The Boston Bruins strike force of 2014-15 will likely need to emulate the team’s blue-line brigade of 2013-14. That is, multiple relatively new NHL players must assimilate or blossom or both in a hurry so as to make ripples come spring.
The only question bearing weight on this issue is to what degree young, homegrown forwards will have to pitch in. The primary variable on that front is the status of elder statesman Jarome Iginla.
A first-line right-winger on a one-year deal this past season, Iginla is no lock to re-sign with the Bruins. If anything, this past Friday’s league announcement of a slimming salary cap swells the odds of a breakup.
Even if Boston can extend its partnership with the 17-season veteran, he will not likely hold up as top-line material. Somebody younger, quicker and promising more stamina projects to be a better fit in that slot.
Joe Haggerty of csnne.com hinted that Loui Eriksson, a 28-year-old veteran of eight NHL seasons, could be a candidate. But there are no guarantees given Eriksson’s recent history of concussions plus the third-line chemistry he demonstrated with Swedish countryman Carl Soderberg.
In any event, at least one top-nine, maybe even a top-six position is gaping for a newcomer. With fourth-liner Shawn Thornton already a confirmed departure, one additional newbie needs to join in to round out the depth.
That specimen of youth and speed will all but inevitably need to come cheap. Per CapGeek, the Bruins have 10 forwards on their NHL payroll and $1,670,357 in spare cap space as of June 30.
Incidentally, that would be enough to promote a pair of the most logical promotions from Providence. Alexander Khokhlachev’s $786,667 cap hit and Ryan Spooner’s $760,000 combine for $1,546,667 in the coming season.
Khokhlachev led the P-Bruins in regular-season scoring as a professional rookie while Spooner logged 23 appearances in Boston. Both were the clear-cut copilots during a two-round run in the American League playoffs.
Besides relative inexperience, one question mark for those two is they each shoot left-handed. But there ought to be vacancies outside of the right wing, and if both players remain Bruins, they do not figure to see much more AHL action.
There are other potentially cheap options among the minor-league portion of the free-agent class. Those with slivers of Boston seasoning to build upon include Craig Cunningham, Justin Florek and Matt Fraser. The latter two could be front-runners for one vacancy or another by virtue of recent Stanley Cup playoff experience.
Regardless, the Bruins still need to secure a new deal for pending free-agent forward Reilly Smith, defenseman Torey Krug and, if possible, Iginla. One option to create more space is to place Marc Savard ($4,027,123) on long-term injured reserve, but that can do only so much.
Furthermore, Savard is one of the 10 forwards currently on Boston’s NHL salary chart. In turn, even if Iginla and Smith can return, that still leaves two vacancies to ensure a quorum of 12 forwards plus a spare.
Another one of the forwards under contract, Chris Kelly, has an uncertain outlook after an injury-riddled 2013-14. From the Bruins’ standpoint, the best-case scenario is to trade him and thus clear away another $3 million worth of cap room.
If they can pull that off, it ought to cover a new contract for Krug, if not yield a smattering left over. But that also means needing to seek a new face to constitute that spare 13th forward.
Barring any other moves to export hefty cap hits, that would inevitably mean resorting to a cost-effective, unripe striker. If Iginla gets away, Boston could be looking at three or four voids to be filled by NHL rookies or the equivalent.
Assuming that happens, Fraser, Khokhlachev, Spooner and the like can look to Dougie Hamilton, Krug and Kevan Miller for advice.
Those three defensemen entered 2013-14 without a single full-length NHL campaign between them. Yet they solidified their slots on the active roster in the face of season-ending injuries to Dennis Seidenberg in December and Adam McQuaid in January.
At the start of the 2013-14 season, Hamilton led the three defensemen in question with 42 regular-season and seven playoff games on his transcript. Krug had three regular-season and 15 postseason appearances while Miller was an NHL novice.
Assuming Iginla, Eriksson or an affordable, established import fills the first-line right-wing void, no forward will need to pull a Hamilton in 2014-15. But multiple players will indubitably need to be their positional equivalent of Krug and Miller as fast-adjusting depth regulars.
Depending on who re-signs, the call for growth in individual games may extend beyond the rookies. While he might not be first-line material, Smith has questions to answer as to his top-six caliber.
Smith will be 23 years of age for the better part of the 2014-15 campaign, which will be his second full NHL season. He dressed for 37 games with Dallas in 2012-13 and every game in his first season as a Bruin.
Of all forwards who are still under Boston auspices as of Monday, the eve of free agency door-busts, Smith stands alone in a unique medium. He is the only incumbent on the offense who has played a full NHL season but is also younger than 26 years of age.
This, by the way, assumes that the 23-year-old restricted free agent Jordan Caron, who lacks a qualifying offer, has seen his last round of action in black and gold attire.
The rest of the full-time NHLers on the Bruins offense are at least 26. The youngest of those, Milan Lucic, is already a seven-season veteran with the team.
As the reigning recipient of the team’s Seventh Player Award, Smith has some unforeseen bright spots to build upon. But given that his 20-goal output clouded a series of protracted production droughts, he needs to establish consistency.
The immediate reason for that need, namely helping Boston to maintain a stable and dependable top six, speaks for itself. But with multiple youngsters virtually bound to enter the equation, Smith will need to evolve without delay so as to pitch in as one of the exemplary leaders.
Without that, the neophytes cannot evolve in their new roles without delay. They will need to do nothing less because the odds are towering against every incumbent—particularly Iginla and Kelly—coming back, let alone delivering in their old top form.
The entry-level (or barely beyond entry-level) crowd is Boston’s only affordable hope to redress the club’s offensive shortcomings. They are the only practical resort to lock in the quantity, quality, speed, energy, finish and depth the Bruins will need in 2014-15.
A heavily youthful defensive corps that grew to perform beyond its years was not Boston’s foremost problem in the 2014 playoffs. Rather, a strike force that gripped its sticks and incurred a bushel of post-shots hastened a second-round downfall.
The next season should involve a dense blend of determined holdovers and poised youngsters building up to improvement and following the defense’s 2013-14 act.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com