Let’s start off by stating the obvious.
This past year hasn’t been the greatest for Peter Chiarelli, or the Bruins, coming off two Stanley Cup Finals appearances in the previous three years.
The B’s full well knew they were going for it last season when they signed Jarome Iginla to a bonus-filled contract that was going to put them in salary cap hardship this season. They fell well short in a wide open Eastern Conference last spring and they’ll be paying the price this season.
Now they’re in the salary cap soup while unable to make big moves to improve the team and don’t have anything besides last season's President’s Trophy to show for it. In fact, they have little to show for last season aside from the overpowering $4.75 million bonus overage penalty on this year’s cap.
The injury to Dennis Seidenberg really messed up the Black and Gold’s master plan. That bad luck was compounded when the Bruins couldn’t do any better than Andrej Meszaros at the trade deadline. Meszaros was exactly the kind of one-dimensional Slovakian statue everybody thought he was. He wasn’t nearly enough for a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.
Chiarelli and the Bruins simply didn’t “go for it” at the trade deadline and it was inconsistent with the rest of their actions with a core in their prime. The young defenseman corps, coupled with an aging Zdeno Chara, predictably failed against the Canadiens.
Players such as Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski, Dougie Hamilton and Kevan Miller will be better for it next time around, but that was little consolation as the Bruins self-destructed against a Habs team seemingly built to be their Kryptonite.
“It started last year with being able to play in the playoffs, and now this year, adding Kevan [Miller] — I think any playoff experience you can get at any level, especially the NHL level, helps,” said Bartkowski in a Tuesday conference call announcing his one-year contract with the Bruins. “There’s really nothing like playing playoff hockey.
“The way you have to prepare and be ready for every game, forget the things you did wrong but learn from them and then be ready for the next game — any experience helps with it.”
That brings us to this offseason, which is off to an unimpressive start.
It certainly appears the Bruins hit a home run with the drafting of first-round wunderkind David Pastrnak, but even the mere fantasy of the 171-pound teenager playing meaningful NHL minutes next season illustrates their severe salary cap woes. The Bruins couldn’t afford to retain Iginla at anything more than a bargain-basement offering and don’t have the resources to adequately fill his right wing spot via free agency.
That’s why they might have to rush the teen-aged Pastrnak, who is playing under a bargain-basement, entry-level contract.
It’s also why Boston’s biggest moves since July 1 has been re-upping Bartkowski and Jordan Caron and bringing P-Bruins farmhands Christopher Breen and Jeremy Smith into the fold. Both Caron ($600,000) and Bartkowski ($1.25 million) have been much-maligned by the fan base at times. Both might end up factoring into their plans for next season given their cheap cap tags.
Chiarelli and the B’s front office simply don’t have any disposable income for luxury items on the open market and there's no way to address their needs unless they start moving some core pieces.
Running with Loui Eriksson as the top line right wing works in theory. Perhaps skating with David Krejci and Milan Lucic will bring out the 30-goal potential Eriksson reached in Dallas with Jamie Benn and Brad Richards. It’s certainly the most sensible in-house solution to the problem. Eriksson did look good skating with Krejci and Lucic in a brief audition at the end of the season.
That leaves the Bruins with $3.8 million – using the LTI exception for Marc Savard – to sign Reilly Smith, Torey Krug, Justin Florek and Matt Fraser, along with any possible free agent bargain bin items. It’s doable considering that both Smith and Krug aren’t full restricted free agents, and have no leverage without the ability to sign with another team until after this coming season.
Both could come in with a very team-friendly AAV for next season with the idea they will cash in the following season when there’s more wiggle room underneath the cap.
Still, it won’t be that easy a year from now either. While David Krejci won’t command the kind of $10.5 million per season that Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews were signed to by Chicago last week, he’ll force the Bruins into Patrice Bergeron/Zdeno Chara/Tuukka Rask-type deal if they want to keep him. Johnny Boychuk can easily ask for the five years and $25 million that Brooks Orpik signed for with Washington earlier this month and he’ll get it on the open market if he gets to free agency.
Carl Soderberg will certainly get a raise from the $1 million cap hit even if his second full season isn’t much better than last year’s solid 16-goal, 48-point rookie season.
The Bruins already have $46.6 million committed for next season and Krejci and Boychuk could conceivably eat up another $13 million between the two of them. Chiarelli knows he’s going to have to shell out more dollars if he hopes to keep things together on Causeway Street.
“There is wanting to remain with a winning organization, and then there’s wanting to get them to the market. To me, there is a difference and they don’t always merge,” said Chiarelli. “They don’t always merge, people tend to think they have to merge but they don’t always merge. So we have guys coming up that we have to sign and we’re planning for it.
“[Contract values] will go up, it’ll go up because [the current CBA] is an upwards magnet. That’s not unexpected. When the cap is expected to rise, teams will continue to spend more money. It’s hard to delve into the completely free market because you saw some of [the July 1 free agent] deals. All it takes is one team to pay that money or term and you're right there with them then. That’s why we’re trying to keep the guys we can keep, and we’re going to have to pay the money. It’s not going to be cheap.”
Somewhere in the next couple of seasons the Bruins are going to have to make some hard choices.
Will they have to deal away a True Bruin-type player in Boychuk because they can’t pay him market value after this season?
A deal like that won’t make them better in the short term.
Will they entertain letting Krejci walk at the end of this season after coming off a bitterly disappointing playoff no-show?
A move like that would have made a lot more sense if Tyler Seguin were still around as a potential solution as a top-six center capable of generating offense. While we’re on the subject of the Seguin deal: that trade could produce as many as three productive players on next season’s roster for the same price they would have been paying the flashy center.
Boston’s current predicament would be even worse if Seguin was still on their roster. That’s just simple arithmetic.
As it is, the B’s entire roster is built around Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara and their two front-line centers in Bergeron and Krejci. Failing to re-sign the Czech center would be akin to rebuilding their team on the fly, unless a young center like Ryan Spooner really pops this season.
Would they ever in a million years deal away cornerstone pieces such as Chara, or Milan Lucic, if someday soon the Bruins look up and realize they’re on the downhill slope away from the 2011 Cup team?
I personally don’t see it, but those are the kinds of hard questions Chiarelli may soon be building consensus off of with Don Sweeney, Scott Bradley and John Ferguson if there’s any more disappointments such as the Montreal series in their short-term future.
The Bruins need to continue showing they’re the tough, experienced, puck-possession team to beat in a wide open East or the current band may not be together that much longer.