Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bruins Summer Plans; With or Without Kessel?

A small budget, gut-wrenching decisions and some creative math are all likely to mark the summer for Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. Chiarelli, who just earned a four-year extension for engineering a fantastic turnaround and putting the B's back on the Boston sports map, has all the key pieces returning for the club that went 53-19-10 and came within one goal of the Eastern Conference Finals this past season.

It's rounding out that roster that will present Chiarelli with problems, and one or two of those key pieces might have to be moved in order to accommodate that.

After the David Krejci deal, and the $850,000 they will be paying Tuukka Rask to be Tim Thomas' backup next season, that puts the Bruins at just around $52 million in commitments for '09-'10. If the salary cap stays the same, that will give the Bruins less than $5 million to work with going forward.

Someone is definitely getting traded, especially if Chiarelli makes resigning restricted free agent Phil Kessel his top priority going forward.

Let's take a look at guys currently under contract that I don't expect to see traded before the '09-'10 season begins:

Zdeno Chara ($7.5 million), Marc Savard ($5 million), Thomas ($5 million), Michael Ryder ($4 million), Dennis Wideman ($3.9375 million), Krejci ($3.75 million), Aaron Ward ($2.5 million), Andrew Ference ($1.4 million), Brad Stuart ($1.3 million), Milan Lucic ($850K), Rask ($850K) Vladimir Sobotka ($750K) and Shawn Thornton ($516K).

I suppose Savard or Ryder could both be the ones that get traded. Savard will be an unrestricted free agent in 2010, and perhaps clearing that $5 million and getting something in return would be beneficial. I don't see it, and my money is on one of the following guys under contract:

Patrice Bergeron ($4.75 million), Marco Sturm ($3.5 million), Blake Wheeler ($2.825 million) and Chuck Kobasew ($2.333 million).

In addition to Kessel, the B's also would like to come to agreements with RFAs Matt Hunwick and Byron Bitz, and of their UFAs, I only see P.J. Axelsson, Mark Recchi and Stephane Yelle as possibilities to return.

(FYI: The B's are also paying a $1.3833 million buyout to Glen Murray this year. Good to see the guy is still screwing the Bruins even when he's sitting at home).

On the topic of Kessel: the latest information shows the Bruins want the speedy winger that scored 36 goals last season back, but only at their price. Kessel's representatives want the Bruins to pay up, something to the tune of $5 million per season, which is something they simply won't do. I think the max they would pay Kessel would be $4 million, while I'm sure they'd rather pay him the $3.75 million they're giving to Krejci.

Make no mistake: I really want the Bruins to keep Kessel. As their leading goal-scorer and the only guy on the team with significant speed, he played a key role in the Bruins' success this past year and as a scorer I feel he's only going to improve. It's going to be near impossible to replace that kind of offensive production.

I worry, though, if he's ever going to develop into a complete player. Kessel seems allergic to playing defense and will likely never contribute to the penalty kill. I can't question his toughness (after all, the guy came back from testicular cancer and played through what must have been an excruciating shoulder injury through the playoffs), but just once I'd like to see that toughness come through on the ice.

If Kessel doesn't develop into a complete player, that's fine. He'll still have tremendous value as an offensive force with a deadly nose for the goal. But as KPD explained, Chiarelli and VP Cam Neely look for guys with grit and toughness on the ice in addition to that scoring touch (not unlike Neely himself; that's why the B's will break the bank next summer for Lucic). I expect a decision to come shortly on this, and we could see Kessel getting dealt at the upcoming draft or just before July 1. There have been rumblings about Kessel going to Colorado for the 3rd pick. The Avs need that pick, which could be franchise defenseman Victor Hedman, more than they need Kessel.

But let's assume the B's sign Kessel for $4 million. That would put them at just below the cap, and signing either Hunwick or Bitz would put them at just above it. So a trade is in order if they sign Kessel.

Of the candidates I mentioned above, the best-case scenario would be for Sturm to get traded for prospects to clear up that $3.5 million. Sturm was excellent in 19 games last year, registering 13 points and making stuff happen every time he was out there. But a severe knee injury and ACL surgery landed him on injured reserve. He should be healthy for next season, but it will be a tough sell for another team to take on that kind of salary from someone coming off that serious of an injury.

Should they unload Sturm, I expect Recchi to re-sign for around $1 million. I loved everything Recchi brought to the Bruins last year, and even though he's pretty slow in his old age, he's a born leader and still loves to camp in front of the opposing goal and tip the puck in the net. He wants to come back, and I want him back.

Bergeron, and his hefty price tag of $4.75 million, are also on the trading block. We saw flashes of the old Bergeron this year, even though he suffered his second serious concussion and was often playing on a line with offensively-challenged guys like Kobasew and Axelsson. Of course, Bergeron provided one of my favorite moments of the season when he laid an uncharacteristic beatdown on some Canadiens loser in the playoffs. With two superior centers in Savard and Krejci already on the roster, it might be time to sever the chord on Bergeron if it will help the team in other areas.

The cheaper guys like Wheeler and Kobasew could get dealt, especially with how useless Wheeler was down the stretch and getting benched in favor of Bitz during the playoffs. Wheeler has tons of skill but needs to use his size to his advantage, but until then he might be one of the many high draft picks that never live up to their potential. I don't want to see the B's deal Kobasew, a gritty winger who's a huge part of their team identity. There were several stretches of listless hockey for the Bruins during the second half, but Kobasew was one guy who never let up. My respect for him will never wane after learning he played the entire Carolina series with not one but two broken ribs.

So as you can see, there's a lot to consider here. At this time, the top priorities have to be getting Kessel, Bitz and Hunwick under contract before July 1, then filling out the roster in whatever way they see fit. It's unfortunate the B's probably won't be able to delve into the free agent market this summer and get after a big defenseman like Jay Bouwmeester or a scoring forward like Marian Hossa or Martin Havlat. I'm glad I'm not Chiarelli, but I'm confident he'll make the right moves to keep this current version of the Bruins chugging along in '09-'10.

Coming up next, Puckin' Right will take a look at the upcoming free agent class. This might have to wait until next week and I'm going to be pretty busy until then.

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