The search continues for the Buffalo Sabres to find a top-pair defenseman to play alongside Rasmus Ristolainen for years to come in Buffalo.
Sabres general manager Tim Murray has expressed his interest in acquiring a quarterback defenseman who can move the puck well and play with Ristolainen and build chemistry.
Many different names have been tossed around the rumor mill since the 2015-16 season has come to an end. Names like Anaheim Ducks defensemen Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, and Sami Vatanen have been brought up in recent memory. Other names like St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie, or Minnesota Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin have also come up in rumors of being moved at some point this offseason.
However, the Boston Bruins are beginning to create a situation for themselves where they may have to trade another young defenseman on the blue line.
25-year old defenseman Torey Krug is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1 when his one-year, $3.4 million dollar contract expires. Krug has spent parts of the last five seasons with the Bruins, totaling 125 career points in 241 games with the organization.
However, Boston is just another team in the National Hockey League with salary cap problems that may have to move young talent out of town in order to stay under the cap ceiling before the 2016-17 begins. Krug is another young, talented player who is set to sign a long-term contract with a team and will earn a big bonus in annual salary.
If the Bruins are unable to come to an agreement on a new deal with Krug, could general manager Don Sweeney look to make a trade and get some future assets in return? And if so, could the Sabres be interested in acquiring Krug as a top-pair defenseman?
For Boston, there is a strong sense of déjà vu after last offseason’s trade of defenseman, Dougie Hamilton. On the day of the NHL Draft, Sweeney traded the 22-year old to the Calgary Flames for the 15th overall pick in the first round (Zachary Senyshyn), and two second round picks at 45th overall (Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson) and 52nd overall (Jeremy Lauzon). The Bruins and Hamilton had talked for weeks on a contract extension to remain in Boston, but Sweeney could not turn down the trade to acquire a first round pick in the Draft.
Hamilton would go to Calgary and sign a six-year, $34.5 million contract with the Flames a few days later.
Sweeney was heavily criticized for this trade of Hamilton with the Bruins beginning to age on back-end. Hamilton was not even in the prime of his career at the age of 22, was one of Boston’s top-minute blue liners, was a top powerplay contributor, and he had finished in the top-five of team-scoring in the 2014-15 season. In addition, to only acquire draft picks in this deal and not grab an NHL-ready player in return drew the ire of many in the Boston area.
With the departure of Hamilton in Boston, Krug’s role with the team was much greater. Krug’s average ice-time went up by over two minutes per-game, which saw Krug get more time on the powerplay, and he ended up becoming even more of an offensive threat for the Bruins.
Krug’s point production went up from 39 points (12 goals and 27 assists) in 2014-15 to 44 points (four goals and 40 assists). 14 of those points in the 2014-15 season came on the powerplay, which increased to 19 points during the 2015-16 season. In addition, Krug threw 39 more shots on goal this past season (244) than he did the prior year.
Where there is a difference in the two defenders’ style of play is that Krug is the more offensive-minded blue liner who can skate and move the puck well. While Krug may not stand tall on the ice at just 5′ 9″, Krug does play a powerful game with his shot and his physical play.
However, the Bruins are only getting older on the blue line, and Sweeney has yet to address the matter with re-signing Krug. Bruins’ captain Zdeno Chara is 39 years old, and will be turning 40 next March. Dennis Seidenberg is another aging defenseman at 34, but he will be turning 35 in July.
The two defenders combine for a salary cap hit of $10.917 million over the next two seasons before both players’ contracts expire.
Last season, the Bruins re-signed defenseman Adam McQuaid, 29, to a four-year extension on the second day of unrestricted free agency. McQuaid, a big, physical, bottom-pair defender was also given a nice raise in free agency with a cap hit of $2.75 million per-year.
Once again, Sweeney was criticized for this signing after letting go of a young 22-year old cornerstone defenseman. The 6′ 4″ and 212-pound defenseman has 52 points in 347 career NHL games, but has had issues with staying healthy. Instead of giving a defenseman who can score more than 52 points in a season a long-term deal, they gave an aging lunker a ludicrous deal.
