Even a few months ago, it was possible defenseman Torey Krug wasn’t long for Boston. He was a pending UFA and hadn’t made progress in contract talks. He was 28, still in his prime as one of the NHL’s top puck-moving defensemen. He was set to command a contract north of $8 million per season on the open market. And the Boston Bruins, with RFA left winger Jake DeBrusk needing a new contract, would have a tough time fitting Krug under the salary cap on paper. On top of the DeBrusk deal, they’d have to make a decision on re-upping captain Zdeno Chara and needed to sign a backup goalie with Jaroslav Halak becoming a UFA.
And that was before the COVID-19 shutdown put the league’s salary-cap structure very much in doubt. Forget the optimistic projections of $84 to $88 million. At this point, it’ll qualify as a surprise if the cap stays at its current $81.5-million mark, and every week and month that passes without NHL hockey revenues makes it more likely we’ll see the cap shrink. Krug’s salary, then, projects to be more difficult to fit under the cap now than it did even in February. Only five blueliners have more points than Krug over the past three seasons, and only two have more primary assists. He’s earned a massive payday.
So Krug’s comments during a conference call Tuesday had to make Bruins fans nervous. Speaking with the earnest tone that consistently makes him one of the sport’s more colorful interview subjects, he had this to say about his contract situation when addressing the media:
“There are so many unknowns, and you can control only so much of that. For me personally, I really hope I did not play my last game as a Boston Bruin. It’s been a place for me and my family to grow. My love for the game and playing in front of these fans has been very special for me. (The situation) hasn’t given me any clarity. If anything, it’s made me wonder about this process a little bit more. I was just in the moment and playing games trying to help my team win and hopefully push us in the right direction to win a championship. And now, with the season paused, I’ve definitely wondered about what’s going to happen, but in terms of clarity there pretty much has been none. From a business perspective, I can’t put any assumptions on it, but I can only guess that things are going to look a little different from a salary-cap perspective next year, and team structures are going to be affected by that as well. I have no clarity, and I wish I had a better answer, but that’s just the reality of the situation.”
It’s no guarantee the NHL will complete the 2019-20 season, even if it wants to. Should world health professionals not deem pro sports safe to resume until a date at which the league must sacrifice this season to protect next season, Krug will go UFA before his next game with the Bruins, and it could end up being his last with them. What are his most likely landing spots once he goes to market?
1. BOSTON BRUINS
We’ll start with the obvious. We can never count out the existing team. Krug wants to stay, which matters. The Bruins still need Krug if they can find a way to fit him under the cap. Only one of Boston’s top five prospects in Future Watch 2020 (which can be purchased with our app here) is a defenseman, and Urho Vaakanainen’s ceiling is debatable. He’s a good prospect, but our scouting panel merely slotted him 71st among all NHL-affiliated farmhands. The point being, there isn’t a guaranteed replacement for Krug coming down the pipeline. This isn’t Colorado being able to trade Tyson Barrie because it had Cale Makar. The Bruins would love to keep Krug if they can. It’s possible he can fit. If the cap stayed at $81.5 million, they’d have north of $20 million available. It’s also possible Chara, 43, retires rather than re-ups. If the NHL ends up opting for salary rollbacks, it wouldn’t be a surprise if compliance buyouts accompanied them, so that would present GM Don Sweeney with another way to free up space for Krug. The Bruins are very much still in the game.
2. DETROIT RED WINGS
Where is Krug spending his family isolation time? In his home state of Michigan, of course. He played under-18 hockey with Compuware and college hockey at Michigan State. He grew up a massive Red Wings fan and even played for their current coach, Jeff Blashill, in the USHL. Now Detroit’s GM happens to be a franchise icon in Steve Yzerman. The fit could not be more perfect. The Red Wings also happen to have veterans Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson going UFA this summer and already dealt pending UFA Mike Green away at the deadline in February. They have loads of cap space, and Krug would be a good veteran leader to help the power play and take pressure off the next generation of prospects, including Moritz Seider and Dennis Cholowski. Working to Krug’s advantage: the draft lottery and draft will have come and gone by the time he goes to market, meaning he’ll know if the Wings have won the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes.
3. VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
The Golden Knights traded top prospect Erik Brannstrom last winter and shipped Colin Miller in a salary dump last summer. They ended up chasing D-corps upgrades from that point onward. They scored an experienced veteran with a year left of term in Alec Martinez during trade-deadline week, but he’s more of a depth stopgap at this point of his career. The Golden Knights lack a single blueliner among their top five prospects according to our Future Watch 2020 panel of NHL scouts. Krug could fill a crucial long-term need, especially because his all-around game, including his work on the defensive side of the puck, has long been underrated. The challenge for the Knights: a static cap of $81.5 million would leave them with less than $9 million available. They’d have to move a body out to make room for Krug. Oddly enough, Martinez’s $4-million AAV could be what stands in the way.
4. MONTREAL CANADIENS
The Habs already established themselves as aggressive spenders – or attempted spenders – when they tried to offer sheet Sebastian Aho last summer. Might they consider taking a run at Krug to deepen a D-corps hurting for depth behind veterans Shea Weber and Jeff Petry? Mega-prospect Alexander Romanov’s KHL contract expires this spring, and he’s a strong best to begin next season in Montreal’s starting lineup, but he’ll be playing on an entry-level AAV. Also, Petry is Krug’s old teammate from Michigan State and could theoretically help woo him.
Whether Montreal chases a big-fish UFA depends on how GM Marc Bergevin feels about the franchise’s near future. It has 14 picks in the 2020 draft, a burgeoning farm system as is, and three key cogs – Petry, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher – enter the final seasons of their deals and would be major rental-trade pieces to dangle should the Habs decide to commit deeper to a rebuild. Chasing Krug would only make sense if Bergevin believes his team can contend in the near future. It’s more likely than not that he does.
5. FLORIDA PANTHERS
Wait – wasn’t it reported that Panthers ownership may ask to the club to trim $10 million in payroll? So how could they be sleepers to pursue Krug? Think of it as a projected reallocation of resources. It’s no secret GM Dale Tallon badly wants help on defense. He has Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle as anchors, but supposed stalwart Mike Matheson was an awkward enough fit with new coach Joel Quenneville that ‘Q’ even made Matheson part of the defenseman-as-forward experiment.
The Panthers, even with the rumored payroll cuts, won’t be hurting for cash considering two of their top forwards, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, are 2020 UFAs. Sure, the Panthers would love to keep both, but they could easily cost $15 million combined. Florida also has two if not three extremely promising forward prospects who could push for lineup spots next fall, most notably Grigori Denisenko, who is expected to arrive from the KHL and sign an entry-level pact next month, and Owen Tippett, who acquitted himself well in his first full pro season with AHL Springfield this year.
The Panthers, then, could decide to distribute their spending differently. They could bet on Denisenko, Tippett and perhaps Henrik Borgstrom making an impact next season to support Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and they could redeploy their resources to pursue Krug. He’s not a strapping shutdown blueliner by any means, but that doesn’t matter as much in today’s NHL. Mobility and all-around talent are paramount.
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