Bruins well-positioned to take full advantage of salary cap rise next summer

The Boston Bruins went all-in to win the Stanley Cup during the 2022-23 season, which was absolutely the correct decision. Unfortunately for the franchise, it fell shockingly short of its goal of winning a championship, and now the bill has come due.

An intense salary cap crunch has already forced significant changes to the roster. These adjustments began Monday, when Bruins general manager Don Sweeney traded a top-six caliber left wing in Taylor Hall to the Chicago Blackhawks in what was essentially a $6 million salary dump.

When NHL free agency began Saturday, several players from the stacked 2022-23 Bruins roster departed for larger paydays on new teams. Defensemen Dmitry Orlov ($7.25 million AAV with Carolina) and Connor Clifton ($3.33 million AAV with Buffalo), as well as bottom-six forward Garnet Hathaway ($2.375 million AAV with Philadelphia) were among the first to go. Sweeney told reporters Saturday evening that it’s “unlikely” fourth-line center Tomas Nosek returns. He also noted that Tyler Bertuzzi is unlikely to re-sign, citing both term and AAV among reasons why.

The Bruins entered the day with just $13.6 million in salary cap space, so they went shopping in the bargain bin.

  • Morgan Geekie, C: Two years, $2 million salary cap hit

  • Patrick Brown, C: One year, $800,000 salary cap hit

  • James van Riemsdyk, LW: One year, $1 million salary cap hit

  • Milan Lucic, LW: One year, $1 million salary cap hit

  • Kevin Shattenkirk, D: One year, $1.05 million salary cap hit

The Bruins won’t repeat last year’s regular season success in 2023-24, but they will be competitive, there’s no doubt about that. There is no major retool going on here. That was made clear when, instead of filling out the roster with a bunch of young players, Sweeney signed five veterans in the first couple hours of free agency.

“I think I was pretty honest that we weren’t going to be the same team,” Sweeney told reporters Saturday. “We had an incredible amount of depth and we felt that we put together a good team, but we fell woefully short in the playoffs with what our goals were. We know we’re a competitive group and we want to remain a competitive group and with an eye towards the future. We didn’t really encumber ourselves too badly from a standpoint of contracts, we have some decisions to make because we have some players that are coming up on decision making time and we have some things to work out with two of our RFAs.

“As we pointed out, we feel good about the competitiveness of our group. We have to stay healthy, and our top guys have to stay healthy to have the amount of success that we would like to have. It’s going to be a dog fight regardless with how you feel about your team today, injuries can play a part in that, and the growth of other teams is going to play a part in that.”

The salary cap is not a long-term problem, though. These issues are not going to become the norm. In fact, they should only last one year.

The Bruins will be in a fantastic position next summer to attack the trade market and free agency. The only contract the B’s signed Saturday that’s longer than one season is Geekie’s two-year, $4 million deal. As a result, the Bruins can go into the trade market or free agency next offseason armed with around $30.9 million in salary cap room. That number could increase if the cap rises by $3-4 million for 2024-25.

Bruins president Cam Neely was asked Tuesday if it’s helpful to know that the cap will most likely go up next year based on projections.

“Yes, absolutely, and we don’t want to put ourselves in a position where we don’t take advantage of that next year either,” Neely told reporters in Nashville. “So, we feel pretty good about where we are going into the following year, but it’s just this season right now that we’re trying to piece together.”

Why exactly is it so significant that the cap is projected to rise? Take a look at the group of players with expiring contracts entering the 2023-24 campaign. There are some pretty good players on this list, and many of them would fill the Bruins’ top needs, such as top-six center, top-four defenseman, etc. (Auston Matthews and Sebastian Aho are not listed because it’s hard to imagine them not re-signing with their current teams).

  • Mark Scheifele, C

  • Elias Lindholm, C

  • Matt Duchene, C

  • Sam Reinhart, C

  • Joe Pavelski, C/RW

  • William Nylander, RW

  • Jake Guentzel, LW

  • Noah Hanifin, D

  • Brandon Montour, D

  • Devon Toews, D

  • Brett Pesce, D

It’s entirely possible that some of these players get traded before they hit free agency and then sign an extension with their new team, similar to the New York Islanders acquiring top-six center Bo Horvat in late January and extending his contract a week later. Thanks to their abundance of cap space entering 2024-25, the Bruins could be a team that looks for a similar move next season.

Any of the players listed above would nicely complement the Bruins’ current core — David Pastrnak, Pavel Zacha, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm, Linus Ullmark, Jeremy Swayman, etc. — which already is pretty strong. That core might one day include two of Boston’s top prospects — Fabian Lysell and Mason Lohrei — who could potentially make their NHL debuts this season.

Bruins fans will need to stomach what might be an up-and-down and sometimes frustrating 2023-24 season. Boston’s depth will be far below what it was last season. The talent level at center will be dramatically lower if Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci retire. It’s unlikely the team will finish No. 2 in goals scored for the second straight year. Defense and goaltending will need to be elite. One or two injuries have the potential to derail the season because of the lack of depth.

But any frustration felt this winter should be short lived. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The Bruins will soon be armed with loads of salary cap space. Completing blockbuster deals will remain challenging, of course, but Boston will at least be in a much better position to pull them off compared to this summer.