The Boston Bruins' offseason has begun earlier than many people expected, and whether the team is able to construct a roster capable of making a deep run in next year's Stanley Cup Playoffs hinges on the decision of a franchise legend.
Patrice Bergeron's contract is about to expire, making him an unrestricted free agent in July. The Bruins captain is 36 years old and just finished his 18th NHL season following the team's 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series Saturday night.
Bergeron said before the season that he wasn't focusing on his contractual status and didn't want to discuss it during the year. He made similar comments during Round 1 of the playoffs, including his press conference after Game 7.
“It’s too early right now,” Bergeron said when asked about his future. “Not after -- it’s too fresh right now. It still stings, obviously, from a hard-fought series. Came up short. Obviously, I’m going to have to think about it, but I’m not there right now.”
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy doesn't know which way Bergeron might be leaning.
"He means so much to this franchise," Cassidy said after Game 7. "We all want him back, but only he can answer that. I have no inkling. I have not addressed it with him. It’s not my place in the middle of the season. He’ll make that decision going forward.”
The Bruins desperately need Bergeron to come back because it's hard to imagine this team having any chance at being a real threat in the Eastern Conference next season without him.
Heck, the roster has glaring flaws even with his name at the top of it.
Let's start with Bergeron's current form. He's still one of the best players in the league. Barring a major surprise, he should be the runaway winner of the Selke Trophy as the sport's premier two-way forward. From an analytics standpoint, Bergeron had one of the best defensive seasons since these stats entered the public eye after the 2004-05 lockout.
Bergeron's offensive production doesn't get enough credit. He's coming off his ninth consecutive season scoring 20-plus goals. His playoff scoring has been consistently strong, too. The veteran center posted seven points (three goals, four assists) in seven games against the Hurricanes. He's tallied 126 points in 166 career postseason games.
So, from a performance perspective, Bergeron is nowhere near empty on the gas tank.
If Bergeron were to leave, his departure would create a massive hole at first-line center. Boston's longtime No. 2 center, David Krejci, left the team last offseason to finish his career at home in the Czech Republic. B's general manager Don Sweeney failed to adequately replace Krejci. Erik Haula is not a No. 2 center on a championship contender.
A Bruins roster without Bergeron and Krejci leaves Charlie Coyle and Haula as the top two centers. That's far from ideal, to say the least.
And it's not like there are a plethora of high-end free agents the Bruins could pursue to fill Bergeron's role if he does retire.
Claude Giroux and Evgeni Malkin are two notable centers with expiring deals, but they're 34 and 35 years old, respectively. Pierre-Luc Dubois is a restricted free agent, but acquiring those players via trade or an offer sheet is often difficult.
The options from within the organization are even more lackluster. Neither Coyle nor Haula are legit top-six centers on a contender. There are no prospects in Providence who could fill that role. Jack Studnicka has yet to prove he's a regular NHL player. University of Michigan center John Beecher, who was Boston's first-round pick in 2019, is nowhere near ready for a top-six NHL job.
What about the trade market? The Bruins probably don't have the quality of prospects or the draft capital required to pull off a major acquisition for a center capable of replacing Bergeron. Boston doesn't own its first- or third-round pick this year. The team has traded away 2023 and 2024 second-round picks, too.
Maybe if Bergeron comes back the Bruins could add a few pieces and contend for another Cup. But the Eastern Conference is absolutely loaded. The Tampa Bay Lightning aren't going anywhere. The Toronto Maple Leafs are a top team. The Florida Panthers are built to contend for many years. The Hurricanes have a tremendous young core and a great coach. The road to the Stanley Cup Final through the East figures to be quite hard for a while.
Bergeron has some time to make his decision. The 2022 NHL Draft isn't until July 8, and free agency begins July 13. The Bruins want him back and need him to return if they're going to have any chance of competing during the 2022-23 campaign.