On Tuesday, the Bruins re-signed 28-year old defenseman Kevan Miller to a four-year extension with an annual salary of $2.5 million. The big defender will play in his fourth season with the Bruins next year, and has 31 career points in 159 games. Miller stands at 6′ 2″ and a built, 210-pounds and plays a more physical and defensive style of play. And, like McQuaid, Miller has had some issues with staying in the lineup due to his health.
Talk about more feelings of déjà vu…
So now it is present day, and the Bruins have over $16 million tied up in salary on the blue line. May not seem like a lot, but that is also not taking into account the rest of the lineup and free agency additions.
The Bruins will have to make a decision on its major unrestricted free agent in Loui Eriksson, who has said to want to earn an annual salary of around $6 million per-year. Boston may also have to re-sign back-up goalie Jonas Gustavsson, or find another back-up in free agency. On defense, John-Michael Liles is likely out after being acquired at this year’s trade deadline as a rental player. Zach Trotman is also a pending unrestricted free agent, but the Bruins could go a different direction with him.
As for the team’s other notable restricted free agents, Boston will have to decide on whether they want to bring back forwards Brett Connolly and Landon Ferraro. On the blue line, Colin Miller and Joe Morrow are the other two restricted free agents along with Krug. Miller was acquired last season from the Los Angeles Kings in a trade that sent Milan Lucic to Southern California. Morrow was acquired back in 2014 in a trade that sent forward Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars.
On top of all this, forward Brad Marchand is about to enter the final year of his contract at $4.5 million per-year. This year, Marchand put up a career-year in Boston with 37 goals and 61 points in 77 games. The 28-year old will likely get a nice extension from the Bruins at some point, which may see him earning an annual salary of over $6 million.
Two more players that will need to be re-signed to new deals after this upcoming season are forwards Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak. Spooner put up 49 points in his first full season with the Bruins, while Pastrnak will likely have a greater role with the team next year in his first full season in the NHL.
Where do the Bruins sit in terms of prospect depth on the blue line? Not bad actually.
At 23, Colin Miller is still considered a prospect, but will likely spend a majority of the 2016-17 season with the Bruins. Boston native Matt Grzelcyk signed his entry-level deal this offseason after a successful four years at Boston University. The Bruins also have Jakub Zboril, Brandon Carlo, and Lauzon in the system, but all three will likely need another year with their respective Canadian Hockey League teams and in the American Hockey League with the Providence Bruins.
With all the circumstances, it is likely that Krug will be in store for quite the pad day with his new contract. But how much will Krug likely earn with his new deal?
When comparing Krug to all the potential trade targets available for the Sabres this offseason, Krug is actually the second oldest of the group at 25-years old. However, age is just a number as Krug put up the second most points among this group with his 44 points. Only Barrie put up more stats than Krug with 49 (13 goals and 36 assists), and Kevin Shattenkirk matched Krug’s total of 44 (14 goals and 30 assists).
Krug, Barrie, Lindholm, and Vatanen are all restricted free agents going into the offseason this year. All four are likely going to get a nice raise with their new contracts, which could exceed an annual salary of $4 or $5 million per-year. Brodin had recently signed a six-year extension with the Wild that will see him paid $4.1667 million per-year through the 2020-2021 season. Fowler in Anaheim still has two years remaining on his contract at $4 million per-year, while Shattenkirk will be an unrestricted free agent after next season at a cap hit of $4.25 million.
As for Krug, it may be possible that he could make anywhere between $4.5 million and $5.5 million in his next contract.
In order to make the trade to acquire Krug, it may cost the Sabres a roster player or prospect and maybe a couple of draft picks this year. The Sabres do have plenty of ammunition in terms of draft picks with 12 in the 2016 NHL Draft and nine in the 2017 NHL Draft.
One important factor to look at with Krug compared to some of the players that could be available via trade is their shot orientation. Krug is a left-handed shot, which is a position of need for the Sabres on defense. The only other left-handed shot defenseman in this group of players inclueds Brodin, Lindholm, and Fowler.
If Murray wants to have a chance to make the playoffs in the 2016-17 season, acquiring a defenseman like Krug may be a move than can help accelerate the process for the Sabres. Krug could play on the top-defensive pairing with Ristolainen, and could be another young offensive weapon for the Sabres for many years to come.
If Sweeney decides to put Krug up for trade, Murray should at least make the call to perk up interest. If the price is right for Krug, pull the trigger and take a chance.