After another missed opportunity, Bruins now face offseason of uncertainty

By WEEI 93.7

Over the last couple years, a lot has been made of how well the Bruins get along and how good of a room they have.

It’s not a lie. These players really do love each other and really do enjoy being around each other. The veteran leaders have been together and been friends for a long time -- a decade-plus in the case of Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask and Brad Marchand. They’ve created a welcoming environment for younger players, and those younger players have all the respect and admiration in the world for those veterans.

In a perfect world, they’d love nothing more than to keep this group together and make at least one more real run at the Stanley Cup.

“Obviously, wish that everyone is coming back and we can have another chance at it,” Bergeron said Monday night. “It’s been – it’s always a pleasure and a treat when you’re going out there with guys that you’ve been around for 10-plus years. You’d like to keep that and carry that, and keep going with them. Obviously, lots of very great young players as well that are on the rise and we should be excited about.”

But after their season-ending Game 5 loss to the Lightning, the Bruins now begin an offseason filled with questions about whether they can keep this together, whether they should keep it together, and whether they can still be serious Cup contenders if they do keep it together.

Those uncomfortable conversations begin with the man who has arguably defined this era of Bruins hockey more than any other: 43-year-old captain Zdeno Chara. For the first time in his 14-year Bruins career, a season has come to an end without him having a deal in place for the next season.

Chara has always said he intends to play as long as he is able to and as long as he enjoys it. On Monday night, he said he hasn’t made any decision about his future yet and that he’ll be “open-minded.”

It’s hard to tell exactly what a player like Chara might mean by “able to.” He is clearly not able to play particularly close to the level he played at during his prime. He contributes little offensively these days and doesn’t have the wheels to lead a breakout or transition through the neutral zone. This postseason, coach Bruce Cassidy mostly kept him away from offensive zone faceoffs and greatly reduced his minutes when the Bruins were trailing and in need of a goal.

Chara is still able to defend well in his own zone and kill penalties, though, as his size, strength, reach and intelligence remain valuable assets there.

Is Chara content with what he is now and what his role is now? Or will he decide he doesn’t want to go out this way, playing fewer and fewer minutes and becoming more and more of a specialist rather than a true top-pairing, or even top-four, defenseman?

“He’s an icon in Boston and it’s been – who knows what’s going to happen but it’s a pleasure to go to the rink with him every day and see the dedication he has to the game and has had to the game for so long,” Marchand said of Chara. “It’s difficult to do what he’s done, day in and day out. The way he prepares and the way he still cares so much.

“He’s one of the most, if not the most driven person I’ve ever met. And he’s going to be a Hall of Famer. He’s one of the best defensemen, best players to ever play the game. Like I said, it’s been a real honor to play with him. I obviously – we have no idea what’s going to happen but he’s an incredible teammate and captain and leader and I don’t have enough good things to say about him.”

Everyone in the Bruins organization would love to keep Chara the person around for all the reasons Marchand mentioned, but the business decision of whether they still want to keep this version of Chara the player will be separate from those personal feelings.

Presumably, the team could get another one-year deal done pretty cheaply if there is mutual interest, just as they have the last few years. But those last few years, those deals were done before the end of the season. Now they’re letting Chara get to free agency.

It’s not impossible to imagine Don Sweeney and Co. deciding it’s time to move on from Chara regardless of whether he wants to keep playing or not.

That decision could depend at least in part on how they feel about their chances to keep another veteran defenseman who’s about to hit free agency: Torey Krug.

The 29-year-old is set to be one of the top free agents on the market this fall (yes, free agency now takes place in the fall, not summer), and while the Bruins would love to keep him, they will need to decide if they’re willing to spend big, probably on a seven- or eight-year deal, to lock him up into his mid- to late-30s.

They should have just enough cap space to pay Krug, who has expressed a desire to stay in Boston in the past, fair market value if they choose to do so, but he should have plenty of other suitors as well, including his hometown Detroit Red Wings.

