How could the Bruins swing for Hanifin? Nearly $20 million in future cap space

CALGARY — The Boston Bruins are the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference. Even with Linus Ullmark missing his best stuff on Thursday, the Bruins had enough gas on the night after a 6-5 overtime win over the Edmonton Oilers to take a point in their 3-2 overtime loss to the Calgary Flames.

“I’ve got to be ready,” said Ullmark (27 saves on 30 shots), leaky on a Martin Pospisil rebound goal in the final minute of the first. “Whenever there’s a second game of a back-to-back, you’ve got to rely a little more on your goaltender to make some saves. Do I wish I could make a couple more? Yeah. I think so.”

The East’s top dogs, however, are short a few teeth before the March 8 trade deadline. 

Their first need has always been an impact wing to complement David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. Injuries to the left side of their defense — Hampus Lindholm is week to week, Matt Grzelcyk is day to day — are pushing blue-line reinforcement to the front burner. 

On the latter matter, Norwood native Noah Hanifin (a team-leading 24 minutes, 34 seconds of ice time on Thursday), No. 1 on The Athletic’s trade board, gave the Bruins an in-person look at Scotiabank Saddledome of how he could impact their postseason fortune — and beyond. When it comes to making a play for Hanifin, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney’s best card to play is the nearly $20 million in cap space he will enjoy in 2024-25.

Eight players are due to become unrestricted free agents after this season: Grzelcyk, Jake DeBrusk, Derek Forbort, Kevin Shattenkirk, Milan Lucic, James van Riemsdyk, Danton Heinen and Anthony Richard. The Bruins will also be free of the $4.5 million overage penalty that came due this year because of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci’s 2022-23 bonuses.

Total cap clearance: $19,796,500. 

Sweeney will not have all of it available to spend. Of the eight-player UFA-to-be cohort, DeBrusk is the player the Bruins would most like to re-sign. Sweeney also has to budget for the raise due to Jeremy Swayman, whose one-year, $3.475 million arbitration award will require refreshing.

That still leaves plenty of free cash to persuade a trade target like Hanifin to sign an extension instead of testing free agency on July 1. Not every club will have a similar amount of dough to dangle. Teams are not as eager to hand over a bundle of assets without future cap freedom to transform a rental into a long-term keeper.

The trick is the heavy lifting required well before an acquisition puts pen to paper. 

In Hanifin’s case, Sweeney would have to put enough on the table to persuade Flames counterpart Craig Conroy to send the 27-year-old home. That will not be easy. With no picks in Rounds 1, 2 and 3 in 2024, Sweeney would have to put other assets in play, such as Matt Poitras, Fabian Lysell or Mason Lohrei. 

Sweeney was not afraid to send multiple picks and blue-line prospect Urho Vaakanainen to Anaheim in 2022 for Lindholm. One day after acquiring Lindholm, Sweeney signed the pending UFA to an eight-year, $52 million deal.

But even if Sweeney offers enough to catch Conroy’s eye, he’d need help fitting Hanifin’s $4.95 million average annual value onto their books. Salary retention would be required. The Bruins might even need another team to assume part of Hanifin’s remaining AAV. Tomorrow’s cap freedom does nothing to ease today’s tightness. 

Consider how little cap oxygen the Bruins currently have. When Grzelcyk limped off in the first period against the Oilers, the Bruins needed another defenseman as insurance with three games remaining in their Western tour. To bring Ian Mitchell up from Providence and be cap-compliant, the Bruins had to assign Justin Brazeau to Providence.

Brazeau did not deserve the assignment.

The No. 4 right wing, who signed his two-year, $1.55 million entry-level contract on Monday, had met the ask in his first two NHL games. Brazeau scored in his NHL debut against the Dallas Stars. He put three more pucks on net against the Oilers.

But the Bruins had an extra forward in Jakub Lauko. So instead of making his third straight appearance on Thursday, Brazeau took a seat in the Saddledome press box. Whether he will return to the varsity soon is unknown. Even the rookie’s $775,000 AAV is too costly for the Bruins to carry.

In that way, the Bruins are fortunate that Richard is also earning the league minimum. Richard, recalled from Providence on Feb. 8, has appeared in seven straight games. The left-shot speedster’s most recent appearance may have been his best.

In the third period, after Andrei Kuzmenko sent a wraparound attempt wide of the net, Richard settled the puck in the slot. He spotted Charlie Coyle blowing the zone. Richard flipped the puck off the glass toward where he thought Coyle would end up. Coyle reeled in the puck, raced in on Jacob Markstrom and backhanded the tying goal past the Calgary goalie.

“He makes a smart play, puts it to an area,” said coach Jim Montgomery. “He makes sure we’re managing the game, we’re moving north, playing direct. Just his tenacity on pucks. Another guy who I thought was tired in the first, then found his legs in the second.”

The 27-year-old Richard appeared in 13 games for the Montreal Canadiens last year. It’s different this season. He is more sure of himself, confident enough to apply his speed and tenaciousness. Montgomery trusted Richard enough to have him on the ice for the final shift of regulation.

“It was more a fourth-line role,” Richard said of his Montreal stint. “You try to bring energy. But you don’t touch the puck much. It’s more about finishing your hit and trying to create energy. Here, it’s more that we possess the puck and we play with the puck. So for a guy like me, for sure it’s easier to play with the puck and have confidence. When you’re in the lineup every game, you kind of trust yourself a little more.”

Richard and fellow minimum-wagers Heinen and Jesper Boqvist are giving the Bruins bang for the buck. Whether big-ticket reinforcements are inbound remains to be seen.

(Photo of Noah Hanifin: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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