What's Next for Bruins? (Part 2)

This party animal should be back in Boston next season, but what about the Bruins' other free agents?

In part 1 of this series, we talked about the Bruins' organization, from the top down, and a look at what sort of help might be expected from the minor leagues.  This time, let's take a look at what the Bruins are looking at for the salary cap, and free agency.

At this moment, the Bruins have $52.2 million committed to 18 players on the active roster.  The salary cap is going to rise to $64 million..  On its face, the cap situation looks promising.  However, the Bruins may be facing bonus penalties of an as-yet undetermined amount.  Any performance bonuses that push the team over the cap have to be charged as a penalty the next season.  Unfortunately, this is one of the downsides of long term injured reserve, of which the Bruins made liberal use this season.  We'll know in the next couple weeks what the bonus penalty (if any) is.  However, for the sake of argument, let's assume the Bruins have $10 million in cap room at present, a happy medium between the best and worst case scenarios.

The Bruins have five free agents on the active roster: Brad Marchand, Michael Ryder, Mark Recchi, Tomas Kaberle and Shane Hnidy.  Recchi has already stated his intention to skate off into the sunset, and bravo for him.  One assumes he will be enshrined in Toronto in his first year of eligibility.  It may not seem like a huge loss, but Recchi provided quality production (48 points, with 7 points in the Stanley Cup Finals) at a reasonable cap hit ($1.95 million). 

Hnidy can also be dispensed with quickly; he was signed solely for depth purposes, and with so many young defensemen in the organization competing for a job, Hnidy figures to be out of work.  He may be joining Recchi on the retirement line, but probably not in the Hall of Fame.  A two-way contract where he started the season with Providence might be a possibility, if the team feels that having a pugilist with minimal hockey skill on standby is necessary.

Marchand is a restricted free agent, so the Bruins are in the driver's seat in terms of getting him back.  I would be extremely surprised if he leaves, but it will be interesting to see which approach they take with him.  When Blake Wheeler hit RFA status, the Bruins opted for a one year, "wait and see" type deal.  When Milan Lucic and David Krejci hit RFA status, they received multi-year deals.  Marchand's production was something of a surprise, even to his ardent supporters, and so while it's likely they will opt for a long term deal, I wouldn't completely rule out a 1 year contract to make sure he's not a fluke. 

Marchand is not arbitration eligible, but two recent contracts give us a decent idea of his market value.  Andrei Kostitsyn resigned with Montreal for 1 year and $3.25 million, and Drew Stafford resigned with Buffalo for 4 years and $16 million.  Kostitsyn had 20 goals and 25 assists this season, almost identical to Marchand's production (21-20-41).  Stafford (31-21-52) probably represents the high end of Marchand's compensation range.  Both Kostitsyn and Stafford had a longer track record of NHL success, but Marchand has a strong Stanley Cup playoff performance under his belt.  I would ultimately guess his contract will be around 3 years and $10 million, allowing the Bruins to have him under RFA control one last time when the contract ends.

Next, we come arguably the two most polarizing players on the Bruin roster: Tomas Kaberle and Michael Ryder.  Both are unrestricted, and, in a just and fair world, would be looking at a pay cut.  Kaberle made $4.25 million last year, and Ryder $4 million.  I've defended Kaberle at some length already, so I won't repeat myself here, except to add that he finished the season with a 9.3 GVT, which would be second on the Bruin defense.  By the numbers, he was Boston's third best defenseman in the playoffs, and while that may be damning by faint praise, Kaberle is worth retaining if possible.  But while Kaberle played well in Boston, he did not accomplish what he was acquired to do: fix the power play.  And while it may be a valid question as to whether expectations for Kaberle were unfairly high, the fact remains that the power play stunk with him at the helm. 

We'll get into the woes that afflict the defense and power play another time.  But disappointing or no, Kaberle is still more solution than problem.  The question is what he will be paid.  Bringing him back for another $4.25 million seems unthinkable, but there are two types of defensemen that are always overpaid in the UFA market: puck movers and Stanley Cup winners.  Guess who fits both those criteria?  For comparison purposes, take a look at what some of the puck movers in last year's free agent market received: Sergei Gonchar got 3 years and $16.5 million at the age of 37.  Derek Morris got 4 years and $11 million coming off a terrible season.  Jordan Leopold got 3 years and $9 million (although unlike Gonchar and Morris, at least he can look himself in the mirror and say "I'm earning my paycheck" with a straight face).  Joe Corvo got 2 years and $4.5 million after he did his level best to crash the Capitals bandwagon into the Potomac. 

The good news (or bad news if you're part of the burgeoning anti-Kaberle movement) is that an otherwise weak free agent market is flooded with mobile defensemen.  Bryan McCabe, Andrei Markov, Joni Pitkanen, James Wisniewski, Christian Ehroff, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Steve Montador, Anton Babchuk, and Marc-Andre Bergeron can all run a power play and move the puck, and are all UFAs.  With supply high, Kaberle's salary demands may  come down.  Or, that Stanley Cup ring may tack on another million bucks.  Thus, estimating Kaberle's salary range might as well be an exercise in dart-throwing, but I'll guess that someone gives him 4 years and $16 million.  At that price, I think Boston lets him walk.

