Are we about to witness this Bruins core's 'Last Dance'? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The Boston Bruins are an older team, and their window to win the Stanley Cup is rapidly closing.
Therefore, it's not unfair to wonder whether the 2022-23 NHL season represents the last chance for the team's veteran core to win another championship.
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If it seems like this question has been asked every year for the last three or four seasons, you'd be correct. The Bruins have been trying to stave off a re-tool or full rebuild for a while now, and to their credit, the team has been pretty competitive during that span.
This time it feels different, though. It really does, in many ways, feel like the Bruins' version of "The Last Dance".
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"That core has been together for a long time,” former Bruins forward Shawn Thornton said on WEEI in August. "I think this town has been pretty fortunate about that core being able to stay together. They've brought in some ancillary pieces around them, some really good ones like (David Pastrnak) and some other guys.
"For them to come back another year, the town should be excited. You don't have that run forever. It doesn't last for 20 or 30 years, so we should probably embrace what's going on this year. Who knows how long they're going to be around."
That's the real question, isn't it?
Patrice Bergeron is 37 years old. Sure, he's coming off one of his best seasons ever and won the Selke Trophy for a record fifth time. He shows few, if any, signs of slowing down as an elite player. But Bergeron is about to embark on his 19th season, and he's endured plenty of wear and tear along the way. He came back on just a one-year deal, which means his future beyond the upcoming campaign is very much uncertain.
It's also hard to imagine Bergeron coming back if he didn't truly believe the team had a real chance to compete. After his return was made official in August, he reiterated his faith in the front office.
"I'm really confident," Bergeron said. "I believe in this team. I believe in management. I think we've made those decisions this summer because I wanted to play and I wanted to play for the Boston Bruins because I believe in the organization and that's never going to change."
David Krejci coming back to the Bruins after a one-year hiatus solved the Bruins' headache at second-line center. Erik Haula did an admirable job in that role last season, but he's no Krejci. The Czech forward is 36 years old and has played over 1,100 NHL games, including the playoffs. He's also signed to a one-year contract with an uncertain future.
Brad Marchand is the best all-around left wing in the world, and only seven players have scored more points than his 236 over the last three seasons. But he's also 34 years old and had surgery on both of his hips over the offseason. Even if he comes back healthy and remains a top-tier player, how much longer can he produce at or above a point-per-game rate in his mid-to-late thirties?
Who is the next wave of the Bruins stars? David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy are superstars. Hampus Lindholm is still in his prime at 28 years old. Jeremy Swayman could be a No. 1 goalie for the next decade. That's it. There are no other star-caliber players on this Bruins roster under age 30.
Another reason why it's hard to feel too optimistic about the Bruins' chances of contending beyond this season is the team's prospect pool. It ranks among the worst in the league. A combination of poor drafting, lackluster player development and giving up so many draft picks in trade deadline deals (including three of the team's last five first-rounders) are among the main reasons for the Bruins' weak prospect pipeline. Sure, there are a few exciting prospects in the system, with Fabian Lysell and Mason Lohrei atop the list, but there isn't a cavalry of top-tier talent coming from the lower levels of the organization anytime soon.
There's also the salary cap. The Bruins are right up against the cap ceiling as Opening Night approaches, and unless a trade or surprise waiver claim is made, they most likely will have to use LTIR to get cap compliant for the first regular season game.
Looking ahead, the cap is expected to be around $83.5 million for the 2023-24 season -- about $1 million more than this year's figure. The Bruins have nine unrestricted free agents and well over $15 million in cap hits coming off the books following the 2022-23 campaign. They will have a little more cap flexibility next summer. However, likely cap overages from Bergeron and Krejci's current contracts, plus any extension that Pastrnak signs, will eat up a good portion of next year's cap space. And the Bruins also will have to replace any of those nine UFAs who leave. Let's not forget the B's have several players eligible for restricted free agency next summer, including Swayman. Once all of that business is taken care of, there likely won't be much cap space left to make upgrades on the open market.
When you look at the age of the Bruins' best veteran players, the team's less-than-stellar salary cap outlook, the lack of high-end prospects in the pipeline, and other factors, it's not unfair to say that the upcoming season is likely the last chance for this specific group to compete for a Stanley Cup title.
This core has enjoyed an amazing run. Bergeron, Krejci and Marchand have all made at least 10 playoff appearances. Each has played in three Stanley Cup Final series and were key contributors to the 2011 championship. Their numbers almost certainly will be raised to the TD Garden rafters at some point.
And yet there could be more magic left in this group. If healthy, the Bruins absolutely can compete for the Stanley Cup this coming season. It's not far-fetched at all, and last week we outlined five reasons why. There is enormous potential with this roster.
All good things eventually come to an end, though, and for this veteran core, that conclusion might be nine months away.
There's no time to waste.