BUFFALO, N.Y. - There has not been an NHL offseason like this in nearly 20 years.
Not since the summer of 2000, when the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild entered the league as expansion teams, has there been such uncertainty regarding how things would play out.
With this year's expansion draft to fill the roster of the Vegas Golden Knights fast approaching, the Bruins hockey operations staff was in Buffalo over the weekend for the 2017 NHL Scouting Combine, the first step in what is sure to be a busy - and unusual - couple of months.
"It is an important time period for the league, for each individual team, particularly for the expansion club - an exciting time, a unique time," said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney, who along with other members of the front office and scouting staff interviewed dozens of prospective draft picks.
"There will be a lot of discussion between now and the draft, potential trades or picks that will be exchanged. Everybody is trying to improve their club."
The NHL Expansion Draft is slated for June 21 in Las Vegas, at which time the Golden Knights will be allowed to select one player from each of the existing 30 clubs, all of which will be submitting a list of protected players on June 18. Teams can choose to shield players using two separate formulas: seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender or eight skaters and one goaltender. (Earlier this offseason, Sweeney suggested the Bruins were leaning towards the 7-3-1 format.)
The expansion draft may also open up the possibility for trades as teams could elect to deal players for compensation before losing them for nothing, while Vegas could look to add larger contracts as it attempts to comply with salary cap regulations.
"There certainly has been a lot of chatter but I don't know if anyone can predict that," Sweeney said during his Combine media availability. "[Vegas general manager] George [McPhee] is in a very unique position. He can sit back and really go in whatever direction he chooses.
"I think the next couple weeks leading into June everyone fully expected that things would start to heat up, that the jockeying for positioning would take place. Once a couple deals break, a couple others will fall in line."
Following expansion, attention will turn towards the NHL Entry Draft, which will come just two days later in Chicago. The Combine was the last chance for the 104 prospects that gathered in Buffalo to prove themselves worthy of being selected.
"It's another club in the bag to evaluate," said Sweeney. "Our scouts do a tremendous job and cover so much ground over the course of the season. This just gives us another snapshot. It allows us to know a player, get an understanding of his personality away from the rink to some degree.
"They're very well prepared in what their answers are. You try to pull a string and learn a little bit more about them as people. We hope to get to know them as hockey players and we ask them what they are as hockey players.
"But it's a part of the process, an important part of the process, but a small part."
Video: Bruins begin busy offseason stretch at NHL Combine
Sweeney, who will be overseeing his third draft as Bruins GM, believes there are "a lot of great players" in what he sees as a deep draft. At the same time, Sweeney acknowledged that he is exploring all options to improve his team, even if it means trading away picks - including Boston's first-rounder (No. 18).
"I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't explore what could improve our team now in the shorter term," said Sweeney, who has six picks in this year's draft. "I owe it to our players and I owe it to the organization to continue to do that. Whether it happens, I don't know. People have looked at me sideways at times in holding three first-rounders [in 2015] and not being able to do something…the right deal didn't take place.
"I can't say it's going to this time as well, but it's certainly an area that I've looked at and if we could improve it then we would move it."
Boston has made a bevy of high picks over the last few years, stockpiling assets that are on the verge of cracking the NHL. There are several internal candidates who could compete for spots on the wings next season, including Anders Bjork, Peter Cehlarik, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, and Sean Kuraly, while Austin Czarnik and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson could push for positions in the middle.
On the back end, Charlie McAvoy has already made a significant impact and the likes of Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon, and Rob O'Gara are waiting in the wings in Providence.
"We feel the talent pool we have is deepening," said Sweeney. "That's exactly what my intention was and my hopes are. They'll be given an opportunity and they will dictate whether or not they can impact.
"We feel we have a core group that can surround those players and be the competitive team and move in the direction that we expect to move into to be a contending club. That's what we want."
The Bruins hope to continue deepening that talent pool over the coming weeks. A busy - and unusual - offseason awaits.
Video: Sweeney explains Bruins approach at NHL Combine