2021 NHL offseason: How Bruins should use salary cap space this summer

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2021 NHL offseason: How Bruins should use their salary cap space originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The 2021 NHL offseason could be a wild one with a couple star players rumored to be available via trade, as well as another expansion draft for the league's 32nd team, the Seattle Kraken.

The Boston Bruins are among the teams to watch this summer for a couple of reasons. One is they have several important players hitting free agency later this month. They also have to make an organizational decision on whether to run it back and make another aggressive run for a Stanley Cup title, or take a step back and restock a cupboard that's bare of quality prospects.

Complete list of Bruins free agents ahead of pivotal offseason

Bruins president Cam Neely said after his team's playoff exit to the New York Islanders that Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand would like the team to make another run. That direction would be the smart play.

So, with that in mind, let's take a look at how Bruins general manager Don Sweeney should spend the team's salary cap space this offseason.

How much salary cap space?

The salary cap for the 2021-22 NHL season is $81.5 million. The Bruins have about $30 million in cap space right now, per CapFriendly. This sounds like a lot, and it is, but you also have to consider that 11 players on the Bruins' NHL roster are free agents.

Who should the Bruins prioritize?

The priority for the Bruins should be re-signing Taylor Hall and David Krejci.

Hall was acquired by the B's before the trade deadline and the move revitalized his career. He tallied 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 16 regular season games for the Bruins after tallying just 19 points (two goals, 17 assists) in 37 games for the Sabres.

The need to re-sign Krejci is largely based on the team not having a suitable replacement if he departs. Charlie Coyle likely would move up to the No. 2 center role if Krejci leaves, but he's best suited in his current role centering the third line. Top prospect Jack Studnicka could be a Krejci replacement but is still at least a year away from being ready for that job.

Another reason to bring back these two forwards is the chemistry and offensive production they showed together.

The Bruins' second line of Hall, David Krejci and Craig Smith was excellent. It gave the team much-needed scoring depth outside of the top line. In fact, the Bruins controlled 65 percent of shot attempts and shots on net, and also outscored opponents 13-1 during the 180 minutes of 5-on-5 action this line saw in the regular season, per Natural Stat Trick.

Another priority for the Bruins needs to be re-signing Brandon Carlo. The 24-year-old is a steady, reliable defensive defenseman. His recent concussions are a concern, but the B's cannot afford to lose one of their few legit top-four defensemen. Carlo also has the size and strength the Bruins lack on their blue line overall.

Carlo is a restricted free agent, so the B's have more leverage there than they would with a UFA.

The other defenseman definitely worth keeping - at the right price, though -- is Mike Reilly. He was another good trade deadline acquisition. Reilly provided a strong level of skating, playmaking and the ability to jumpstart the transition game with a good first pass out of the defensive zone. He struggled in the Islanders series, but overall he was a nice fit. He's ideally a No. 4 defenseman or a great third-pairing guy. The Bruins should bring him back, but another team with more cap space and/or fewer of its own free agents to sign might offer Reilly more money than Boston.

Who should the Bruins not re-sign?

There are a couple players the Bruins should not bring back.

One is fourth-line forward Sean Kuraly. The veteran center struggled throughout the 2020-21 season, particularly offensively. He also went scoreless in the playoffs and took some bad penalties in the Islanders series. His role could be replaced by a younger and cheaper player, such as Trent Frederic, who the team re-signed last month.

Ondrej Kase was acquired by the B's from the Ducks before the 2020 trade deadline but injuries have limited him to just nine games with Boston, including only three this past season. Based on his injury history, which was a concern in Anaheim as well, the Bruins would be wise not to re-sign him. Tying up valuable cap space on a player you can't trust to remain healthy consistently makes little sense.

Kevan Miller showed tremendous determination by coming back from multiple knee surgeries and playing this season. However, it's finally time to part ways with the veteran defenseman. A concussion kept him sidelined for most of the 2021 playoffs, and during the regular season he played in just 28 of the team's 56 games. The B's need a more reliable defenseman in regards to availability.

Tuukka Rask is 34 years old and expected to have hip surgery. He projected his return date could be sometime in January or February. There's no need for the Bruins to re-sign Rask before getting an idea of how his post-surgery recovery is going. Rask said after the season that he only wants to play in Boston, so there shouldn't be too much fear from the Bruins about him signing elsewhere.

It also would be unwise for the Bruins to go into the season with a young and inexperienced tandem of Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar. Signing a veteran goalie to back up Swayman (or even start) is the best-case scenario in net. A trade with the Stars to bring back former B's backup Anton Khudobin would be an interesting play. A couple free agent goalie options include Chris Driedger, Devan Dubnyk and Jonathan Bernier, among others.

Jaroslav Halak was a very good backup goalie behind Rask for the last three seasons, but Swayman took over his job during the regular season and into the playoffs. Does Halak want to return? Could he find a better opportunity on the open market? 

What could contracts look like?

The excellent website Evolving Hockey does contract projections based on stats (including analytics) and what comparable players have already signed for. It's an interesting tool (a subscription is required).

Here are Evolving Hockey's contract predictions for the Bruins free agents I think the team should re-sign:

Player

Term

Cap Hit

Taylor Hall

7 years

$7.321M

David Krejci

2 years

$4.688M

Nick Ritchie

4 years

$4.412M

Brandon Carlo

2 years

$2.457M

Mike Reilly

3 years

$3.795M

Hall has made it clear several times since coming to Boston that he wants to remain with the Bruins. We have seen a few instances already this offseason where teams have given up term to get a better annual average value (AAV), with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in Edmonton being one example. A five, six or seven-year deal with a cap hit around $6-7 million would be a good scenario for Boston.

The projected Krejci deal is pretty solid. He said after the season that he can't envision himself playing for another team, so maybe he'd take somewhat of a hometown discount.

The Ritchie projected AAV is way too high. He was red-hot at the beginning of the 2020-21 season but eventually cooled off and didn't make a huge offensive impact down the stretch or in the playoffs. 

The Carlo AAV might be a little bit low, but a two-year bridge deal for a young RFA defenseman is pretty standard around the league.

An AAV around $3.8 million is pretty solid for Reilly, and it also would be a movable contract if the Bruins needed/wanted to trade him at some point.

Here are my best-case scenario contracts for free agents the Bruins should keep:

Player

Term

Cap Hit

Taylor Hall

6 years

$6.5M

David Krejci

2 years

$4.50M

Nick Ritchie

2 years

$3.00M

Brandon Carlo

2 years

$2.75M

Mike Reilly

3 years

$3.795M

 

 

$20.545M

If the Bruins re-sign these players for around $20.5 million, they'd have about $9.5 million to replace Rask, Kuraly, Miller and Halak. Jarred Tinordi also wouldn't be brought back in this scenario.

Several of those veterans could be replaced by internal options. Kuraly could be replaced by Studnicka or Frederic. Miller could be replaced by Jakub Zboril or 2017 first-round pick Urho Vaakanainen. Halak replaced by Vladar or a veteran free agent.

If the Bruins needed additional cap space for a larger move, they could trade left winger Jake DeBrusk and his $3.675 million cap hit. 

One of Bruins' primary needs this offseason is a top-four defenseman to play the left side. Saving some cap space to go after this kind of player via trade should be near the top of Sweeney's offseason agenda. Nashville Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm, who has a $3.75 million salary cap hit through next season, would be an ideal trade target.

Krejci, Hall, a left-side top-four defenseman, Carlo and Reilly should be the top five priorities for the Bruins this summer.