It’s understandable that Boston Bruins fans got a little too overexcited right around the start of NHL free agency a couple of weeks ago.
After all it felt like Oliver Ekman-Larsson was on his way to Boston in a blockbuster trade and that the B’s were in the running for former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall. Both of those transactions were certainly possibilities even if they didn’t come to fruition for the Black and Gold.
They would also have undoubtedly improved the hockey club.
But the Coyotes were going to have to take on salary from the Bruins in order to make it all work for an OEL trade, and the B’s were going to need to make corresponding moves to free salary cap space if they were going to sign Hall to even a big money one-year deal as the Sabres ended up doing.
Unfortunately, neither of those moves materialized given Boston’s salary cap situation as we’ve seen play out since the Oct. 9 start of free agency. The Bruins have roughly $7 million in cap space after signing their own players and executing a bargain signing of Nashville right winger Craig Smith to a three-year deal.
More than half of that remaining cap space will be eaten up by a contract extension for their lone remaining unsigned RFA in Jake DeBrusk expected to be in the $4-5 million AAV range. Maybe the Bruins could squeeze in one more veteran minimum contract (Zdeno Chara, maybe?) after wrapping up DeBrusk, but the Boston Bruins are also going to want $1-2 million of wiggle room under the cap once the season begins.
Some have theorized the Boston Bruins could be big spenders with LTI money given the news that David Pastrnak likely won’t be ready to start the season after September hip surgery. Don’t count on it given the B’s cap situation and given the likely compacted NHL regular season schedule that will mean more injuries and cap challenges if the Bruins are too far up against it.
The Bruins are paying a $969, 222 bonus overage penalty in each of the next two seasons because they were too close to the salary cap limit in the 2019-20 regular season, and Don Sweeney doesn’t sound like he wants to repeat that exercise this upcoming season. That shouldn’t come as a surprise as that cap penalty might have been the money they could have used to sign Chara if the 43-year-old ends up going elsewhere for a one-year, $1 million contract to chase another Cup.
“We’ve run it lean [to the cap] in some years and obviously sometimes you have players on performance bonuses you have to account for. In other years, we’ve have had a little more flexibility and space, which allows you to at the deadline, as we have, add players. I think everyone would like to have flexibility. I think in this environment, running it lean, you’re going to have a compressed schedule when we get back up and running. You’re going to have injuries. It’s hard to account for,” said Sweeney. “We went injury deep right out of the gate [last season] and we ran into some overage [penalties] as a result of it. “Sometimes that’s unavoidable. You had probably 17 teams that at some point in time cross the LTI threshold last year. So the flat cap is not going to help. You’re seeing that. You’re seeing good players in the National Hockey League, that aren’t getting the same type of value from an acquisition standpoint. I think of course, everyone would like to have [cap flexibility]. But at other times when you have to make the right deal and put a player in, you lose some of that flexibility. That’s always the tradeoff.”
Sweeney was asked specifically about Brad Marchand (sports hernia surgery) and Pastrnak (hip surgery) being injured to start the year, and the temptation to use that open LTI money to acquire more talent.
“It’s always on option for us. I don’t suspect that in Brad’s case that [it would apply]. Unless he has a setback along the way, indications are he’s doing very well in post-surgical rehab. I don’t suspect he’ll have any setbacks,” said Sweeney of Marchand, who has an early January return timetable that could right in line with a Jan. 1 open to the new NHL regular season. “He’ll be ready to go. David, it’s just a matter of the timeline and what we expect, depending on the season. When it starts.
“That may dictate how much time, if any time, that Pastrnak will miss. We have to make sure that the player is healthy. He’s coming off a situation where he had to have something repaired. And he feels so much better as result. He’s in the early stages but moving along very well in the rehab and we’re very comfortable with where he’s going to be coming out of it. I think he’ll be much better off pain-free in an area that was giving him discomfort. We don’t expect him to miss a lot of time, but again, that is predicated on when the season actually does begin. We still don’t know that. I think we have depth throughout the lineup. You miss star players, obviously your lineup is affected. But we feel comfortable that we’ll be able to plug holes if we need to. If [LTI] was an option [for Pastrnak], we don’t necessarily foresee [that] we’ll have to utilize it. But not unlike last year and the 16 or so other teams that went through the season with injuries that impact your lineup, you may have to utilize that.”
Parse through all of Sweeney’s words and the bottom line is this: Don’t expect any more significant roster upgrades from the Boston Bruins unless they’re able to move enough salary to free themselves up from their current situation.
That’s no easy task in a league where the salary cap is going to be flat for the foreseeable future and there isn’t an NHL GM out there looking to saddle up more unwanted salary.