“We just think where we were currently sitting with two young goaltenders, we needed to be prepared and allow Tuukka all the time he needs to get healthy. He just had surgery, spoke to him this morning, doing very well. Just have to go through the process and go from there,” Sweeney said.
“I think we’ve always left the door open for Tuukka to return, and I think it just allows Jeremy to continue to progress at a natural rate, but also give him the opportunity to be at the NHL level… It was a little bit of a musical chairs shuffle, but for all the right reasons we just felt we’ve had very strong goaltending. We want to continue to have that. It was a unique opportunity to explore having Linus join our group and we’re excited about that.”
One goalie’s future remains uncertain. Another heads to a new home hoping to secure a backup role out West.
According to Cap Friendly, the Bruins have a little over $1 million in projected salary cap space. They began clearing salary immediately after the signings, sending Dan Vladar to Calgary for a 2022 third round pick.
David Krejci isn’t in any hurry to negotiate a new deal. The Bruins would love to bring him back into the fold for at least one full season with fellow linemates Taylor Hall and Craig Smith. They’d also like extra wiggle room in case they want to resume talks with Rask.
Sweeney will most certainly need to move some pieces to accompany Krejci and/or Rask for a short-term deal. Jake DeBrusk’s rumored status on the trade block remains prevalent. Whether he’s used in a package for another potential upgrade or merely a salary dump to clear his $3.675 salary is anyone’s guess.
The Bruins added necessary depth on Wednesday. The off-season chatter will quiet down over the next week. But Sweeney still has a little work left to shed dollars and set the Bruins up for another championship run in 2021-22.
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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