Alas, this season ended a little faster than all would have liked. So, what's next? I've got some ideas.
1. Trade Tim Thomas and Pursue Zach Parise
I know, I know. I can hear the bubbling cauldron of rage all the way over here. I look forward to the angry, poorly typed and even more poorly reasoned responses to this idea. (Hey, if you're going to play the villain, PLAY THE VILLAIN.) Here's my challenge for those who think trading Thomas is a bad idea: take the names off the jerseys, and ask yourself, if a team has two top 10 goaltenders, one of whom is 38, and the other 25, and the 25 year old is hitting free agency, while the 38 year old is a year away from it, what they should do.
Having a pair of top 10 goaltenders is awesome...for as long as you can get away with it and not break your budget and not leave other spots on the roster unfilled. Alas, the Bruins really could use another scoring winger. The offense has been very streaky, and it's hard to imagine that having a healthy Nathan Horton on the wing wouldn't have led to a different result in the first round playoff series. In 2010-11, Thomas was so good that he overcame an historically bad power play and some truly awful bottom 4 defensive play to basically carry the Bruins to the Cup. What are the odds of him repeating that feat next year, when he'll be 39 in the playoffs?
The Bruins have 7 unrestricted free agents, 2 restricted free agents and about $9 million in cap room. That counts Marc Savard on LTIR, but not Horton, and does not count for an increase in the cap. Given the looming labor battle, it would be foolish to make any predictions about where the cap is going, so the only thing to do is assume status quo. If they're going to make improvements, someone has to go. It could be Rask; I'm not mortally opposed to trading him, but if they deal Rask and play out the year with Thomas, they'll have to address the goaltending situation anew after this season, when Thomas will be 39. More to the point, if Boston wants to add a big-ticket free agent, they can't afford to keep Thomas and his $5 million salary.
If you have a pair of top 10 defensemen, like Nashville, it's a huge asset. You can play both on the ice for 30 minutes a game in the playoffs and shorten the game. If you have a pair of top 10 forwards, like Pittsburgh, it's a huge asset. You can play them on the ice together and score goals in bunches. (Well, it's great if you don't have a guy nicknamed "Flower" in goal letting in even more.) If you have a pair of top 10 goaltenders, it's great for 30 or so regular season games, and gives you some insurance in the playoffs, but ultimately, it probably represents a wasted asset. It probably gets you three or four extra wins in the regular season, but barring injury, none in the playoffs. When Rask was cheap, this wasn't as big a deal. But his price tag could easily be in the $3M per year range. Boston can't afford to spend that much on its goaltending and bring back the same team as last year, let alone improve it.
Cam Neely's protestation aside, one of them probably has to go, and Thomas makes more sense. What could a possible Thomas trade look like? Well, just for giggles, let's assume that Martin Brodeur retires, and let's further assume that the Devils can't see eye to eye with Parise on a contract. Neither of these is farfetched; Brodeur turned 40 over the weekend and is hurtling toward replacement level at meteoric speeds, while the Devils, as a franchise, are broke. What about dealing Thomas for Parise's negotiating rights and a conditional draft pick, i.e. a 7th rounder if Parise signs, a 2nd if he doesn't. Who says no to that?
I would make a huge run at Parise this offseason if the Devils can't resign him. If Boston moves Thomas, they'll have the room. They'll have to skimp at other positions, or maybe have to move another salary if/when Horton comes back, but it's worth it. I'm not counting on a return from Horton, no matter what good news we get. I think it's safe to say that the recent history of NHL concussions suggests that the Bruins need to err on the side of caution.
Thomas has been a phenomenal player for the Bruins; they certainly don't win a Stanley Cup without him. And even at age 39, he should be a top 10 goaltender. At 1 year and $5 million, he represents a fairly good value in a market filled with obscene long-term contracts. But odds are that Rask will be the better goaltender next year, and if not next year, then certainly for the next 8 to 10 years after that. And the Bruins simply cannot afford to make a significant upgrade if they keep Thomas. Ultimately, it's hard, if not impossible, to make an argument for keeping Thomas that doesn't revolve around sentiment. And sentiment is a lousy reason to make personnel moves.
