After underwhelming NHL offseason, how can Bruins find ways to improve?

DJ Bean
·5 min read

Bean: What's left for Bruins to do this offseason? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Bruins opened free agency by saying goodbye to Torey Krug and bringing in Craig Smith.

They passed on Taylor Hall and waited before doing anything with Zdeno Chara. They signed restricted free agent Matt Grzelcyk to a deal.

Then other things took our attention. The Patriots season got into full swing, the election happened and now the NBA's offseason is about to, as usual, blow the NHL's out of the water.

But the Bruins' offseason still isn't done.

Not every question on their roster has an answer, and though we've probably forgotten about a lot of it, there are things to figure out given that a hypothetical January start would mean teams might need to be getting ready for the season pretty soon.

WHERE'S DEBRUSK'S DEAL?

A restricted free agent still being unsigned this late in the game shouldn't be a shock. It's common enough for RFAs to still be unsigned when camp begins, something the Bruins experienced years ago with Torey Krug and Reilly Smith without new deals back in 2014.

That said, the Bruins and DeBrusk obviously have to hammer something out eventually. DeBrusk, who just turned 24, averaged 20 goals a season over the course of this entry-level deal. A long commitment would be pricey, and between the Bruins not having a lot of cap space ($7.35 million, per Puckpedia) and DeBrusk's streakiness making it tough to tell if he'll be a regular 20-goal guy or a 30-goal guy, a short-term deal worth somewhere in the $4 million range might be the play.

WILL CHARA RETURN? 

When the Bruins still hadn't given Chara a new contract in the days leading up to free agency, it seemed like an under-considered storyline that the Bruins' captain could theoretically depart. Then free agency opened, with Chara receiving interest, and still nothing happened.

Nothing has changed since then, but if Chara wanted to leave, he probably could have by now. It's a weird holding pattern that seemingly comes down to when the Bruins are ready.

They should want him back. With Krug gone and Kevan Miller re-upped, the Bruins' options on the back end look like this:  

Left: Grzelcyk, Moore, Lauzon, Zboril, Vaakanainen

Right: McAvoy, Carlo, Clifton, Miller

That right side is solid, but the Bruins could use another sure thing on the left. Grzelcyk will graduate to a top-four spot, and with no easy answer for the other, having a veteran on the cheap makes sense. Chara obviously isn't what he once was, but at 43 he should still be able to be at least a third-pairing defenseman in a shortened season.

Chara's last one-year deal carried a $2 million cap hit with $1.75 million in incentives. If the Bruins can bring him back for the same deal minus the incentives, they should do it.

Bruins Offseason: What's the plan with Zdeno Chara?

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HELP STILL OUT THERE

In need of middle-six help on the wing, the Bruins let Smith serve as their move in the first wave of free agency. Smith, who has five 20-goal seasons to his name, will be a very strong addition to the right of either David Krejci or Charlie Coyle.

Whichever of the aforementioned pivots does not get Smith will get Ondrej Kase. Factor in that these guys are playing behind David Pastrnak and the fact that Jack Studnicka is probably ready to contribute, and the Bruins are absolutely fine on the right side of their top three lines.

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They needed more than just a right wing, though. Nick Ritchie is still on the team and could compete for the third-line left wing job. That wouldn't be great. Brad Marchand is elite and DeBrusk is very good. If the Bruins want to match the depth they have on the right side, they'll need to bring in another option.

Fortunately for them, legitimate players remain on the open market. Mike Hoffman, who scored 29 goals in the pandemic-shortened season and 36 the year before that, remains unsigned, and his agent is on record as saying they would have no issues with a one-year deal. Anthony Duclair is still just 25 and scored 23 goals last season for Ottawa.

Then there are the reclamation projects. Erik Haula's best days in the NHL came as a center, but has played plenty of left wing as well. Having had two disappointing seasons since his 29-goal campaign with Vegas in 2017-18, he's less of a sure thing than Hoffman, but would have to be significantly cheaper.

Andreas Athanasiou scored 30 goals in the 2018-19 season for the Red Wings. He'd scored only 10 through 46 games last season before being traded to the Oilers for a pair of second-rounders, but the Oilers opted not to qualify him, making the 26-year-old a free agent. His stock has completely plummeted, but for a cash-strapped Bruins team, that might not be the worst thing.

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Oh yeah, money. That factors in here.

It factors into everything, but regardless of what happens with Chara, the Bruins probably won't have the dough to bring in a Hoffman-type. They could create more space by trading Ritchie and John Moore, or they could wait out some of the lesser left wings available and see just how cheap they can get them.

Yes, this has been an underwhelming offseason for the Bruins so far. No one should be placing any wagers on them winning the Cup this season if this is it.

There's still work to be done, though. We'll find out soon enough how much they can still improve.