The period around the NHL Draft and the July 1 opening of free agency is always a time for hockey fans to let their fantasies fly free.
It's a time when a big-ticket free agent like Artemi Panarin seems like a possibility, or there's a P.K. Subban-type available in a trade just right around the corner. It's a time when hope always springs eternal for all 31 of the NHL fan bases, and sweeping, wholesale improvements still feel like a possibility.
Unfortunately, Bruins fans will need to face the reality that it doesn't look like the Bruins have much of a realistic shot of making those big-time improvements to an NHL roster that came within one Game 7 of capturing the Stanley Cup earlier this month.
All one needs do is look at the TSN trade bait list, which annually is the "go to" for NHL players in the rumor mill leading up to the July 1 opening of NHL free agency. There isn't a single Bruins player listed in the Top 40 of NHL players likely to be moved around the free agency period when trades come fast and furiously.
Torey Krug isn't listed on there despite being in the last year of a reasonable contract with the Black and Gold, and David Krejci isn't listed either despite reduced no-trade protection (he can soon be traded to half the teams in the NHL) in his contract come July 1. Certainly there's no David Backes on the list as nobody is in the market for a 35-year-old power forward making $6 million who is coming off a seven-goal season, and being a healthy scratch in the final three games of the Stanley Cup Final against the Blues.
The Bruins would like to make improvements to a team with an aging core group that showed their age at times during the postseason, but there's going to be a pretty extreme limit to what they can do based on the salary cap. There's also a delicate balance where it's clear the B's don't want to do too much to mess with the mojo of a team that was good enough to play in 106 regular season and playoff games this past season.
Then again, it's also a team that benefitted from the Lightning, Capitals and Penguins all losing in the first round of the playoffs, and that's not likely to happen again next season or any other time soon during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We have everybody in the same room to talk about what's the identity we're trying to have as a hockey club, as an organization, and we're going to stick to those. Now, there are some changes as the league continues to evolve. Does it work all the way from Game 1 of the regular season to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup? There's a twisting along the road between those two points of time," said Don Sweeney. "I think you have to have the balance. I think you have to have the depth in an organization and be able to match up in a bunch of different situations against a bunch of different teams to even give yourself a chance, so yes, we'll have an identity.
"Bruce can speak to the tenets he wants his hockey players to play with, but you touched on a bunch of them. It's hard to teach courage, it's hard to teach speed, hockey sense piece is another area, so we're trying to identify them, as every team is trying to identify those same things. We had a good team this year and it showed."
The Bruins have roughly $12 million in salary cap space after signing Steven Kampfer to a two-year, $1.6 contract, and pretty much all of that is going to be used up to re-sign restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen.
Bruins President Cam Neely was forthright with his comments post-Cup run that the Bruins could use another top-six forward, and truthfully have needed one for the last couple of seasons while 34-year-old David Backes hasn't worked out as that guy.
"What do we need moving forward or next year? Yeah, well, obviously I know it's been talked about at length about another top-six forward, so we'll see where that ends up," said Neely. "I think our bottom six was pretty strong this year, so if we can strengthen in the immediate future our top six, you know, that's something we'd like to try and do. We've talked about that for a couple years now."
So how do they do that if they have no cap space, won't trade Krejci or Krug and don't have any way to remove Backes from their salary cap?
That would be pretty much impossible. As it is right now, they don't have the money to pay the $5 million plus per season that Marcus Johansson is going to get in free agency and they don't have the kind of cap space it's going to take to trade for Jason Zucker, Phil Kessel, Chris Kreider, Nikolaj Ehlers or James Neal that might be available in trade talks over the next couple of weeks.
All of that could change if somebody approaches the Bruins with an offer they can't refuse for Krug or really gives them good value for Krejci, but then the Bruins would suddenly have a hole for a 50-point scorer on defense or a No. 2 center when there isn't a ready-made replacement in the organization. When you look at it from that perspective, making those big, sweeping deals does seem a bit rash with a Bruins team that's built steadily upward over the last three seasons.
It also feels like the Bruins are stuck right now due to salary cap constraints, no-trade provisions and a farm system that doesn't have any suitable replacements at the center position. So don't expect major fireworks when NHL free agency hits on July 1 because it looks like the Bruins will be bringing back a hockey club that looks very similar to the one that left the Garden ice dejected after Game 7 just a couple of weeks ago.
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