The problem that every team wants to have is being too deep. Having a redundancy of talent is nothing to complain about. However, it does make for hard decisions and sometime losing players on waivers or regretting not signing an impressive camp invitee. The Boston Bruins learned this the hard way in 2015-16, when Lee Stempniak worked out with the team all off-season and early in camp only to sign with the New Jersey Devils when no offer came from Boston. The Bruins then had to give up a second- and fourth-round pick to acquire Stempniak at the trade deadline, whose 41 points at that point would have been of use to the team all season long. The Bruins are a much improved team entering 2018-19 than they were three years ago, and are unlikely to be as negatively impacted by a bad call, but still want to make the best decision for the team.
Naturally, Stempniak as well as Daniel Winnik have been in camp on PTO’s and have looked surprisingly good. Winnik looked like one of the Bruins’ best skaters in their first two preseason games and has a goal and an assist through four games, while Stempniak has dominated the team’s last two preseason games, racking up a goal and four assists with a hand in nearly every Bruins tally. Stempniak and Winnik may be 35 and 33 years old respectively, but both are proven veterans with the versatility to play multiple roles. The hard-nosed Winnik, who totaled 23 points with the Minnesota Wild last year, might be better suited for a fourth-line role, while the keen-eyed Stempniak could bounce back from an injury-plagued season with the Carolina Hurricanes to be a serviceable middle-six replacement option. There is no doubt after this preseason that both experienced forward can still help an NHL team, but are either the right call for the Bruins?
The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn recently analyzed the Bruins roster and found data to support the claim that the Bruins have eight forwards who are of top-six caliber, among the best count in the league. Of course, the top line of Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak is set, while David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk won’t be splitting apart on the second line. One of rookie Ryan Donato or sophomore Danton Heinen will play the off-wing on that line, with the other lining up naturally on the left side with David Backes at right wing. There are the eight top-six forwards, none of whom are losing ice time to Stempniak or Winnik. However, the Bruins also invested in their fourth line this off-season, bringing in Chris Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom to complement Sean Kuraly and Noel Acciari. Winnik would seem like a fit with that group as well, but five veteran grinders fighting for three fourth line spots may not be Boston’s best use of roster space. Finally, the Bruins seem committed to giving a prospect a shot at centering the third line, with Trent Frederic, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Jack Studnicka all trying out in camp. Winnik or Stempniak would seemingly only make sense if the Bruins had doubts about all three of those options handling the position. Even as injury fallback options, there is a logjam. Anders Bjork and Peter Cehlarik are both young forwards with NHL experience currently slotted for AHL assignment who could benefit from increased opportunity.
Then again, feeling content with the roster is what caused the Bruins to pass up on Stempniak the first time around. Given that Bergeron, Kuraly, and Acciari are all dealing with injuries currently, the team could opt to sign Winnik or Stempniak for the time being and deal with the roster management down the road. Boston could also avoid the sunk-cost bias associated with their recent signing of Nordstrom, who very well could be an inferior option to either of the veterans. At a $1MM salary, the Bruins could completely bury Nordstrom’s cap hit in the minors if he were to clear waivers. Such a decision would then clear room for Stempniak or Winnik (or both) to join the team. There is no easy answer and lots of moving pieces, but Boston knows as well as any one how a training camp roster decision can come back to haunt a team.