The Bruins had a historically great goalie rotation in the regular season. They did not continue that rotation in their first-round loss to the Panthers, opting to ride probable Vezina Trophy winner Linus Ullmark until he faltered – and possibly broke down physically – in Games 5 and 6, finally prompting a switch to Jeremy Swayman for Game 7.
Whether the Ullmark-Swayman tandem and their post-win hugs return next season is one of the biggest questions facing the Bruins this offseason.
Sunday Skate: What will the Bruins do this offseason?
In a perfect world, of course the Bruins would love to keep both goalies for at least one more year. There is certainly a path for them to do that.
Ullmark is under contract for two more seasons at $5 million a year, a more than fair price for someone who just won the goaltending triple crown. Swayman is a restricted free agent, still under some team control. He’s in line for a raise, but RFAs don’t have the leverage to truly maximize their earnings the way an unrestricted free agent does.
The Bruins, however, are not operating in a perfect world. They are operating in a salary cap world, and that world necessitates some really tough decisions when you’re a team that has eight unrestricted free agents, three restricted free agents, and not even $5 million of cap space to work with.
If Don Sweeney and the Bruins want to keep more than one or two of those free agents, they have to shed some salary by trading away someone, or multiple someones.
Neither Ullmark nor Swayman would be near the top of the list of players Sweeney would “want” to trade, to whatever extent he “wants” to trade anyone. The natural place to start would be on defense, where moving one of Matt Grzelcyk (one year, $3.69 million left on his contract), Mike Reilly (one year, $3M) or Derek Forbort (one year, $3M) makes sense.
The question is how much interest there would be in any of them. Grzelcyk would seemingly have the most value, but undersized defensemen aren’t exactly in vogue around the league right now. Reilly went unclaimed through waivers multiple times this past season. A lot of teams might feel like they can find their own Forbort without taking on a $3 million contract.
The Bruins could buy out one or two of those defensemen, which would save them money this season, but that would also mean carrying over a cap hit of more than $1 million for the 2024-25 season.
Up front, Taylor Hall (two years left, $6M AAV) and Jake DeBrusk (one year, $4M) would presumably draw a good amount of interest. But forward is also the Bruins’ thinnest position as of right now, with just seven forwards currently under NHL contract for next season. Trading one of those guys really only makes sense if the Bruins have a deal in place to lock up UFA-to-be Tyler Bertuzzi, who just tied for the team lead in scoring in the first round.
That brings us to goaltending. The Bruins had the best goaltending situation in the NHL this past season not just because of the performance of Ullmark and Swayman, but also because they were spending under $6 million on the position. If Swayman jumps up to, say, $3-4 million (Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections actually have him at $4.15M), then Boston is spending $8-9 million on the position and is suddenly near the top of the league in terms of money spent on the goaltending position.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if Ullmark and Swayman are as good as they were this regular season, or even close to it. But it’s also a luxury the Bruins may not be able to afford as they look to fill holes elsewhere.
When push came to shove in the playoffs, the Bruins did what most other teams throughout NHL history have done: They picked a No. 1 goalie and ended their regular-season rotation. Perhaps the Bruins as an organization will re-evaluate their approach and be more open to a playoff rotation next year. If not, trading away one of the goalies now at what could be their peak value makes a lot of sense.
Whether it’s to address a need elsewhere (like perhaps a top-two center should Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci both retire) or to replenish the farm system via picks or prospects, trading Ullmark or Swayman could help the Bruins get to wherever the team is heading next, while also freeing up money in the process.
Brandon Bussi ranked second in the AHL with a .925 save percentage this season and was a league All-Star. He may very well be ready to be an NHL backup. If the Bruins think he needs more seasoning, they could sign a veteran backup for less money than either Ullmark or Swayman will make.
Two years ago, the Bruins had the option to go young and cheap at the goalie position with Swayman and Dan Vladar. They opted not to, trading away Vladar and signing the more experienced Ullmark instead. That obviously worked out well.
This is a little different, though. Swayman had only made 10 NHL starts at that point. Now he has two full NHL seasons under his belt, and he has the sixth-best save percentage in the league over those two years. He’s a fairly proven commodity at this point. The Bruins shouldn’t have the same reservations about pairing a young goalie with him if they choose to go the route of trading Ullmark.
Will the Bruins trade one of Ullmark or Swayman this offseason? Obviously we have no idea at this point. It’s not something they’d be particularly happy about doing. But there are probably several moves coming this offseason that they’re not going to be thrilled about. This is one that is at least worth exploring.