“Torey is a great player,” Krejci said. “He always has your back. We definitely don’t want to see him leave. A great friend. I can’t say enough about that guy.”

If the Bruins don’t think they can keep Krug, it may increase their desire to keep Chara so as to avoid losing two-thirds of the left side of their defense. Matt Grzelcyk, who’s a restricted free agent, will still be there, with a bit of a pay raise to go along with a growing role.

If Chara and Krug are both gone, though, there are some real questions. Barring some sort of trade, Grzelcyk would then be your top left-shot defenseman by default. While he certainly seems ready to tackle more of a top-four role, a top-pairing role might be too much of a jump.

John Moore is still under contract for three more years at $2.75 million per year, so the Bruins have to figure out if he’s going to be an everyday player for them. For that money, he should be.

Jeremy Lauzon looked good in the regular season, but wound up as a healthy scratch for much of the postseason. He has a limited ceiling offensively, but could once again be solid in a third-pairing role. You could also give 2017 first-round pick Urho Vaakanainen a real chance to show if he’s ready for the NHL.

Up front, the Bruins have fewer questions about who’s going to be there. Jake DeBrusk is a restricted free agent, and it should be safe to assume the two sides will get a deal done. Karson Kuhlman is also an RFA and can probably be kept cheaply. Joakim Nordstrom is the only unrestricted free agent in the group, and while the Bruins like what he brings, he can be replaced if someone else offers him more than you’re willing to pay.

We don’t really know if the organization views its goaltending situation for next season as a question mark. Both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak are under contract for one more season, and a month ago everyone would’ve been in agreement about that being a good situation worth running back for another year.

But after Rask’s departure from the bubble two games into the postseason, it is worth wondering if he’s considering retirement. There are also plenty of critics who would like the Bruins to trade him if he doesn’t retire, but that seems unlikely. The Bruins understand why he left -- for a family emergency -- and don’t view him as a quitter like the haters do.

If Rask is playing, then we would expect him to remain the 1 and Halak the 2. If he retires, though, the Bruins would have to decide if one of their young, promising prospects -- likely Dan Vladar or Jeremy Swayman -- is ready to split NHL playing time with Halak, or if they need to find someone else to bring in.

Even if Chara, Krug and Rask are all back, keeping the band of veteran leaders that also includes Bergeron, Marchand and Krejci together, there are real questions about how many more Cup runs they have in them, if any.

You don’t want to overreact too much to what we saw over the last week-plus against the Lightning. After all, the Bruins did go to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last season, and they did win the President’s Trophy as the team with the best record in the regular season this year.

But they just lost in five games to a team that was missing one of its best players (Steven Stamkos) for the whole series and another (Ryan McDonagh) for three games, all of which you lost. Despite a valiant effort from the Bruins in Monday’s Game 5, the Lightning were pretty decisively the better team for much of the series, especially Games 3 and 4.

It’s not really reasonable to expect the aging core to get better going forward, so the challenge of getting more from the next wave of youth and finding the right complementary pieces to add in free agency or via trade only becomes more pressing.

This year the Bruins didn’t get enough from the players Cassidy termed the “second layer.” Their trade deadline acquisitions (Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie) didn’t work out nearly as well as the Lightning’s (Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow).

The result was a missed opportunity, and with a limited number of cracks at this remaining with this particular group -- or some modified version of this group -- that stings.

“We have a hell of a team and we expected better out of this year,” Marchand said. “We thought we had a chance to – Tampa has a great team, don’t get me wrong. Don’t want to take anything away from them, they have a great team. Just, the way things were rolling throughout the season, we thought we were going to go all the way.

“It’s a huge sacrifice to come here and guys had to really dedicate a lot of time and effort to be here. And it’s kind of a waste of time now. We spent the last three months getting ready for this, being here, and we walk away without anything to show for it. It’s tough and you never know how many opportunities you’re going to have to win a Cup. We never know if we’re going to be back in the Finals again or even in the playoffs again. Every opportunity missed, it hurts.”