With the news that Marc Savard has returned to practice and is nearing a return to game action, and that Marco Sturm is doing the same, the Bruins are faced with a not-unpleasant problem: how to incorporate a pair of top-six forwards back into the salary cap.
According to the indispensable Capgeek.com, the Bruins need to clear just about $1.1 million from the salary cap to accommodate Savard, and just about $4.6 million for both Savard and Sturm. The question has lingered all year: how will they do this? Let's look at the ways this can be done, and try to make some sense of it.
Adam McQuaid, at $575,000, with Paille, would be enough. McQuaid can still be demoted directly to Providence, without having to clear waivers. The Bruins could also demote McQuaid with Marchand ($821,667), though demoting Marchand instead of Paille doesn't really make sense, since he makes less money and the team seems to prefer him to Paille. The only way they would do that is if they fear Paille would be claimed on waivers and don't want to lose him, or if they want to activate Paille to shake up a suddenly unimpressive penalty kill. Demoting McQuaid would carry some risk: every other Bruin defenseman but Zdeno Chara has missed a significant amount of time with injury over the last year.
Gregory Campbell or Jordan Caron would do it (both $1.1 million), though that would be a more bitter pill to swallow. Both players have been defensively responsible, and have shown some scoring spark. You can make an argument either way; the Bruins depth at center makes Campbell expendable and Caron's higher ceiling makes experience at the pro level that much more valuable, but the fourth line of Marchand-Campbell-Thornton has been one of the NHL's best checking lines, and Caron is young enough that a demotion to Providence wouldn't necessarily be an awful thing for his development; he was expected to start there when the season began. Moreover, Campbell would have to clear waivers to be demoted to Providence. Considering how well he's played, that's unlikely; he would probably be claimed and they would lose him. Caron is waiver exempt, so he could go right to Providence.
Matt Hunwick, at a $1.45 million cap hit, could also go. Once again, the problem is that it would leave Boston with just 6 defensemen with NHL experience, and rob a defense that's already mediocre in the puck moving department of one of its most mobile blue liners. Steven Kampfer has played extremely well at Providence (3-11-14, +9 as of this writing), and Matt Bartkowski nearly made the team out of training camp, so there are some options if the Bruins were in an injury pinch.
Blake Wheeler ($2.2 million) is an oft-mentioned possibility. Wheeler played fairly well at center, which could be taken as an attempt to showcase his versatility. Providence isn't an option; Wheels would have to clear waivers to be demoted, and there's no chance of that happening. However, the Bruins could probably get a good draft pick in trade for him. I suspect they could get a first rounder, but at minimum, they could certainly pick up a second. Heck, the Bruins got a second and Alexander Fallstrom for Chuck Kobasew.
Another possibility is Andrew Ference, and here, I must give the devil his due. I sharply criticized the 3 year, $6.75 million Ference was given after a poor 2009-10 season, but right now, that looks like a fairly good deal. Trading Ference now, even under the "sell high" philosophy, would create a major hole on the blue line. Still, at $2.25 million per season, Ference has a contract that, if moved, perhaps for a less-expensive defenseman, could clear significant cap room.
Of course, Michael Ryder, with his $4 million salary, is the elephant in the room. Ryder has had a good start to the year, with 6 goals and 7 assists in 21 games. However, he's as defensively irresponsible as ever, with a team worst -5. 3 of his goals have been on the power play, so while he's helping the Bruins in that department, he's not exactly tearing it up 5 on 5. Maybe they could find a taker in trade, but odds are good that Ryder would clear waivers and be assigned to Providence. This would allow for Savard's return, and leaves an additional $2.9 in cap room.
If the Bruins want to activate both Savard and Sturm, one has to start with getting rid of Ryder as a starting point. Clearing $4.6 million without getting rid of Ryder is a fool's errand. Paille, Wheeler and Hunwick would do it, but that needlessly creates a hole on defense, not to mention the penalty kill, and only just barely ($4.725M) makes the nut; there would be no money for a midseason acquisition, and the Bruins would have already parted with a valuable trade chip in Wheeler.
If you assume that Ryder's a goner and the Bruins want to activate both Savard and Sturm, they're $600,000 short, and the next move readily suggests itself: waive Paille. He's not contributing, and has already been replaced on the fourth line. Odds are that no one would pick up his salary, and he could be assigned to Providence. If they could get a token draft pick for him, so much the better, but I tend to doubt that.
I would take a different approach: waive/demote Ryder, activate Savard, leave Sturm on long term injured reserve, and keep that $2.9 million to have trade flexibility.
Now, I'm guessing the first two parts of that plan will meet with little to no disagreement, so I'll focus on the third. Sturm's game is predicated first and foremost on speed, but he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee and is 32 years old. The chances of him regaining the strength and flexibility in that right knee such that he returns to his traditional 20+ goal level this season do not strike me as great. He will probably be serviceable, but I question whether Boston will be getting a bona fide top six forward upon his return.
However, getting $2.9 million in cap space would enable the Bruins to make an even bigger upgrade. For instance, the Bruins have been in on Tomas Kaberle for what seems like an eternity. It makes sense, since Kaberle is precisely what the Bruins have needed for years. As the Maple Leafs languish through another lost season, they might finally relent on their hitherto absurd asking price, and accept that they need to get an asset for him. That flexibility might come in handy in taking on his $4.5M cap hit. Dustin Penner and Ales Hemsky, both mentioned now and again as prospective Bruins targets, carry cap hits just over $4 million. Or maybe even, dare I say it, Jarome Iginla? At $7M, he carries a hefty cap hit, but he might be the kind of guy who can push the Bruins over the top.
Now, that's a lot of money to bury in Providence or on LTIR, and it's easy for me to do, since it's not my money. But, despite the classic perception that the Jacobs family are tightwads, they've consistently spent to the salary cap, they've used LTIR, they've bought out guys, and generally have not been shy about spending a buck. I suspect that burying Sturm and using that money to upgrade elsewhere might be a step farther than they want to go, but it might be the path to a championship.