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Hagg Bag: Plenty Of Big Decisions For Boston Bruins This Offseason

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Boston Bruins

The hockey season has been over a few weeks now for the Boston Bruins and the pieces are beginning to come together for next season. B’s general manager Don Sweeney has already begun to attack their restricted free agent list by re-signing RFA forwards Anton Blidh and Trent Frederic this past week, and it would appear plans are taking shape for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft as well.

The bulk of Boston’s offseason maneuvering is on hold until after the expansion draft, of course, as the B’s don’t have to burn protection spots on UFA-to-be players like Taylor Hall, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask if they remain unsigned going into the draft.

That being said, there is a ton of work to do for the Boston Bruins once things really heat up in earnest given some of the obvious roster upgrades (top-4 left side defense, bottom-6 forwards) along with an important decision to make about the goaltending situation.

For now, though, we have a Hagg Bag mailbag to tide you over. As always these are real questions from real fans sent to my twitter account using the #HaggBag hash tag and messages sent to my Facebook fan page.

Now let’s crack open the Hagg Bag:

I must say that even myself with many Bruins items hanging on my walls, I’m leaning a little tiny bit towards the Habs.

–Mr.Zero33 (@MisterZero33)

JH: Everybody loves an underdog, Mr Zero, and the Montreal Canadiens are most definitely that in this series. They are going up against a Tampa Bay Lightning team that was one of the best in the league all season while defending their Stanley Cup title AND then got a Hart Trophy-caliber player back during the playoff run in Nikita Kucherov.

They have arguably the best goalie in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy in the prime of his career, and they have definitely have the world’s best defenseman in Victor Hedman. Their entire core group is 30 years old or younger, so they are all in the prime “winning” portion of their hockey careers when it comes to maintaining elite performance for two months’ worth of playoff hockey.

Certainly, the Canadiens have proven they are formidable while winning the first three rounds of the playoffs and they are going to fiercely battle with the Bolts just as the Islanders did in the semifinals. Carey Price can be a bit of an equalizer if he’s red-hot during the series, and Montreal has a lot of size and strength across their entire roster, notably on the back end. But let’s be honest here: The Canadiens were the lowest seed entering the Stanley Cup playoffs and they are seriously lacking in the kind of dazzling star power that Tampa Bay has across the roster.

This is why they play the games, though, right? It will always feel a little dirty to root for the Canadiens if you are from Boston, but I think I’ll be pulling for them strictly on behalf of all of my friends up in Montreal that have been dying for a Cup since last winning in 1993.

One thing to keep in mind, what does it say about the usual Atlantic Division group that it has two teams that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final during a wide-open postseason like this? It says that the Atlantic continues to be the best division in the league, which we all knew anyway.

So, Joe why doesn’t Cassidy just dress 7 defensemen just in case someone either plays his way to the bench or gets hurt? I know we don’t have a very strong d corps, but better safe than sorry.

–Matthew Wilson (via Facebook fan page)

JH: Honestly, I’m not a big proponent of playing seven defensemen. That is particularly the case when the injuries have taken enough of a toll on the depth that you’d be bringing somebody like Jakub Zboril or Urho Vaakanainen into the mix at the cost of a bottom-6 forward that will at least throw around the body and be an energy provider.

The honest truth is that the Bruins were always a little shaky on the defensive depth given how much they relied on a guy in Kevan Miller that has had trouble staying on the ice last season. I love him as a competitor and they are a different, better team when he’s in the lineup, but at this point in his career with some very cranky knees, it’s a big ask to get Miller all the way through a 2-month playoff without injury problems.

And once both Miller and Brandon Carlo were out of the lineup, their penalty kill was in big, big trouble. That much was obvious against an Islanders team that ran the Black and Gold’s PK out of the building in Game 5 at TD Garden and had Charlie McAvoy battered and bruised by the end of a six-game series in the second round.

