If the Bruins want to return to being one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, they are going to need big changes on their blue line.
Loui Eriksson’s expiring contract is the focus of what the Bruins stand to lose this offseason. Losing a player capable of scoring 60 points is no small matter, especially when you traded Tyler Seguin for him. But Eriksson isn’t where the focus should be for the Bruins this offseason.
The Boston 2011 Stanley Cup victory is now five years in the past. The key players that remain from that team are not what they were five years ago. Nowhere is this more evident than the Bruins’ defense.
Boston is on the hook for two more years of the 39-year-old Zdeno Chara and the 34-year-old Dennis Seidenberg. Both are past their prime, but that didn’t stop Chara from seeing over 24 minutes of ice time per game. Only elite defensemen should see that much ice time, and Chara is now a long way away from his glory years.
The Bruins are paying far too much for middling returns on their blue line.
Chara and Seidenberg will have a combined cap hit of nearly $11 million next season. But they aren’t the only defensemen in Boston with bad contracts. After trading away Dougie Hamilton to Calgary, the Bruins signed Adam McQuaid to a four-year, $11 million contract. It didn’t take long for the Bruins to realize their mistake of over-investing in a third pair blue liner. McQuaid saw just 18:02 time on ice per game in the first year of that contract.
The Hamilton and Johnny Boychuk trades weren’t popular moves when they were made, and for good reason. Moving two outstanding defensemen on the right side of thirty because of a soured relationship and poor salary cap management accelerated the demise of the Bruin’s deteriorating defense.
It wasn’t long ago when the Bruins won a Cup because of their defense. A hard-working, physical group stood tall in front of Tuukka Rask and helped bring Boston the Cup five years ago.
This past season they were tied with the Stars with the 20th ranked team defense (measured by goals against per game).
General manager Don Sweeney hoped that acquiring John-Michael Liles at the trade deadline would get the deeply flawed Bruins into the playoffs. It didn’t. Liles cost the Bruins a third round pick in 2016 and a fifth round pick in 2017, just more squandered resources.
The real issue for the Bruins’ defense isn’t squandered cap space. It’s the lack of depth and talent on the roster combined with poor asset management.
Outside of Torey Krug, who is currently a restricted free agent, there aren’t any puck-movers in Boston. Both McQuaid and Kevan Miller are being asked to play roles that are beyond their abilities. Last season the bottom pairing was a revolving door of AHL level defenders and young players with limited ceilings.
It’s clear that Sweeney desperately needs to find an elite defenseman in his prime to build around. Unfortunately, that is a great deal easier said than done.
The Bruins are crossing their fingers that prospect Jakub Zboril, the 13th overall pick in 2015, will live up to expectations. Still, no matter what happens with Zboril, they need to invest more in defensemen in the draft. In other words, they need to find the next Krug or Hamilton.
The Bruins have four defensemen currently under contract. Colin Miller, Joe Morrow, and Krug are all restricted free agents. Krug’s contract has to be handled with a great deal of care given how things with Hamilton unraveled.
Signing Krug to a significant extension to keep him in Boston and finding young, affordable, quality defensemen in free agency or through trades must be top priorities.
Without a vastly improved defense the Bruins will waste more of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand’s best years. A thin free agent market and the price tag attached to a Kevin Shattenkirk trade will make things interesting, but Sweeney must act now to take big steps towards fixing his defense.