2. Let Chris Kelly Walk
Longtime readers of mine (both of them) probably knew this was coming. I have nothing against Kelly. On the contrary, he was spectacular this season and in the Stanley Cup run. Peter Chiarelli turned a second round pick into significant value and should be applauded for the deal; this was precisely how a pick-for-veteran deal should work. But now, unless I'm dramatically misreading the market for his services, it's time to let Kelly walk.
Players like Kelly are a near-certainty to get overpaid in free agency. He's a three zone player, he's an expert penalty killer, he has a ring, and he set a career high in goals this year with 20 (his previous high was 15). That would be a great combination...if he wasn't turning 32 in November. Everything about Kelly's season screams "fluke rule!" It's possible that he found a fountain of youth and suddenly became a poor man's Patrice Bergeron, and thus would be well worth the 3 years and $10-12 million that someone's probably going to give him, but it's damned unlikely. It's far more likely that he had some great puck luck (a 16.4% shooting percentage was almost 50% higher than his career average) and benefited from some less than stellar opposition.
3. Teach The Defense How To Dougie
Boston has NHL contracts committed to five defensemen for next year: Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid. It's hard to imagine the Bruins bringing back Joe Corvo, who wasn't quite a miserable failure, but certainly didn't endear himself to anyone, ditto Greg Zanon. I suspect Mike Mottau is going to consider retirement, and if not, he probably should. Dougie Hamilton would seem a lock for a spot unless he completely embarrasses himself in camp. The seventh spot would probably be a competition between Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski.
There's not going to be much opportunity to turn over the defense apart from bringing in Hamilton and Krug; the Bruins obviously aren't trading Chara, and while I continue to believe that Seidenberg is overrated, they're not likely to move him, either. They just resigned Boychuk, while Ference and McQuaid have such team friendly deals that trading them doesn't make much sense. Here is a case where improvement will likely have to come from within. Fortunately, I suspect the OHL's reigning defenseman of the year is more than up to the task.
4. Keep Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille...For the Right Price
The Bruins have boasted some of the best fourth line play in the NHL the last two years, thanks to these guys and Shawn Thornton. That has value. And if Kelly walks, keeping Campbell and Paille, good penalty killers both, becomes more important. But as fourth liners, they ultimately have minimal impact on the game due to their modest ice time (which becomes even more modest in the playoffs), and every dollar spent on them above the veteran minimum is a dollar that's not being used on someone who makes a real difference, like Parise. A slight raise for both is probably in order, but I wouldn't go beyond an annual value of $1.25 million for either.
5. Let Youth Be Served on the Third Line
Benoit Pouliot is restricted, and should be resigned if possible. By the way, does anyone else enjoy the fact that a top prospect who failed in Montreal went to Boston, where a coach who also failed in Montreal got the most out of him? That's got to be like chewing tinfoil for Habs fans. Anyway, a third line where Pouliot and Jordan Caron are on the wings, perhaps with Rich Peverley in the middle, could be intriguing. If the Bruins end up dealing Peverley to clear cap room, or keep him in a top 6 wing spot, then it might be Ryan Spooner in the middle.
6. Avoid Rick Nash
Nash looks like a player who's already on the downside of his career. It seems like he shouldn't be, but he's been playing pro hockey for a decade, so it's not crazy. His numbers look to be in a slow, but steady, decline. Yet Scott Howson, in an act of managerial negligence, refused to trade him at the deadline. I can only assume the reason for this decision is that Scott Howson is a moron. In any case, the price tag on Nash is going to be astronomical, and he's due seven more years at a cap hit of $7.8 million. Unless Nash lost all hope and just phoned it in last year in Columbus (don't rule this out), that's a lot of time and money for a whole lot of downside. Think of the Albert Pujols contract, but for hockey.
If the Bruins absolutely have to trade for a star winger on the downside, Patrick Marleau makes far more sense. Marleau was better last year, would surely come cheaper, and with just 2 years left on his contract, the Bruins are less likely to have a long-term case of buyer's remorse.