Civian: Rick Nash re-signing with the Bruins seems unlikely. What now?

Sara Civian
August 28, 2018 - 7:07 pm

Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

There's two weeks left until training camp, and Bruins free agent Rick Nash still hasn’t officially announced anything about his future in the NHL. 

He asked teams to give him some space when he forewent the July 1 signing period, so we don’t know all that much about his pending decision.

Here's what we do know:

1. The Bruins acquired Nash, 34, at last season’s trade deadline for their Cup run. His shortcomings were definitely hyperbolized -- come on, people, he was the only Bruins forward past the first line to score in Round 2 -- but his playoff performance was clearly tainted by a concussion.

He’s had a couple of those in his 15 seasons, enough that it’s understood part of his hesitancy to sign a contract is about his health and future beyond the game of hockey.

2. The Bruins were legit contenders in the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes. Obviously that didn’t work out, but it counts for a little something that they actively pursued another free agent right winger, no?

3. The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reported Aug. 22 that after an initial meeting, Nash met with “at least two” members of the Blue Jackets’ front office. According to Portzline, it went “exceptionally well, and both the club and the player left on the same page and in high spirits.”

4. Bruce Cassidy said he hasn’t heard anything about Nash’s intentions at the Bruins’ Fan Fest Aug. 26.

So while nothing is certain, an ounce of common sense tells us at least two scenarios are as likely or more likely than Nash re-signing with Boston.

What now?

Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak combined as the NHL's best line last season. That’s great and all, but the rest of the lines struggled with secondary scoring and it pretty much did them in against the Lightning in Round 2. Even in the first round, the Bruins lost all three games in which the first line didn’t score.

The strategy of re-signing Nash and just kinda hoping he has a good season seems less likely as training camp approaches. Who on the roster could fill the vacancy to David Krejci’s right?

• Ryan Donato.

Oh yeah, Ryan Donato has arrived. And according to my eye test at the Comm Ave Classic last weekend, it looks like he put on some muscle over the summer. That’s good news for Krejci, who allegedly likes playing with heavier wingers.

The biggest knock on Donato is his need to develop on defense. Though any team led by Bergeron and Zdeno Chara is going to have an automatic focus on defense, you can’t deny the immediate impact Donato had where the Bruins needed it most -- on the scoresheet. In his 12-game NHL debut he scored five goals and nine points, leading all skaters after the first line. Four of those points came on the power play, including two goals on nine shots.

Isn’t that --

*checks notes*

-- exactly what the Bruins were looking for in Nash? Reliable secondary scoring that could keep the first line together? Power play production?

Yeah. But it might not be what they’re looking for in Donato, who can play pretty much any position at forward. With the loss of Riley Nash there’s tons of uncertainty in depth center positions. I covered that here, and I clearly think the Bruins should let Donato’s shot fly on a wing. But if the other options don’t impress Bruce Cassidy straight out of camp, he might have to put Donato at third-line center.

What then?

Danton Heinen

Heinen sneakily scored the fifth most points for the Bruins last season with 16 goals and 47 points in 77 games. He seemed frustrated about it by the end of the season, too -- he thinks he’s capable of more. If you watched him play, you’d notice his frustrating amount of near-chances towards the end of the season suggest the same. Those could go in now, depending on things like off-season training, different linemates, the Hockey Gods, etc.

His potential is praised among his teammates (“I can’t say enough about (Heinen) and how his two-way game has added so much depth to our roster. You need guys like Heino to win a Cup” - Marchand), he’s defensively responsible, he has some experience under his belt.

If the Bruins are looking for someone to replace Nash’s specific role, they won’t find it in Heinen’s 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame. But Nash’s role didn’t exactly win them a Cup, so why not try it out and see what happens?

What if it doesn't work?

Slide Pastrnak down

Any decision to break up the first line should be met with the reminder that if things don’t work out, the Bruins can just put it back together.

This move would admittedly seem like a Hail Mary for a team with several players on the come up who could potentially solve the secondary scoring crisis (and what a CRISIS it is, folks). 

Further, you could argue Pastrnak earned a permanent spot on the first line with an incredible 35-45--80 season and a record-breaking playoff run. You could also argue he earned the right to prove his success wasn’t just a byproduct of playing alongside Marchand and Bergeron. Both of these arguments are pretty stupid because decisions are made based on what will benefit the whole team.

So what’s best for the team if Donato has to play in one of the currently disturbingly vacant bottom six roles, or Heinen doesn’t work out, or everyone gets hurt and the Bruins drag themselves into the playoffs on broken limbs like they did last season?

Last year’s run proved how essential it is that this second-line spot produces consistently. If it’s not happening, the Bruins just might need to put in a reliable scorer and let a promising player who maybe hasn’t fully developed enjoy the Marchand/Bergeron safety net. That could be Heinen, or maybe Anders Bjork.

I detailed how the specific setbacks Bjork faced last season set him up for a potentially huge comeback year here. The speedy Notre Dame product looked ready when he earned a spot next to Marchand and Bergeron out of camp last season. He scored four goals and 12 points in the 30 NHL games he played in. We’ll have to see how he’s responded to a tough rookie season, but he’s certainly capable of the breakout that seemed imminent last year.

All these options and no clear answer is a display of how much these Bruins are banking on internal player development.