For now, the 2022-23 calculus is not kind to the Bruins. It’s possible, depending on who breaks camp with the varsity this fall, that the team has less than $1 million in cap space under the $82.5 million cap.
That’s without adding a single player via signing or trade — not Patrice Bergeron, not David Krejci, not even a cheap depth free agent.
So if general manager Don Sweeney wants to rebuild the center position, he will have to slice the 2022-23 ledger salary. It won’t be fun. Sweeney will have to say goodbye to proven NHL players for futures that are anything but.
These are uncomfortable but necessary transactions for an organization desperate to keep its fingers wrapped around the bottom of the Stanley Cup window before it closes. Here are three moves the GM could execute to free up space to pursue a legitimate NHL center.
(Note: Cap figures via CapFriendly.)
1. Trade Mike Reilly
Raison: The Bruins have five left-handed defensemen under contract for 2022-23: Reilly, Hampus Lindholm, Matt Grzelcyk, Derek Forbort and Jakub Zboril. They could get a sixth once they re-sign Jack Ahcan, who is a restricted free agent.
It is possible that one of the left-handers plays his offside. Reilly has done it before. It’s not a neat solution, though. It would also mean trading Brandon Carlo or Connor Clifton. Neither deal would necessarily improve the team.
Grzelcyk ($3,687,500 through 2023-24) has both higher AAV and trade value than Reilly ($3 million through 2023-24). But assuming Grzelcyk progresses well after shoulder surgery, he’s a sharper all-around defender than Reilly.
To fall: No team likes to trade defensemen, especially those who skate well and move the puck. The depth of the blue line would be compromised. But the Bruins simply have too many left-handed defensemen, some of whom have overlapping skill sets.
Internal replacement: Zboril. The first round of 2015 should be fully recovered from knee surgery. He was showing general improvement before his injury. Zboril can never become a stopping presence. But he’s a good skater and he can move the puck, much like Reilly.
Possibility of return: A third-round pick and $3 million in cap relief.
2. Trade Craig Smith
Raison: The Bruins love Smith. He suited well alongside Trent Frederic and Charlie Coyle when the No. 3 line was rolling in late winter and early spring. But Smith didn’t score a single point in the playoffs.
The 32-year-old has one year left on his contract and a cap of $3.1 million. The Bruins are unlikely to sign the right wing again. He will be 33 on September 5.
To fall: The Bruins offense would take a hit. Smith is averaging 0.87 expected goals per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, according to Natural Stat Trick. It was the fourth highest after Brad Marchand (0.99), Bergeron (0.99) and David Pastrnak (0.95).
Smith’s playoff game, however, may be a signal of what’s to come. Although he posted an average of 0.95 ixG/60, the third highest after Bergeron (1.87) and Frédéric (1.03), he was doing well in the race. The Bruins cited improving the creation of chances in the zone as a priority.
Internal replacement: Oskar Steen could get a full-time ride next to Coyle. He plays a north-south style and has the guts to go inside the points. It’s unclear if he can become a consistent shooting presence like Smith.
The No. 3 line could also be a comfortable place for Fabian Lysell. The Bruins will proceed with caution with the 19-year-old. They will not hesitate to assign him to Providence to start his first full professional season if they think it is best for his development. But if Lysell proves NHL-worthy, starting in a relatively sheltered position behind Pastrnak and Jake DeBrusk might be optimal.
Marc McLaughlin would also be there.
Possibility of return: Second-round pick and $3.1 million in cap relief.
3. Redeem Nick Foligno
Raison: Foligno, 34, has repeatedly lobbied for more ice time. But the former Columbus captain, who turns 35 on Oct. 31, serves the Bruins best on the fourth line. That’s a problem with its $3.8 million AAV (through 2022-23).
Maybe the Bruins could find a business partner who believes in a revival of Foligno and values his presence in the locker room. But that would likely come at a cost – a built-in asset or salary retention.
To fall: Foligno’s fearlessness and leadership would be missed by the Bruins. He is ready to engage in a confrontation without gloves.
Internal replacement: Tomas Nosek could switch to the left wing, allowing Frédéric to play the midfielder on the fourth line. The Bruins were waiting for Jakub Lauko, the quick but oft-injured third rounder of 2018. Chris Wagner, who has one year left on his contract, can play left wing. Joona Koppanen could make his breakthrough in the NHL.
Possibility of return: $1,866,666 cap relief.
By executing the three trades, the Bruins would create nearly $8 million in cap space. This would give them permission to play in free agency or in the commercial market.
Bergeron and Krejci could be return options. Nazem Kadri and Vincent Trocheck are among the best UFA centers available. Mark Scheifele ($6.125 million AAV) could be on the trading block.
(Top photo Mark Scheifele and Patrice Bergeron: Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)