2022 NHL offseason: How Bruins can clear salary cap space for free agency

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2022 NHL offseason: How Bruins can clear salary cap space for free agency originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

NHL free agency begins Wednesday at noon ET, and there are currently eight teams with less than $4 million in salary cap space.

The Boston Bruins are one of them.

"We’ve got the bulk of our roster in place. I’m certainly trying to look to make some changes to our roster, that may or may not happen, but I’m going to explore that -- have been exploring it," Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said at a press conference Monday.

"We’re going to address some of the areas of the depth that the organization needs, and so we’ll be active over the next couple of days, but I wouldn’t say, barring a major trade of some sort, that we are going to be as active as we were last year in filling a number of holes."

2022 NHL free agents: Five players Bruins should target

The Bruins have about $2.3 million of room under the cap, per CapFriendly. This is a problem because that amount of space is unlikely to be enough to sign captain Patrice Bergeron and/or veteran center David Krejci. Bergeron reportedly will return for his 19th season, while Krejci reportedly is in negotiations with the B's.

Even if the Bruins managed to sign those two centers with their limited cap space, there would be no money left over to improve a flawed roster that has advanced past the second round of the playoffs just once since Sweeney took over as general manager in 2015.

Here are three ways the Bruins can create cap space for free agency and other offseason transactions.

Use long-term injured reserve

The Bruins could use LTIR to open a significant amount of cap space. When a player is on LTIR, his salary cap hit does not get included in the team's official number. The Tampa Bay Lightning have made great use of LTIR in recent seasons, most notably in 2020-21, when Nikita Kucherov missed the entire regular season and returned for the playoffs. There is no salary cap in the playoffs, so when the Lightning used Kucherov's cap space to make roster upgrades before that season's trade deadline, the Russian forward was able to return to the lineup in Round 1 without Tampa Bay needing to make a corresponding move to get cap compliant.

The Bruins could put Charlie McAvoy ($9.5 million cap hit), Brad Marchand ($6.67 million) and maybe even Matt Grzelcyk ($4.5 million) on LTIR and create about $19.3 million of cap space. The expectation is all three will not be ready for Opening Night in October after undergoing offseason surgeries.

But unlike Kucherov, all three of these players will return long before the playoffs commence. Therefore, whenever they are activated from LTIR, their cap hit goes back on the books and the Bruins must be cap compliant. So if the Bruins put these players on LTIR and used any of that space to acquire a player in the offseason, they would have to make moves (a trade, most likely) to clear salary to get under the cap. It's not the easiest maneuver to pull off.

"It depends on what we do in the next couple of days, if we add," Sweeney said when asked about LTIR at the 2022 NHL Draft on Friday. "It's not ideal, but it exists for us because we've got significant money [injured], but we do have to prepare for them coming back."

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Trades

The easiest way to make cap space is by trading players. The Bruins have too many left-shot defensemen, so that's one area where Sweeney could subtract from his NHL roster. He also has some veteran forwards on expiring contracts who could be moved and replaced with younger players.

Here's a look at four players who the Bruins could consider trading to create cap room.

Matt Grzelcyk, D ($3.687 million cap hit through 2023-24)

Grzelcyk is expected to be out until November, which could complicate trading him, but he should have value as a smooth-skating, offensive-minded player who drives puck possession.

Mike Reilly, D ($3 million cap hit through 2023-24)

Reilly was acquired by the Bruins at the trade deadline in 2021, and in a short period of time he became an excellent fit as a defenseman who pushed the pace and improved Boston's breakouts. The Bruins rewarded Reilly with a three-year extension last summer, but he regressed in 2021-22 and was even a healthy scratch at one point. If the Bruins could trade Reilly and put Jakub Zboril in his role, that would be a good cap-saving swap. Zboril plays a similar offensive style and was playing really well before tearing his ACL last December.

Derek Forbort, D ($3 million cap hit through 2023-24)

Forbort is only on this list because he's a player with value and has a salary large enough to give the Bruins some much-needed room under the cap. The veteran d-man provided much-needed size, toughness and penalty killing in his first season in Boston.

Craig Smith, RW ($3.1 million cap hit through 2022-23)

Smith came to Boston in free agency before the 2020-21 season as a five-time 20-goal scorer with the Nashville Predators. He has failed to reach that mark in two seasons with the B's. Smith struggled in 2021-22 with just 36 points (16 goals, 20 assists) in 74 games. Smith's 8.6 shooting percentage was his lowest since 2017.

The veteran winger failed to tally a single point in the seven-game first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. He also went the last 20 games of the season (including the Carolina series) without scoring a goal. If top prospect Fabian Lysell looks good in training camp and earns a spot on the NHL roster, the Bruins could trade Smith and replace him with the younger, faster and more skilled Lysell.

Erik Haula, LW/C ($2.375 million through 2022-23)

Haula did an admirable job in the No. 2 center spot between Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak last season. He tallied 44 points in 78 games -- the second-highest single-season scoring total of his career. But with all due respect, Haula is not the ideal second-line center on a contending team. If Krejci comes back, the Bruins could move Haula to clear cap space. He would have value as a versatile middle-six forward.

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Buyouts

The only player with a contract bad enough that the Bruins might entertain buying out is Nick Foligno. According to CapFriendly's buyout calculator, the B's would save about $1,933,334 in cap space during the 2022-23 season but also have a cap charge of just under $1 million for 2023-24.

Foligno's contract expires after this coming season, so it's not like the Bruins will be burdened by his $3.8 million cap hit for much longer.

What are the odds the Bruins actually look at a buyout to clear cap space?

“Not today I don’t," Sweeney said June 7 when asked if he anticipates using a buyout. "Not while I sit here today. It could change, but no."

The ideal scenario would be trading Foligno, but it's hard to envision the Bruins being able to make that move without having to attach a sweetener (like a draft pick) to entice a rival team to take his salary. Foligno was a complete non-factor offensively last season with two goals in 64 games. He'll be 35 in October.