Bruins’ important offseason starts with 2 familiar faces

BOSTON — The Boston Bruins have arrived at a crossroad this offseason. By virtue of their 6-2 loss in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ second round against the New York Islanders, the black-and-gold’s summer has begun earlier than expected and with plenty of work on the horizon.

The first thing on the agenda will be the fate of two franchise pillars of the last decade-plus: center David Krejci and goaltender Tuukka Rask. Both have been with the club for nearly a decade and a half with Krejci, 35, just finishing up his 14th season with the B’s and Rask, 34, completing his 12th.

Both have been members of a Bruins core that have played their way to the Stanley Cup Final three times in nine seasons and have qualified for the playoffs all but twice in the last 14 years.

Rask has been between the pipes for Boston for two of those three Cup runs, leading Boston to Game 6 of the 2013 Final against the Chicago Blackhawks and Game 7 of the 2019 Final against the St. Louis Blues. Both times Rask and his counterparts have failed to earn the 16th win necessary to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup.

But apart from the lack of playoff hardware as a starter – a fact many throughout New England are quick to bring up in any discussion on the net minder – Rask has been one of the best goalies in the NHL during his time in Boston.

He’s won a Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie in 2013-14 and finished second in Vezina voting just a season ago when the Bruins won the President’s Trophy as the league’s best regular-season team. That year, as the Bruins played their way to a 44-14-12 record, Rask and backup Jaroslav Halak won the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the entire NHL.

His superb stretch of play in the 2019 postseason was likely the single biggest reason the Bruins advanced their way to the Stanley Cup Final that year.

Rask has been on the Bruins’ books for a $7 million AAV over the last eight years – a figure that has dismayed many of his critics this past near-decade. But with the 34-year-old nearing the end of his career – and dealing with a torn labrum that is expected to keep him out until at least next January following surgery – Rask’s cap hit is almost certain to come down on his next contract.

Then the question is what the Bruins plan to do about rookie goalie Jeremy Swayman.

The 22-year-old Alaska native and former UMaine product dazzled in his short sample size of 10 games this season with the black-and-gold. His performance – only 15 goals on 271 shots (.945 SV%) – has prompted questions about his status heading into next year.

Is the youngster ready to shoulder the load of a full NHL season as the starter for a team looking to contend yet another time before the likes of Patrice Bergeron have ridden off into the sunset? He’s certainly looked the part in his time with Boston. Coach Bruce Cassidy thought so enough to supplant Halak with Swayman as the team’s backup goalie headed into the postseason.

With Rask and Halak both set to be free agents, Swayman is set to inherit the cage if the Bruins don’t ink Rask to a new deal. Even if they do sign Rask – or another veteran goalie – Swayman and his veteran counterpart will likely split goaltending duties next season.

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So is a Rask reunion with the Bruins on the horizon? Maybe. It’s definitely in the Bruins’ interest to have a veteran goalie to pair alongside Swayman during the year.

Rask certainly has the track record for performing better when he splits time during the regular season and can be well-rested for the playoffs – that’s if Swayman isn’t the full-time starter going into the postseason. A short-term deal at a sub-$6 million AAV could be just right for both parties.

As far as Krejci goes, the 35-year-old has been a pivot on one of Boston’s top two lines since his days playing center between Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. Krejci’s constant presence – along with that of Bergeron – has stabilized the Bruins down the middle for the entire last decade.

He’s been one of the main drivers of the Boston offense and the biggest scoring threat outside of the top line. The narrative of ‘Playoff Krech’ has come from his postseason performances, like in 2011 and 2013 when he led the Bruins in scoring on their way to two Final appearances.

And with secondary scoring being Boston’s Achilles’ Heel in recent playoff runs, Krejci’s return would be important when springtime rolls around again in 2022.

Since Horton’s departure following the 2013 season, the Bruins have searched for a suitable replacement to play alongside Krejci. Boston finally locked down that player at this year’s NHL Trade Deadline when they acquired Taylor Hall.

Hall – who himself will need a new contract this offseason – flanked Krejci along with Craig Smith, an offseason signee a year ago. Both have been instrumental in providing the Bruins with depth scoring as the year wrapped up and the playoffs began earlier this spring.

And despite the line’s shortcomings against the Islanders, a full season of Hall-Krejci-Smith could help keep Boston’s ever-closing championship window ajar for just a bit longer as their veteran core strives for one last title run.

Similar to Rask, Krejci’s $7 million a year AAV will have to come down if he’s to return to Boston. But the Czech-born product said he did not want to play anywhere else besides Boston in the Bruins’ season wrap-up press availability Friday.

But would Krejci be willing to take a lesser money deal to stay with the Bruins if another team came calling at a higher price?

If he were, Boston would do well to bring Krejci back at a discount. While center has been a strong position for the Bruins with Bergeron and Krejci anchoring the top two lines, they’ve struggled to bring in players to eventually replace their top talents.

Charlie Coyle could be an option to fill Krejci’s spot on the second line if he leaves, but Coyle struggled the last season to produce, tallying a stat line of 6-10—16 in 51 games played. For comparison, Coyle had 16 goals in 70 regular-season games last year.

Young guns Jack Studnicka and natural center Trent Frederic aren’t ready to take over top-six duties at the position just yet. And prospect John Beecher still has yet to make his debut.

A Krejci reunion makes sense for both parties involved at this point, if the price is right. Krejci has said he wants to return to the only team he’s played for in the NHL and the Bruins need top-six centers while they develop their next wave of pivots or identify new ones to go get.

Add that in with the Bruins finally surrounding the centerman with scoring talent, and a new deal for Krejci could continue to give the Bruins depth scoring on the second line – this time for a full season. Similar to Rask, a short-term deal makes the most sense for the aging DK46.

There are certainly more moving parts Boston will have to deal with this summer. Sean Kuraly is an unrestricted free agent, Brandon Carlo will be a restricted free agent, and deadline acquisitions Taylor Hall and Mike Reilly will also need new deals either here or elsewhere. The front office will have to address the Bruins’ light back end, which was one of the main reasons they couldn’t advance deep into the postseason.

Oh, and the NHL Expansion Draft this summer will send one current Bruin to Seattle as a part of the newly-formed Kraken.

But for Boston, the offseason begins with what happens to two of their biggest core pieces that have helped steer the Bruins’ ship to consistent success amid multiple coaches, GMs, captains and countless depth players for the last decade-plus.