I don’t think adding a marginal NHL defenseman as a seventh D-man would have really moved the dial much, but it’s open for debate I suppose.

When are Sweens/Neely on the hot seat? Seemingly getting by on success of inherited players (I know you disagree here) and a decent deadline (helped by Hall’s no-move), but same pissed off story – the scoring dries up, outmuscled and an early exit. The drafting been borderline atrocious. Do we need a new voice? #haggbag

–Jay Tate (@He_Hate_Me_1983)

JH: So, Don Sweeney somehow doesn’t deserve credit for Taylor Hall forcing his way to Boston to join a team that he helped build? Or executing the deal without giving up a top prospect or a first round AND getting a really useful fourth line piece in forward Curtis Lazar back in the deal as well? It wasn’t a decent deadline. Sweeney needed to crush the trade deadline given the roster needs and he did exactly that. It’s not his fault that things went dry with Taylor Hall and David Krejci in the second round vs. the Isles after he went out and addressed the top-6 scoring depth with his moves.

A hockey team needs good health and some luck if they’re going to win the Cup, and the Bruins really didn’t get either one of those things while also throwing a goaltender out there that was playing injured.

Mike Reilly did a good job for the Bruins, to the point that the left side wasn’t really the issue vs. the Islanders as much as the right side with Miller and Carlo out of the lineup. I do agree that the Boston Bruins need a scouting and drafting overhaul at this point. They lean way too hard toward drafting US-born college players at the cost of CHL players, European-born prospects and Russian-born draft prospects as well.

The last draft class, in particular, was a real problem in that regard. Trust me it feels very wrong to argue against a team drafting more US-born hockey players, but they are getting far too one dimensional with their prospect pool.

Part of the problem is that they’ve been missing their first round picks recently after making deadline deals for competitive NHL teams, but it definitely goes deeper than that. They don’t have the kind of prime prospect assets they’d need to land a player like Jack Eichel in trade, and that speaks to the Boston Bruins draft-and-development machine having some clear issues these days.

That needs to be addressed.

As far as being outmuscled, the Bruins were noticeably bigger, tougher and stronger this season and I suspect they will continue to go in that direction with their bottom-6 forwards and their defensemen as well. Keeping Trent Frederic around for the next few years as he continues to grow and develop at the NHL level is certainly a big part of that. Protecting Nick Ritchie in the expansion draft would be advisable too. But they also need to find somebody to play the Kevan Miller role on defense if he’s no longer up for it.

The bottom line: The Bruins have been one of the NHL’s best teams during the regular season, have won five playoff rounds in the last three seasons and have a strong, core group that’s in a transition phase right now. It’s hard to envision Cam Neely or Don Sweeney, or Bruce Cassidy for that matter, being on the hot seat right now given all that they have accomplished.

Can they all be better? For sure, but so can the rest of us.

#haggbag Does the NHL adjust rules for next season to prevent cap circumvention?

–Amanda (@aroberge3341)

JH: No. The NHL, and their media rights holders, are basically pretending like it’s not happening when discussing, or more accurately not discussing, the Tampa Bay Lightning being $18 million over the salary cap during the playoffs. And the NHL general managers don’t seem to see it as an issue at this point, either.

Clearly, there is a salary cap advantage to be had for an NHL team talented enough to make the playoffs without one of their superstar players as the Lightning were this season while holding Nikita Kucherov out for the entire season.

The Bolts are now $18 million over the salary cap in the Stanley Cup playoffs where there is no salary cap. And plenty of arguments could be made that Kucherov could have been healthy enough to play toward the end of the regular season. But it takes a certain set of circumstances and timing to pull this off, and you need to have a player willing to potentially sit out when they might be healthy enough to suit up if it serves a salary cap purpose.

That isn’t an easy thing to pull off and not likely to be something that other teams can really copycat moving forward. If by some circumstance it does begin to happen with regularity, then I suspect we’ll see the league do something about it. But I don’t see it being addressed this offseason with so many NHL teams already dealing with major flat salary cap hardships.

