BOSTON -- Its not inaccurate to say that a healthy portion of Bostons offensive forecast for next season is riding on the good health of Nathan Horton.
Its been nothing but good news for the top-line right winger all summer-long, and that trend continued on Tuesday as Peter Chiarelli announced that Horton has been cleared for contact by the Bruins medical staff.
Chiarelli confirmed that both Horton and Adam McQuaid have sufficiently recovered from their season-ending concussions, and that Tyler Seguin remains ahead of schedule after undergoing surgery for a problematic knuckle on his left hand.
Horton has been cleared for contact and our medical staff says hes hell ready to go when we start playing, said Chiarelli. McQuaid has already been fully cleared medically. Seguin is coming along according to schedule if not even ahead of that.
Horton suffered his second concussion in seven months when he went down after absorbing a Tom Sestito blind side hit against the Philadelphia Flyers in January, and missed the final 36 games of the regular season along with the playoffs. The Bruins went a pedestrian 18-16-2 during those 36 games and dropped an entire goal in their goals per game production without the offensively adept winger.
The uncertainty surrounding Horton has been one of the biggest challenges for the Bruins during this summer. If healthy he gives them a 25-goal scorer and capable offensive player that was clearly missing during their first round playoff loss to the Washington Capitals, but Horton would again leave a gaping hole if he suffered another concussion or had a recurrence of his post-concussion symptoms once the NHL gets going in the fall.
Thats why the Bruins GM alluded to potentially improving the team via trades once the season is underway, even if there are no blockbuster moves made during the summer months. The Bruins can evaluate just how fully Horton will be able to contribute after watching him operate on the first line for a few months next season. Then they can make a determination on the right winger as he comes into the final year of his contract before unrestricted free agency.
Things didn’t look good for right winger Brett Connolly returning to the Bruins after they opted not to tender him a qualifying offer a couple of days ago. Now it appears the former No. 6 overall pick will be headed toward unrestricted free agency.
A league source told CSNNE.com on Friday morning that “it was fairly certain” Connolly wouldn’t be re-signing with Boston leading up to July 1 and that the right wing would be getting a fresh start someplace else next season.
The B’s had maintained some level of public interest in keeping Connolly, 24, after relinquishing his RFA rights, but there hasn’t been much in the way of substantive communication between the two sides over the last few days.
Connolly scored nine goals and 25 points with a minus-1 in 71 games for the Black and Gold last season in a disappointing offensive season playing on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
He went long stretches without scoring goals or posting points last season and never played like the 6-foot-2, 193-pound power forward-type he was projected to be coming out of junior hockey.
It was a step back from a decent season as a Tampa Bay Lightning third liner in 2014-15, and a clear bummer after they’d shipped a pair of second round picks to the Bolts in exchange for the former lottery pick.
With Connolly now headed for free agency with zero assets coming back to the Bruins in exchange for him, chalk this up as another total loss for the Bruins at a trade deadline where they’ve really damaged their long term organizational prospects over the past couple of years.
The Bruins have made some signings to varying degrees of significance on the July 1 opening of NHL free agency
The Bruins signed rugged, productive center David Backes to a five-year contract worth $6 million a year that will take the 32-year-old up until he’s 38. The former St. Louis Blues captain is tough, intense and physical along with being a guy that can chip in 20 plus goals on offense, and he will bring some of that fire to the Black and Gold starting next season. But the 6-foot-3, 221-pound forward has also already played 700 plus games in the NHL, heavy miles logged given his physical style of play. It will be interesting to see what kind of player Backes is when he approaches the 36-38 year old range a few years down the road.
The Backes signing came soon after word came that the B's lost Loui Eriksson to the Vancouver Canucks to a deal believed to be worth $36 million over six years.
"I am as excited as can be to join an Original Six team w/tons of history & a great chance to win," Backes told CSNNE.com. "The courtship period and vision for winning with this group was irresistible."
In announcing Torey Krug's contract extension on Thursday night. Bruins GM Don Sweeney said of he B's free agent pursuits: “The flexibility piece is there. Now, we just need to make it happen, be it through trade or free agency, we’ll continue to improve. Players on this roster or whatever we have to do — there are certain players that I’ve mentioned before that are a big part of our group in winning and we’re very, very unlikely to move.
“But discussions will come down with different general managers — they’re going to want, they’re going to have the asks, and I do, too, so you have to try and make it work and you realize that good players are exchanged and it’s not a fun process, but in order to improve your team, you’re going to have to give something up.
In addition to Backes, who scored 21 goals and 45 points in 79 games last season, the Bruins also inked backup goaltender Anton Khudobin to a short-term deal and re-signed John-Michael Liles to a one-year, $2 million contract after arriving at the trade deadline last spring.
The Bruins still hold high hopes for what free agency might bring them for a defenseman when the market opens Friday at noontime, but it also feels like Bruins GM Don Sweeney is under-promising while hoping to over-deliver. Either that or the Bruins really don’t have many good prospects at significantly improving their blue line group headed into next season.
For the first time Sweeney made a “defenseman-by-committee” reference during Thursday’s conference call to announce the four year contract extension for Torey Krug, and talked up positive contract talks with 35-year-old John-Michael Liles.
Yes, that’s the same Liles that was a minus-7 in 17 games with the Bruins after coming to Boston at the trade deadline for draft picks and Anthony Camara. One would expect it to be a one year deal at a very reduced rate along the lines of last year’s $2.75 million to bring Liles back in Boston if the Bruins can’t somehow land a bigger free agent fish like Jason Demers, or Brian Campbell.
There’s also the possibility of something shaking loose with Kevin Shattenkirk or Cam Fowler in trade discussions, but Liles was the only available defenseman that Sweeney addressed by name during his chat with reporters.
“We’ve talked to free agent candidates. I’ve mentioned John-Michael [Liles]; I think that we’ve had very, very productive talks there. We’re looking for balance; we’re looking for younger players to have an opportunity to emerge and grab a hold of that,” said Sweeney. “Whichever we can improve our team internally or externally, we’re going to continue to evaluate and pursue. The trade market … whether that materializes remains to be seen. And it’s not an easy process, nor is the free agency process.
“So we’re going to do the work to try and improve our team but it starts internally with our group. And our coaches are excited about what our young players are going to bring to the table.”
After signing Krug to a four year extension that will pay him $5.25 million per season and buying out Dennis Seidenberg’s contract, the Bruins still have $19 million to play with headed into Friday’s open of the free agent market. So the Bruins have the capital to be players on July 1 if they want to make a big splash.
It just remains to be seen whether the Bruins will be capable of making a big splash given the available players, and how many of the big named ones seem to be leaning toward NHL destinations other than the Black and Gold.