If Kaberle goes, as noted above, there are plenty of options in free agency.  Or, the Bruins might opt to give Steven Kampfer a bigger role.  He looked good in half a season of work, but tailed off as time went on.  Kampfer absolutely is mobile, and should have the skills to run a power play.  The money saved there might come in handy, as I'll demonstrate below.

The other free agent is the mercurial Michael Ryder.  At this point, we know what we're getting with Ryder: a sublime offensive talent who would probably be an All-Star if he brought his A game every night.  Defensively, he's mediocre on a good night, hopeless on a bad one.  He's one of the better forwards on the power play (again, damning by faint praise), and probably hasn't killed a penalty since junior hockey.  The bad news is that he brings his A game about once a week during the regular season.  The good news is that he brought it for most of the playoffs, and for the entire Stanley Cup Finals.  Ryder carried the Bruins offense in several games; there's no way they win that pivotal game 4 in Montreal without him and Chris Kelly.  His 17 points were 4th on the Bruins and 9th overall in the playoffs.  His 18-23-41 (and a 4.9 GVT) during the regular season didn't justify his $4M salary, but his playoffs certainly did.

Unlike Kaberle, Ryder may benefit from a soft marketplace.  The market for forwards is exceptionally weak this year.  Brad Richards will get paid big money, of course, and maybe Simon Gagne will as well (buyer beware)...and that's pretty much it.  Coming off a very strong playoff run, after an indifferent regular season, Ryder may have salvaged his value.  I can't imagine anyone giving him a $4 million per year deal, but $3 million wouldn't be a huge surprise. 

The elephant in the room from the salary cap perspective is Marc Savard.  At the time of signing, Savard's contract looked like a shrewd long-term investment.  However, it now looks like a salary cap albatross.  At $4 million per year through 2016-17, the best thing Savard could do for the organization is retire.    He appears to be light years away from physical contact, let alone the grind of an 82 game NHL regular season.  It is, at this point, all but impossible to imagine Marc Savard being a meaningful contributor to the Boston Bruins again. 

(Please note: I don't wish to sound harsh saying that, but we're talking dollars and cents here; not feelings.  Savard's a big boy, he can take it.  And in any case, I doubt he reads this website.)

I am going to assume for the sake of argument that one of two things will happen with Savard's contract: 1. he will retire, bumping Boston's cap space up an additional $4 million; 2. he will go on long-term injured reserve once again, with the same result, including putting Boston in the same danger area for bonus penalties.  But suddenly, $10 million becomes $14 million.  Cap rich, right?  Well, maybe not.

Assume Marchand has a cap hit of $3.33 million, and assume Jordan Caron ($1.1M), Steven Kampfer ($852,500) and Colby Cohen ($875,000) make the active roster as well.  (It could be Matt Bartkowski or Yuri Alexandrov, for that matter, but the numbers are basically the same.)  Remember that the Bruins were so cap strapped at the end of last year that they didn't have the luxury of carrying a couple extra guys on the active roster, as they would have preferred to do.  I do not expect that the team's first round pick would need to be accounted for this year.  Unlike last season, the Bruins probably won't be in position to grab a pro-ready talent with their #1 pick, so that player (Ryan Murphy?  Nathan Beaulieu?) will probably spend the season in juniors.  Nor do I expect that they would sign Ryan Spooner or Jared Knight out of the juniors to join the big club, although the idea of Marchand, Seguin, Caron and Spooner/Knight growing together on a defending Stanley Cup champion is intriguing.  That $14 million is down to $7.8725 million.  They could certainly sign Kaberle and Ryder, or replacements, within those constraints. 

However, the Bruins are looking at a number of core players hitting free agency in the next two years.  For instance, David Krejci hits restricted free agency after this season, and Nathan Horton (UFA) and Milan Lucic (RFA) do after 2012-13.  The HuLK line made $11.83 million this year.  That's a very reasonable rate for a #1 line, but they'll surely be looking for significant raises from that.  $15 million for the three would be a conservative estimate, with $20 million at the high end.  Adam McQuaid hits RFA status after this season, and seems like a building block for the defense. 

Looking back on it, the wisdom of letting Phil Kessel walk is almost Solomon-like.  The Bruins got good value in trade, saved money, and ultimately used much of the savings to add a player who fits much better with what the team is trying to do.  Does Kessel score three game winners in the playoffs?  Maybe, but I wouldn't bet heavily on it.

Most worrisome of all is Tuukka Rask, who carries a $1.25 million cap hit into restricted free agency this offseason.  Rask is a top 10 goaltender who should be the future of this team.  But how long can Boston afford the luxury of having two blue chip netminders?  It seems unthinkable that the Bruins would trade Tim Thomas after his heroic season, but signing Rask to the $4 or 5 million per year deal he's worth, and thus tying up 1/6 of the team's salary cap in goaltending is no less unthinkable.  They can afford the Thomas/Rask tandem for 2011-12, but beyond that, a decision must be made.  At one point, it seemed like the decision would be easy: trade Thomas, keep Rask.  It's no longer so simple. 

The cap situation is positive, but it does require some forward thinking to manage properly.  Chiarelli's cap management has improved mightily over the years, and though not every move has been great, he's done a solid job.  All told, I would not expect the Bruins to be huge players in the free agent market, despite what looks like a surplus of cap room.  I think it is more likely that they will focus on keeping their core group together, and they have the ability to do that.

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