The Boston Bruins are a month away from training camp and arguably their best two defensemen remain unsigned. Restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy, 21, and Brandon Carlo, 22, are still in the process of negotiating new contracts, and effort made difficult by Boston’s current salary cap conundrum. The Bruins have just over $8MM in cap space right now, but the problem is McAvoy alone is eyeing a contract worth that amount each year. The 2016 first-round pick has struggled to stay healthy through his first two NHL seasons, but has been dominant when available with 60 points in 117 games while leading the Bruins in average time on ice. Some have cited Jacob Trouba’s recent seven-year, $56MM contract with the New York Rangers as a possible goal for McAvoy’s camp, while he would likely still exceed $6MM annually on a bridge deal. Barring any other roster changes, that would make it hard for the team to then sign Carlo, who is less effective offensively but has become the team’s most reliable defensive blue liner over the past three years. The price on a Carlo extension again depends on term, but the big defender could top $4MM on a long-term pact.
The Bruins simply don’t have the cap space right now to give both players what they want, otherwise they would both be signed already as core pieces of the present and future. It will take further negotiations or a roster shake-up to get McAvoy and Carlo under contract, so the wait continues. Bruins president Cam Neely tells NBC Sports Boston that the team must be ready for the possibility that one or both are still unsigned entering September:
“We do have to plan and prepare for these players to not be at camp opening day. But we have five, six weeks hopefully to get something done. We feel like we should be able to get something done with both of these guys at numbers that make sense for us, and hopefully makes sense for them. I think we’ve done a really good job of kind of managing the cap and making sure that we’re OK to get these guys done.”
It remains possible that the Bruins could squeeze both young defenders in on short-term bridge deals without making any further moves. The more likely scenario, which gives the contenders some more flexibility for the coming season though, is that a transaction or two will be made. David Backes, and his $6MM cap hit, has been the most talked-about target, but it could be pricey to move him without giving up a top pick or prospect or taking back another bad contract. Backes also has a limited No-Trade Clause to worry about, although he may be more open to a move if his options are another NHL team or AHL Providence. A move to the minors would save the Bruins $1.075MM against the cap. As for other possibilities, the affordable extensions of Connor Clifton and Steven Kampfer have made veterans Kevan Miller and John Moore expendable, if the Bruins can get fair value back in a deal for one or the other. One way or another, it’s likely the Bruins need to clear some cap space before next season to accommodate McAvoy and Carlo without handicapping their roster for the whole season, so expect some moves out of Boston. The start of the season on October 3rd and, worst case scenario, the December 1st deadline for RFA’s to play next season are the dates to watch for resolutions to this situation.
- One negotiation that won’t be as much of a concern for the Bruins is the extension of head coach Bruce Cassidy. Since taking over for Claude Julien late in the 2016-17 season, Cassidy is 117-52-22 as the Bruins’ bench boss and has guided the team to back-to-back 100-point seasons. In 2017-18, he was a Jack Adams Award finalist and in 2018-19 he was a Stanley Cup finalist, so it’s safe to say that the Bruins are happy with Cassidy’s work. Neely said as much, stating how important Cassidy has been to the Bruins’ recent success, as well as their future. He also added that the team does not expect any issues with re-signing Cassidy, but have been preoccupied this summer with McAvoy and Carlo. A new contract is no doubt on its way for Cassidy. Neely joked that “I feel comfortable that he’ll be ready for training camp.”
- For those looking for a dark horse candidate for the 2020 Calder Trophy, perhaps looking to take advantage of long odds, pay close attention to the Bruins in training camp. Given the team’s shortage of cap space and needs up front, a rookie could fall into a nice situation in Boston. If Charlie Coyle remains at third-line center, as expected, and the team moves Danton Heinen back to left wing, where he has been a better fit on his natural side, it opens up a competition to skate on the right side of David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk on the second line next season. A player who finds a nice fit with those two will have the potential to produce at a high level. Of course, that could wind up being free agent addition Brett Ritchie, talented but oft-injured Anders Bjork, or the no longer waiver-exempt Peter Cehlarik. However, the Bruins have some younger options with much more upside who could fight for the job instead. Top forward prospect Jack Studnicka is now a pro and, while he has generally played center during his junior years, the right-shot forward is buried on the depth chart down the middle and may have too much skill to keep in the minors. Oskar Steen was one of the best players in the Swedish Hockey League last season at just 21 years old and the right wing could find the adjustment to North America easier than expected. Jakub Lauko turned some heads at the junior level last year and could make a case with his play in camp that he doesn’t need to return to the QMJHL. The teen winger could instead try to fight for a role on his off-side. Finally, there are two players who got their first NHL looks last season in Karson Kuhlman and Zach Senyshyn. Kuhlman’s hard-working game won over the Bruins’ coaches and even earned him a role in the postseason, while Senyshyn seems to have outgrown the minors and is ready to put his next-level speed to better use. If any of these potential rookies wins the position battle to play alongside Krejci and DeBrusk, it doesn’t necessarily make them a Calder favorite, but does make them a high-ceiling dark horse to watch out for.