Free agency begins July 1. The Bruins have, in recent years, been a team far more focused on keeping what they have than adding expensive new acquisitions, and this year figures to be no exception.
As it stands, per the indispensable CapGeek, the Bruins have a payroll next year of $66.4 million, against a cap of $70.3 million, with 22 players under contract. This counts the
ridiculous questionable 4 year, $12 million deal they gave Chris Kelly. Kelly's deal will be finalized as of July 1, when the cap goes up. This also counts Nathan Horton's and Marc Savard's contracts, both at $4 million, and both of which are eligible for long-term injured reserve. Theoretically, that leaves the Bruins $11.9 million in cap space as of July 1.
The Bruins have five unrestricted free agents on the roster, Joe Corvo, Mike Mottau, Brian Rolston, Marty Turco and Greg Zanon. Corvo and Turco will not be back; that much has already been made clear. The Bruins intend to give Dougie Hamilton every shot at winning a spot on the roster, which creates a numbers problem, especially if they like Torey Krug as the seventh defenseman. For the record, Hamilton and Krug are both counted in that $66.4 million, so they could sign Mottau or some other replacement-level guy to a veteran minimum type deal, battle it out with the two youngsters, and the loser gets sent to Providence (or juniors, in Hamilton's case). Zanon is therefore likely out of the team's plans, as he'd be likely to command a locked-in top six spot, and I don't see Boston being able to offer that to him.
The lone restricted free agent is Tuukka Rask, and with Winnipeg signing Ondrej Pavelec to a 5 year, $19.5 million deal, the market has been set for Rask. Any thoughts of getting Rask back for less than $4 million per year have likely been dashed. I originally thought that $4 million was going to be Tuukka's price tag. Now, it might be closer to $4.25 million or more. That's surely more than Peter Chiarelli was hoping to spend, but the market dictates price, even in the case of restricted free agents. Pavelec is a pretty good comp for Rask; they're of similar age and pedigree, though Rask is obviously superior and more proven on an NHL level.
Make no mistake, though: Rask will be resigned; the Bruins simply can't afford not to. The focus of the free agent market for goaltending will surely be Vancouver, where the Canucks are looking to trade Roberto Luongo before someone slaps an offer sheet on Corey Schneider. After that, assuming Carey Price stays in Montreal (spoiler alert: he will), the market is woefully thin on quality goalies. Rask will stay, and probably for something along the lines of 4 years and $18 million. If that seems high for a restricted free agent, remember that Rask is 25, so the Bruins would be buying out 2 of his UFA years in such a deal. Even 4 years and $20 million would be reasonable if it comes to that.
The elephant in the room is Tim Thomas' contract. Thomas waived his no-trade clause, which expires on July 1 anyway. That probably has as much to do with helping the Bruins as it does giving Thomas more opportunity to find a new team before free agent dollars start flying and starting goaltender spots start getting filled. Fluto Shinzawa has already reported some interest from teams near the salary cap floor, and Joe Haggerty indicated that Thomas may legitimately be interested in playing elsewhere, as opposed to taking a year off to play pond hockey with his kids and make awkward pitches for fitness equipment. At $5 million worth of cap hit, but $3 million worth of salary, Thomas could be a draw to those cap floor teams, and with just one year on his deal, he could be a draw to a team that has designs on contending, but needs some help in net.
Warts and all, Thomas is surely better than at least half of the starting goaltenders out there now. It's hard to imagine that the Bruins won't find a home for him and free up that cap space, though whether they'll get any value in return is an open question. But in the interest of seeing what the Bruins can do this offseason, let's make a few reasonable assumptions: 1. they trade Tim Thomas for a draft pick; 2. they resign Tuukka Rask for a deal with an average value of $4.5 million; 3. Marc Savard stays on LTIR, but Nathan Horton does not. This gives the Bruins up to $8.4 million in cap space. What can they do with it, and more importantly, what should they do with it?
The Bruins could make a play for Zach Parise or Ryan Suter. Parise's likely to leave the Devils and a deal along the lines of 8 years and $64 million might get it done. Suter might be on the verge of leaving Nashville, too and that money could lure him as well. Either one of these guys would give the Bruins exactly what the Bruins need: high end talent. The Bruins have plenty of depth; there may not be a team in the league that has better 2nd-4th line personnel than the Bruins, and their bottom 4 defensemen figure to be pretty good as well. What they could use are players at the top end that can make a difference. I don't see this being likely, however. This would all but guarantee a bonus overage that would cut into the Bruins 2013-14 cap. That's not a good thing to begin with, but it's even worse when we have zero idea what the salary cap will look like then, and Milan Lucic, Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, Nathan Horton, Andrew Ference and Jordan Caron all hit free agency.
For the same reason, picking up Rick Nash is probably out of the question. I've previously talked about why Nash is a poor pickup in the first place, and won't repeat that here. Suffice to say, a big ticket acquisition for the Bruins is not very likely unless it's a blockbuster trade with a fair amount of salary moving out. To that end, I suppose Nash is at least a slim possibility, while the chance of signing Parise/Suter is almost nil.
Any deals have to be done with an eye toward that 2013-14 year. Let's assume for argument's sake that the cap remains the same, $70.3 million. Assuming Rask signs for the deal I mention above, no one else signs, and that Savard is on LTIR, that leaves the Bruins $27 million in cap room. That's plenty, right? Not really. Seguin and Marchand are in line for huge raises, and Lucic for a decent one. All are RFAs, depressing their value a bit. In the case of Seguin, I could absolutely see an Erik Karlsson-like deal in his future, perhaps something like 8 years and $50 million, to buy out two of his UFA years in exchange for some long-term security. Marchand might come in at something closer to 3 years and $12 million, and Lucic at 3 years and $15 million. Their physical style of play makes them more of an injury risk, and therefore a more risky investment in a long-term deal. That's $15.25 million of cap space used on those three. Allowing $3 million for a bonus cushion, that leaves the Bruins $8.75 million to spend on 5 roster slots. There's no way to retain Horton, Ference and Caron for that kind of money, let alone retain them and fill out the other two roster spots with someone worth a damn.
So as I said, this offseason, and the next, are not likely to be aggressive ones for the Bruins unless a really good trade falls into their laps. Peter Chiarelli got himself into a major jam with contracts back in 2009, when he was resigned to losing either Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic or David Krejci. Happily, he picked the right one. I don't know if Chiarelli has learned his lesson so much as the salary cap's bigger than expected increases, and some better than expected play that he had no reason to expect (i.e. Ference) have bailed him out, but in any case, his biggest sin has been overpaying his own guys, not overpaying someone else's. To that end, it's very hard to imagine the Bruins making any significant move in free agency.