What about a Noah Hanifin and Jake DeBrusk deal? Calgary would need more, and Jeremy Lauzon seems like the type of player that Sutter would want in his lineup. Hanifin seemed to fall out of favor with Sutter a bit this year and both players could use a change of scenery. Salary is close. #HaggBag

–Joe Galdi (@joeg1 226) 

JH: The Boston Bruins would do this in a heartbeat. I just don’t think it’s realistic even if the money is right and you could sell Daryl Sutter on the finer points of Jeremy Lauzon. But then again, Darryl’s brother Brent did coach DeBrusk for the Red Deer Rebels back in his junior days, so I guess stranger things have happened.

I’m not even convinced, though, that the Boston Bruins are going to protect Jake DeBrusk in the Seattle expansion draft, to be honest with you.

If it comes down to two spots to protect Nick Ritchie, Trent Frederic and DeBrusk, DeBrusk would be the one I would let be exposed. Certainly, there’s an argument to be made that DeBrusk is the poster boy for the mid-20’s, single NHL player that really struggled this season amidst the loneliness and isolation caused by the COVID-19 protocols. I get why he had such a down year given how crappy the whole season must have been for him with no family or friends to go home to at night.

And the Bruins are right to be afraid that giving up on him at 24 years old could come back to bite them.

But five goals and 14 points during the regular season was brutal, and he just doesn’t seem to understand that his level of effort isn’t good enough if he wants to stay in the top-6 role for a good NHL team.

Bruce Cassidy is fond of calling the NHL a “second-effort league”, but there isn’t a whole lot of that out of DeBrusk when he gets into the mode where he’s doing flybys on the forecheck and barely grinding for loose pucks.

He doesn’t finish checks or even throw them most of the time, he doesn’t block shots and he doesn’t really net anything positive on the ice when he’s not scoring goals. And he didn’t do nearly enough of that last season.

DeBrusk also disappeared once again in the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Islanders after a decent start against the Capitals. Zero points, a minus-4 rating and just seven shots on net in five games against an Islanders team that makes you pay the price. If he’s not helping you then, what good is he during the regular season?

Similarly, Hanifin had meager numbers and was a minus player for the Flames this season, and he really hasn’t yet lived up to being the fifth overall pick in the NHL draft back in 2015. Clearly the Bruins have been enamored with the 24-year-old Hanifin for a long time and they will make a big move for him if he’s made available by Calgary. If they can somehow parlay DeBrusk and Lauzon into Hanifin during this offseason then that would make Don Sweeney and Cam Neely very, very happy, but I just don’t see it.

How about those bruins good things ahead, may the force be with you.

–Kevin Laroche (via Facebook fan page)

JH: I like your style, dude. Maybe the Force Be You.

#HaggBag As a new hockey follower, who are some realistic names to keep an eye on that the Bruins might target this off-season.

–Jack Tweeddale @jack_tweeddale

JH: I think on the high end for defenseman that names like Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Noah Hanifin will be attached to the Bruins in trade talks. Certainly Ekman-Larsson makes a ton of sense if the Bruins can get the Coyotes to swallow some of the money, he’s going to get paid over a big portion of his contract that still remains.

As far as free agents go, Alec Martinez played well for Vegas in the playoffs and was doing it on a broken foot. He’s a gutsy, veteran winner that could help the Bruins on the back end. Guys like Jamie Oleksiak would be a good fit on the younger end, and players like Alex Goligoski would be another decent veteran for the Black and Gold.

There’s also the possibility of re-signing Mike Reilly after they traded for him at the deadline and have a good idea how he’d fit. The one thing about him is that he’s played his way into a decent contract at this point, so I doubt the B’s would be able to get him on the cheap.

