Aside from the whole "losing almost half of the season" business, the adjustments to the salary cap following this season present quite the quandary for the Bruins and several other clubs in the next few seasons. As of now, the Bruins have $7.1 million to address a number of roster issues prior to the 2013-14 season.
Andrew Ference and Nathan Horton are both unrestricted free agents. Tuukka Rask, who opted to sign a one-year deal last summer, is a restricted free agent. Bruins general manager has already made it clear that signing Rask to a long-term deal is the team's top priority; going so far as to say the club will negotiate with Rask during the season. Assuming Rask receives a raise, this would leave the Bruins with even less money to keep Ference and Horton around beyond this season.
Earlier this week, the Boston Globe's Fluto Shinzawa analyzed Ference's situation with the club. Currently, Ference is relatively inexpensive. His $2.2 million salary makes him the least expensive of the Bruins four veteran defenseman with only rookie Dougie Hamilton and Adam McQuaid, in his third full NHL season, earning less.
However difficult keeping Ference in Boston may prove from a financial standpoint, it may also prevent the Bruins from bringing along another talented young defenseman from the stable they've developed through the draft and free agency in recent years.
Shinzawa reported a number of interesting points about Ference and role with the current club. In more than six years with the Bruins since arriving from Calgary, Ference has helped transform the team into a study in the true impact of chemistry and camaraderie. Chiarelli charged him and others with making the Bruins' locker room a positive place. Speaking to Shinzawa, Ference said:
"When I first came here, one of the things on my shoulder from Peter was to create that kind of atmosphere we had in Calgary, where it was a brotherhood, where it was that kind of attitude. There's a group of us here that are really, really proud of that - that we've kind of done it together."
Defensive excellence and four lines capable of scoring goals made the Bruins successful. The less tangible concepts of "brotherhood" and a generally positive atmosphere have certainly played a role as well. Younger players, whether it was McQuaid, Hamilton, Tyler Seguin or Brad Marchand, have likely thrived because they entered an environment that allowed them to do so. Their talents are obvious, but there's never been an issue of a veteran player complaining about losing ice time with this club. Everyone knows they have a role and a responsibility on and off the ice. Even now, Ference has certainly seen his responsibilities drop to an extent due to Hamilton's emergence in the early part of the season.
Despite Ference's influence on that situation, keeping him in Boston beyond this season closes the door on bringing other highly regarded young players to the big club. In Providence, second-year pro Torey Krug continues to develop his game. Speaking with a few scouts recently, they each said Krug looks ready to play at the NHL level. He doesn't project as the No. 1 defenseman Hamilton does, but his mobility, hockey sense and toughness are among the traits the Bruins saw when they signed him as a free agent last April after three successful seasons with Michigan State.
Depending on the type of contract Ference seeks, it's difficult to see him here in the future if he refuses to take some kind of pay cut. Moreover, his continued strong play makes it almost insulting to ask him to do so. He's an alternate captain on a Stanley Cup contending team, an invaluable leader of one of the league's best defensive units and a true asset to the Boston community. He's also a friend to this blog.
But he's 33 years old. He turns 34 in mid-March. Nothing suggests he's lost a step just yet. In Shinzawa's piece, Ference discussed his decision to play in the Czech Republic during the lockout. Keeping himself in game shape and ready whenever the NHL season began was critical given his expectation that Bruins compete for a championship and to position himself to sign a favorable contract following the season.
It's become increasingly clear that Ference's future with the Bruins may have very little to do with hockey. His ice time is pretty much the same as it was a season ago. A year ago, he averaged 18 minutes, 53 seconds per game; through 11 games this season, he's played 17:49 per game. But the salary cap isn't moving. The Bruins will re-sign Rask, and they'll have serious decisions to make on their remaining free agents. If were only about hockey, Ference would be a Bruin. But it's also about money, and the Bruins just don't have much to go around.