The NHL entry draft has finally wrapped up, and teams have now decided which of their restricted free agents will be tendered qualifying offers. Those players who did not receive a qualifying offer are set to hit free agency on July 13. Given the NHL’s recovery efforts from the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on attendance, the salary cap remains lower than predicted. The cap crunch means a stronger collection of players were not offered a qualifying offer, which could be intriguing to the Boston Bruins brass as they try to remain relevant in their push for a Stanley Cup while turning the page to a younger core. Below are three options the Bruins could pursue from the non-tendered pool of players.
Who doesn’t love a reunion? What about a double reunion? Bringing Danton Heinen back to Boston would be just that, bringing a player back to the team that drafted him and reuniting him with his college coach. During his first stint in Boston, Heinen struggled to find his footing. This was under former coach Bruce Cassidy, who has not necessarily been applauded for his handling of young players. Jim Montgomery has the opposite reputation. He is known for his communication and ability to elevate the play of his younger players.
The Bruins are also looking to improve on their 5-on-5 scoring. Conveniently, Heinen excels in that area. Of his 18 goals last season, 15 came at even strength, a figure that was tied with Sidney Crosby for second on the Pittsburgh Penguins. I doubt anyone will draw a Crosby comparison to Heinen, but those numbers are still relevant. Add that to a steady and responsible 200-foot game, and this has the makings of a strong fit.
Now, if Heinen is this great, why didn’t the Penguins extend him a qualifying offer? Good question. The short answer is the salary cap. Heinen played so well that he priced himself out of a contract, and an arbitration hearing would likely have sided with him over the team, meaning the Pens would have had to get creative to clear space for him while also attempting to retain Evgeni Malkin. Given the raise is likely due, Pittsburgh let him walk.
Last season, Heinen was signed for $1.1 million, this new contract will certainly double that, but for at or below $3 million a year, the Bruins should consider bringing in a player who can contribute at even strength, maintain a responsible defensive game, and who has had success with the new coach.
Dominik Kubalik is a bit of an enigma. After coming in third in Calder Trophy voting, losing out to two defensemen – winner Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes – Kubalik’s stats have regressed. He still posts decent offensive numbers, but nothing close to his 30-goal introduction to the NHL. His 15 goals would have been on pace with the two players who should slot into the Bruins’ third line, Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith, and just behind their potential linemate Erik Haula.
Kubalik does not have the two-way game that Heinen has, but he does have a greater offensive toolkit. For a team that might struggle to create offensive chances, especially at the start of the season, having a player with a shot like Kubalik is valuable. Although his last contract carried an average cap hit of $3.7 million, it is safe to assume he could be had for cheaper. Adding an offensive weapon who could, with the right linemates, find his way back to the 25-goal range. If Don Sweeney can get the number below $2 million a season, Kubalik would be an intriguing option for the Bruins.
The biggest name among those who did not receive a qualifying offer, Dylan Strome, will be a popular man when free agency opens. With the Chicago Blackhawks, Strome played to a 55-point pace over a full season, serviceable numbers for a player not expected to carry a first line. Still, the Hawks decided to not extend him an offer as Chicago continues to spiral towards a rebuild.
Strome has the offensive ability to become a second-line contributor on a contending team. His drawbacks come from his speed, that prevents him from separating from his man, and these same slow feet don’t allow him to always be the best defender possible. Under Cassidy, Strome would have been a non-starter; His defensive flaws would have eliminated any discussion of signing him. But with Cassidy behind the Vegas Golden Knights’ bench, maybe Strome could find a home in Montgomery’s system.
Based on his time in Chicago and his pedigree as a top-3 draft pick, Strome will have plenty of suitors, meaning a bidding war could easily develop. If this happens, the Bruins should be written off. Their cap space is precariously thin as is, and they can’t get dragged into a higher cap hit because of other suitors. If, however, the prospect of learning from Patrice Bergeron, the greatest two-way forward in NHL history, and the chance to share the ice with stars like Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, not to mention the chance to play in another Original Six market with a chance to compete, then the Bruins should make a compelling case to the Strome camp.
Who Should the Bruins Sign?
Heinen feels like the best option of this group. He does not have Strome’s name recognition, but he has the most complete game of the options available and best fits with the Bruins’ roster construction. Similarly, he will not cost what Strome will command, and he will not be as defensively unreliable as Kubalik. Plus, there were times with the Bruins when Heinen showed flashes of the player he can become, and those flashes should become more frequent under a coach who has a better reputation with younger players.
Vince Reilly covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Vince graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelors in History and Political Science and earned a Masters in Sports Administration from Belmont University. He has worked in the Predators Front Office on Analytics and Operations, with Major League Baseball in Replay, and now with Tufts University as a Director of Hockey Analytics. Vince can always be found with a coffee in hand and he promises his sarcastic tone will always shine through his work.