As far as forwards go, I’d expect the Bruins to bring in another bottom-6 winger that can hit, play physical and maybe even drop the gloves from time to time. Guys like Joel Armia, Wayne Simmonds and Barclay Goodrow are the types that the Bruins should be looking at to upgrade a Boston Bruins fourth line that simply wasn’t as good as the “Identity Line” of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin in the playoffs.

The bigger concern for the Black and Gold at this point, by a wide margin, is retaining David Krejci and Taylor Hall, making a decision on the goaltending plan for next season and figuring out the NHL expansion draft ahead of next month. As I said earlier, Don Sweeney has a lot on his plate.

Joe,

Do you see a contingency on Hall signing based on Krejci decision? What’s your best projection of filling the need for a top LD? Any chance of a trade for an experienced goalie to mitigate Rask risk? Thanks…..#HaggBag

–Jim Diffley (@jimdiffley)

JH: I do think Taylor Hall and David Krejci are linked as a package deal at this point. That’s why I think they will both be back and looking to improve their playoff performance with an entire year together. My best projection for the left “D” is trading for Ekman-Larsson with Urho Vaakanainen, Jake DeBrusk and perhaps a second round pick headed to Arizona if they eat a lot of the contract. I’m not even sure if the Coyotes would be interested in DeBrusk because it sounds like they want to rip things down to the studs and start over…again.

But I suspect it’s going to take a good prospect, an NHL roster player and a pick to land Ekman-Larsson, who still has value around the league even if his stock is a bit down with the Coyotes at this point. Let’s be honest, the stock of assets like Vaakanainen and DeBrusk aren’t all-time highs right now either. If it gets into any kind of a bidding war for Ekman-Larsson, then I don’t like the B’s chances in the trade market.

If I were the Boston Bruins, I would go with Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar, sign a veteran goalie to Providence that’s got some NHL experience (Cory Schneider, perhaps?) and then hope that Tuukka Rask is ready to resume mid-season after his hip surgery.

I think they could do it and the money saved could be earmarked for other team improvements provided that the Bruins plan to spend to the cap next season.

Hey Joe,

Thanks for another great year of Boston Bruins coverage. Thoughts on chasing Barkov and Miles Wood in 2022? Really enjoyed watching Miles game this year and Barkov would be a great addition after Bergeron dare I say it hangs em’ up!

–Chesbon1971 (@chesbon1971)

JH: You’re welcome…If you keep reading then I promise to keep writing! My understanding is that the Boston Bruins have really been enamored with Miles Wood’s game for a while now and they will definitely be in the running if he were to ever be made available by the New Jersey Devils. The straight-ahead speed and the willingness to go hard to the net consistently are solid qualities that would be helpful in many situations for the Bruins, and he continues to bump upward with his goal production each and every season.

Sasha Barkov, on the other hand, is not somebody I expect to be available anytime soon. If he doesn’t want to return to Florida and gets to unrestricted free agency after this coming season, then maybe this scenario you’ve painted becomes a possibility. And he’d obviously be a great, eventual replacement for Bergeron given that he’s 10 years younger and plays the same kind of valuable two-way game.

But there’s a lot of hockey to be played for the Boston Bruins this season before any of this stuff becomes even a remote possibility, and the B’s would have to pay top dollar if they wanted to snare a player like Barkov in free agency. Not to mention, I don’t even want to think about Bergeron “hanging them up” anytime soon.

Let’s just enjoy the rest of the Bergeron era for as long as it lasts as he enters the final year of his current contract with the Black and Gold.

Joe Haggerty has covered the Boston Bruins and the NHL for 18 years with NBC Sports Boston, WEEI.com, the Boston Metro and the Woburn Daily Times, and currently serves as lead Bruins reporter and columnist for Boston Hockey Now. Haggs always strives to capture the spirt of the thing any way that he can.

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[…] *This all alludes to plenty of big, earth-shattering roster decisions away the Boston Bruins this offseason, which we explore in this week’s Hagg Bag mailbag. (Boston Hockey Now) […]

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