In what is expected to be one of the biggest offseasons for the Boston Bruins in Don Sweeney’s tenure as general manager, things are going to get interesting in the next week. With NHL teams currently in a roster freeze until Thursday at 1 p.m. with the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft Wednesday night, things should get going with the start of free agency on July 28.
With many questions surrounding what the Bruins’ roster will look like as they begin the 2021-22 season in October, they are expected to put one together this summer that gives their veteran core a chance to compete for a Stanley Cup championship. If that’s the case, then these should be Sweeney’s priorities this offseason.
1. Re-Sign Hall and Krejci
When the Bruins acquired Taylor Hall at the trade deadline in April, he came in and was the player that Sweeney was hoping he was going to get. He jelled on the second-line with David Krejci and Craig Smith and gave Boston what they had been missing in previous seasons, secondary scoring behind their top-line. In 16 regular-season games following the trade, Hall had eight goals and six assists. Even more than his production, his presence gave Krejci a jolt and he played some of his best hockey of the season. Hall is an unrestricted free agent and has expressed his desire to return to the Bruins, even if it means him having to take a pay cut from the $8 million contract he earned last season.
Krejci is also a free agent and for the first time in his 15 years wearing the Black and Gold, there is some uncertainty whether he returns for a 16th season in Boston. Despite playing in 51 of the 56 regular-season games for the Bruins in the shortened 2020-21 season, he still recorded 36 assists, his second-highest total in the last five seasons. He had a career-high 53 assists in 2018-19. At 35 years old, Krejci is still the same play-maker he was earlier in his career, and re-signing him and Hall to return to solidify the second-line with Smith should be at the top of Sweeney’s list.
2. Address the Goaltending Situation
Tuukka Rask is a free agent, but at the end of the season media availability he had following the Bruins’ second-round elimination from the playoffs by the New York Islanders, Rask announced that he was playing the end of the season and playoffs with a torn hip labrum. The injury is going to require surgery and would sideline him until January or February in 2022. If Rask re-signs with Boston for a 15th season, then the Bruins would need to figure out what they are going to do to hold the fort down until he returns.
Veteran Jaroslav Halak is also a free agent and has spent the last three seasons as the backup to Rask in Boston. He was placed in safety protocols because of COVID-19 in March, which allowed rookies Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar to come up with Rask injured and carry the load with impressive performances. Swayman ended up backing up Rask in the playoffs, which all but signaled the end of Halak’s career in Boston. Saturday, it was reported that Halak and the Bruins are parting ways this summer.
With Rask scheduled to miss at least the first three months of the season and Halak parting ways in free agency, what do Sweeney and the front office decide to do early in the season in net? Do Swayman and Vladar (assuming he is not picked in the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft Wednesday night) carry the load until Rask returns, or do the Bruins look to bring in a veteran through a trade or in free agency? Aside from re-signing Hall and Krejci, this is the second biggest decision Sweeney has.
3. Acquire a Top-4 Left-Shot Defensemen
It’s no secret that the Bruins are in the market for a left-shot defenseman and as recently as early last week, it was thought that if Sweeney was going to fill a need on defense, it would most likely have to come through a trade. The Minnesota Wild bought out veteran Ryan Suter and the remaining terms of his 13-year, $98 million contract he signed on July 4, 2012, making him a free agent and an interesting option for the Bruins.
Suter averaged 22:11 a night last season and he averaged 27:02 a night in his nine years with the Wild. Is Suter the same defenseman he was at the beginning of his contract? No, but he does check a lot of the boxes in what Boston is looking for in a defenseman that can play in all situations and average over 20 minutes a night.
There is no doubt that Sweeney will check in on the availability again of both Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes and Noah Hanifin of the Calgary Flames, but either of those players would require a good package going the other way. Jamie Oleksiak of the Dallas Stars is a free agent and would fit well on the Bruins blueline as another option.
4. Reshape Bottom-Six Forwards
There will be a different look to the bottom-six forwards next season, but just how much of a different look will depend on what happens with Wednesday night’s expansion draft. The Bruins protected Trent Frederic and Jake DeBrusk, while leaving Nick Ritchie and the often injured Ondrej Kase exposed. What happens with Hall and Krejci will also help point Sweeney in the direction of what the final two lines will look like.
The Bruins re-signed Frederic in June to a two-year deal and if Seattle passes on Ritchie and Kase, Sweeney will have some decisions as both are free agents. Sean Kuraly is an unrestricted free agent and it’s unlikely he returns with Curtis Lazar coming over as part of the Hall trade and having one year remaining on his contract. Charlie Coyle and Chris Wagner are under contract, while Jack Studnicka will look to earn a spot, but Blake Coleman is a free agent option that would fit in really well with Boston.
Key Decisions Coming
If the Bruins are going to be contenders for a championship in 2021-22, then these are the top four priorities that Sweeney has to address. It’s expected the NHL goes back to the normal divisions, which means the Bruins will battle the two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, along with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, and the much-improved Florida Panthers in the Atlantic Division. If Boston is going to compete with those clubs, then the blueprint needs to be laid out soon.
Scott Roche covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Scott has been a sports writer for 25 years for different sites and daily newspapers. Writing started out as a hobby, but it has become a passion for Scott over the years.