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Bean: Bruins sure were busy, but are they actually better? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The Bruins have been a lot of things during the Don Sweeney regime. "Deep" has not been one of them.
Stars on the first line, a star or two on defense, a star in goal and whatever David Krejci’s been without adequate linemates. That’s more or less been the Bruins under Sweeney.
Those teams have played well in the regular season before and in most cases have lost in the second round. A common culprit of their lack of success has been the middle and bottom of the roster.
What Sweeney did to begin free agency this week could be an overcorrection.
With $20 million in cap space and needs of a top-pairing defenseman, second line center and starting goalie, Sweeney treated key positions on the roster the way one would treat depth spots. He just got a lot of players.
On defense, Mike Reilly and Derek Forbort got identical three-year, $9 million contracts. Up front, 33-year-old forward Nick Foligno got two years at $3.8 million per. Bottom-sixers Erik Haula ($2.37 million cap hit) and Tomas Nosek ($1.75 million cap hit) each got two years.
None of those players would be widely considered a top-pairing defenseman or second-line center. They range from good to pretty good, which makes them useful, desirable players.
They do not address Boston’s most immediate issues, though, and after goalie Linus Ullmark got $5 million a year over four years, the team now has a little more than $1 million in cap space and no No. 2 center.
The Bruins began NHL free agency Wednesday with a flurry of activity.
Sweeney told reporters Wednesday that if Krejci does not return, the team would approach its second line by committee.
That doesn’t sound like the worst idea until you consider that this is what the Bruins did at right and left wing of the second line for years, and it didn’t work. Factor in that center is a more important position and it wouldn’t take a cynic to be dubious of this plan.
Don’t mistake this for a declaration that the Bruins are a lost cause. As always, they’re good. Based on volume of signings, this might be the most “all-in” the team has been in recent years. Yet if you add a lot of depth without addressing what you need -- Krejci or an adequate replacement, an upper-echelon left-shot D -- the Bruins might not even end up having improved from last season.
The Ullmark signing is interesting. A goalie who was able to keep his head above water in freaking Buffalo, he hit free agency as a desirable asset. He played in just 20 games last season, but as long as he’s healthy, he’s solid. Signing him should not have raised a single eyebrow.
The four-year, $20 million commitment? Eyebrows raised. The cap hit will be tied for the 12th-highest among goalies next season. As long as he’s, say, a top-15 goalie in the league, the contract isn’t a problem at all. The B’s can take it slow with Jeremy Swayman, and at least for a couple of years have a relatively inexpensive tandem.
If that doesn’t happen, or if Swayman isn’t great, the B’s will seemingly look back to Tuukka Rask, who shouldn’t cost much when he’s ready to return from hip surgery in early 2022. Rask would not require clearing waivers if he signed in-season to make it onto Boston’s roster.
But the Bruins have a plan in net, which is encouraging. They’re certainly deep on defense, even if Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo still have to do the heavy lifting. There’s a gaping hole on the second line unless Krejci returns or someone else is brought in. Charlie Coyle had a down year last season. Foligno’s best days are behind him. Centering either Hall or Craig Smith would signal weakness down the middle for the B’s.
The players the Bruins signed Wednesday fit the profile of players you trade for at the deadline to thicken the middle or bottom of your roster: guys in their 30s or late 20s who won’t command a massive haul. Yet the B’s signed those guys to multi-year deals at good money. It’s an approach they haven’t taken in the past, but clearly one that speaks to a quantity over quality approach from their GM.
As currently constituted, the Bruins are just a playoff team. The key word there is “currently,” because the influx of players leaves them with something of a surplus, which suggests a trade or two will free up money for Krejci, bring in a better defenseman or both.
Jake DeBrusk’s time in Boston could be over. Foligno, Haula and Nosek can all play left wing, DeBrusk’s natural position. A 27-goal-scorer once upon a time, DeBrusk is still 24 years old. The Bruins protecting him in the expansion draft suggested they thought he’d be useful either on their roster or in a trade. Signing a bunch of potential replacements seemingly narrowed it down to the latter.
DeBrusk has one year on his contract at a $3.67 million cap hit before becoming a restricted free agent. Merely subtracting his cap hit might provide the dough for Krejci, but what about packaging DeBrusk with Matt Grzelcyk to get that elusive left-side stud on defense? Grzelcyk has three years left at $3.68 million per. A duo of DeBrusk and Grzelcyk would be a strong package should the Bruins offer it for another team’s higher-end defender.
For now, the Bruins are top-heavy on offensive talent and bottom-heavy contractually. They’re a player or two from being elite, and if they can't find those players, Bruins fans will be left asking why all that money was committed to the bottom of the roster.