Bruins better off ‘not fishing in the deepest of waters’ in free agency

Matt Kalman
July 01, 2019 - 7:33 pm

There are teams that are in precarious positions under the NHL salary cap ceiling that should feel shame.

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Imagine being up against the cap ceiling and being the Chicago Blackhawks, who missed the playoffs last season, of the Pittsburgh Penguins or Vegas Golden Knights, who both lost in the first round.

Then there are the Bruins, who should be grateful for their tricky salary-cap situation. They just went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, which despite the disappointing result meant that general manager Don Sweeney spent Jeremy Jacobs’ money wisely.

Plus, the Bruins went into the start of free agency Monday without the ability to “go fishing in the deepest of waters,” as Sweeney described it after he spent a couple million to bring in a pair of potential fourth-liners and a third-string goalie.

It’s not just because of the Matt Beleskey and David Backes fiascos that the Bruins as an organization should be glad Sweeney didn’t have much money to play with this year. It’s because of the mistakes that are routinely made around the league on July 1, unless you want your GM to invest $6 million over five years (five years!) on Mats Zuccarello or $8 million over seven years on Matt Duchene, two deals that were actually signed Monday.

No, it’s better if Sweeney fishes in the shallower waters, if his track record is any indication. He efficiently spent $7.75 million last year on Chris Wagner, Joakim Nordstrom, John Moore and Jaroslav Halak. Now while he’s waiting to find common ground with the representatives for restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen, Sweeney’s added to the competition pool by brining in Brett Ritchie (one year, $1 million) and Par Lindholm (two years, $850,000 per season).

In Ritchie the Bruins get a 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-shooting replacement for Noel Acciari on the wing, with the potential to play up in the lineup if he can find the touch that made him a 16-goal scorer in 2016-17 (although Sweeney conceded the Bruins aren’t banking on that and instead hope Ritchie will just help the puck-possession game). Ritchie doesn’t kill penalties, but he can be a net-front presence on the second power play and he comes with no risk contract-wise. If he doesn’t produce, to the waiver wire he’ll go.

Lindholm, 6-3, 180 pounds, could pick up some of the penalty-killing slack and give the Bruins another left-shot center because their top three middle men all shoot right. Of course, Sean Kuraly is in Lindholm’s way unless Kuraly moves to the wing. Neither player is a top-six wing by trade, nor are they a replacement for Marcus Johansson, who is seemingly a goner because Sweeney hasn’t offered him a contract (Johansson hadn’t signed anywhere else by 7 p.m. Monday).

Sweeney said he’s “comfortable” with where the Bruins are in terms of the amount of cap space to re-sign the RFAs, but now the Bruins have $10 million in open space. Before he can upgrade his top six or top nine, he has to get the RFAs done. And before he can get the RFAs done, he's going to have to shed some salary, most likely in a David Backes dump.

For now Sweeney’s still talking up the internal solutions to Boston’s top-six, or now top-nine, wing deficiency.

“I think Danton Heinen, depends which side we play him on. You know if you think whether Karson [Kuhlman> or [Zach> Senyshyn or whoever, Brett Ritchie, obviously guys that are right shot, if we play lefty-righty and move Danton over, I think falls into that same ilk of player,” Sweeney said. “Creative-wise, Marcus wasn’t a shoot-first guy either, and Danton’s not. We’d like him to shoot a little more volume if we can. We’ll see where Anders Bjork comes back on line. We’ll see what Peter Cehlarik does.

“I think we have some guys internally. Paul Carey’s another guy that’s played a lot of games in the National Hockey League with the skill set. You never know where guys are going to come back and assimilate with. Paul being able to play with Charlie Coyle, let’s see, let’s see where it goes. I’m not rubber stamping any of that. But I do believe we have enough depth, which is an area that I think showed up in this year’s team that was very valuable.”

What’s that, Sweeney on July 1, 2019 sounds like Sweeney on July 1, 2018? Well kind of, except one year ago the Bruins didn’t have Coyle. It can’t be overlooked that Coyle wasn’t a rental, made the Bruins better last season and could bring even more depending on his role.

The Bruins again have two holes in their top nine to fill and Sweeney has again been forced to hope his strength-in-numbers approach works. There might not be enough cap space to swing a couple deals at the deadline this season like he did last. But it’s much better to be in this cap position while riding success, and to have a stable of contenders to fill those holes than to be Edmonton.

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