By all accounts, Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney appears content to enter the 2023-24 regular season with Pavel Zacha as the team’s No. 1 center and Charlie Coyle in the two-slot.
For the first time since before Sweeney became an NHL player in 1988, the Boston Bruins will enter an NHL regular season without a proven No. 1 center. One would have to go back to the days before Phil Esposito blossomed and the Big Bad Bruins era began to find a Bruins team that didn’t have a legit No.1 center on their roster. From Esposito to Jean Ratelle to Peter McNab, to Barry Pederson to Ken Linseman, to Craig Janney to Adam Oates to Jason Allison to Joe Thornton to Patrice Bergeron to Marc Savard, and then back to Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins have had a bonafide No. 1 center.
The dog days of summer have finally arrived, and after a blockbuster three-team trade that saw 2023 Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson join a Pittsburgh Penguins blue line that already has Kris Letang, most NHL GM’s are likely going to turn their phones off until rookie camp. There is some speculation that Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes could trade defenseman Jeff Petry and goalie Casey DeSmith after acquiring them in the aforementioned three-way trade with the Penguins and San Jose Sharks, but other than that, there’s no NHL trade chatter right now.
After engaging in NHL trade talks for 2023 Vezina Trophy winner Linus Ullmark as he tried to gain more cap flexibility, Sweeney went bargain hunting on the NHL free agent market. The Boston Bruins general manager brought back fan-favorite Milan Lucic on a bonus-laden one-year, $1 million contract. Sweeney then handed former University of New Hampshire star forward James van Riemsdyk the same. He also signed forwards Morgan Geekie (two years, $4 million), Patrick Brown (two years, $1.6 million), Jesper Boqvist (one year, $775,000), and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (one year, $1.05 million).
Geekie, Boqvist, Brown, and potentially Trent Frederic are all expected to battle it out for the two open bottom six center spots. The Boston Bruins will also give looks to Providence Bruins centers Marc McLaughlin and Johnny Beecher and potentially OHL prospect Matthew Poitras. The NHL Betting odds on any of the aforementioned centers becoming a No.1 center this season are pretty low.
With just $416,667 in salary cap space, Bergeron retired, and Krejci soon, unless Sweeney makes an impact and/or hockey trade, no proven No. 1 center is on the horizon.
With eight Boston Bruins players eligible to hit unrestricted free agency next July, maybe Sweeney is just hoping this 2023-24 squad can tread water up the middle, and then he can strike gold with a new top center on the free agent or trade markets next summer?
If not, though, this could quickly become more than just a blip at a position the Bruins have called a strength for over five decades. If that leads to the Bruins missing the Stanley Cup playoffs this season and/or next, it could cost Sweeney his job. The fact he’s known for the last two offseasons that Bergeron and Krejci were seriously contemplating retirement makes this neglect of the center position even worse. What he does to address that between now and the start of the 2024-25 season could dictate his future as general manager of the Boston Bruins and he could find himself on the NHL betting lines on the next GM to be fired.