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Hockey Notes

Chiarelli has more pieces to fit into place

By Kevin Paul Dupont
April 5, 2009
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For what the Bruins have in Tim Thomas, which is bona fide No. 1 netminder (you may have heard that in this space for the last four seasons), they did not overpay with that $20 million, four-year deal they handed him Thursday, the same day he backed their 50th win of the season.

A good number of goalies (12, to be exact) will make as much or more money than "Tank" next season, and every one of them, along with all the lesser-paid goalies in the game, rank behind him this season for save percentage and goals-against average. He is the real deal, fit 'n' finished. And, oh yes, he will turn 35 in a couple of weeks, and that places a slight asterisk on the deal.

But for anyone paying attention to Thomas's game, his overall commitment to his craft, and his importance to the Spoked-B franchise the last four seasons, it's clear he got what he is worth. Sure, age is always a factor, but that is reflected in this deal, too. If Thomas were, say, 32, with 3-4 similar years logged on his résumé, he likely would have tried to negotiate a six-, seven-, or maybe even an eight-year deal. Who knows, maybe he would have wanted one of those 15-year Rick DiPietro value-added deals worth $67.5 million.

The math, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli noted at yesterday morning's news conference, is always an issue.

"We've been doing the math ever since I've come here," he said. "That's a large part of the job. What is important to the organization is that we have terrific goaltending for a long time, and sometimes you have to put aside the math - not completely - and make decisions, like we did with Tim."

Now that Thomas is inked into the payroll for the next four years (at $6 million, $6 million, $5 million, and $3 million), the question becomes, how will Chiarelli go about balancing the books over what is expected to be a declining salary cap for at least the next 2-3 years?

Not an easy question to answer, but it is one we'll start to see develop here in the weeks leading up to the June 26-27 draft in Montreal and the start of free agency July 1. The Thomas deal, with an annual cap hit of $5 million, pegs Boston's payroll for next season at around $47 million, or roughly 10-15 percent under the rumored cap.

The Thomas extension guarantees that Manny Fernandez, slated to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, will be gone. Chiarelli can find a cheap ($1 million?) backup to ride with Thomas, or he can call up the highly touted Tuukka Rask. However, if the choice is Rask, he brings a cap hit slightly north of $3 million. It then becomes all the more difficult to extend the deals of Phil Kessel and David Krejci, whose combined salaries should add at least another $6 million to the nut. All of a sudden, every room is full at the Black-and-Gold Inn.

Let's not forget, either, that rookie Matt Hunwick, like Kessel and Krejci, will be a restricted free agent. Conservatively, pencil in another $1.2 million-$1.4 million to keep him in residence (and hopefully on the blue line, not among the forwards).

All in all, as noted here months ago, something will have to give. It's just the way of the cap. Successful teams are the breeding grounds of well-heeled players, which in turn leaves teams having to make difficult payroll choices and, all too often, bid adieu to some very important assets.

If Chiarelli wants to bring up Rask and keep Kessel and Krejci, it appears he'll have to find a way to move the likes of Marco Sturm and/or Marc Savard (combined cap hit: $8.5 million). Trouble is, both have no-trade deals, which means Chiarelli would have to turn to their agent, and former business partner, Larry Kelly, in hopes of persuading them to leave.

It was the Chiarelli-Kelly alliance that brought them to Boston. Perhaps that same alliance will lead to their, shall we say, transition to new work environments. If not, then it becomes an exercise in dealing Patrice Bergeron and/or Michael Ryder (combined cap hit: $8.75 million), both of whom are not protected by no-trade clauses.

In other words, pick your poison. But don't waste time wondering if Thomas is worth the money, or whether he will deliver value on a deal that borders on the modest for elite No. 1 goalies. We too often in this town have witnessed the cost of inferior goaltending. To wit: Blaine Lacher, Vinny Riendeau, John Grahame, and Jeff Hackett.

True enough, hockey isn't all about goaltending, but it is mostly about goaltending. When teams have it, as the Bruins do now with Thomas, it is fairly easy to overlook. But when they don't have it, it is impossible to ignore. Thomas finally has a home, with a good wage promised him, and maybe a Cup to win.

Land of the free

If Tim Thomas had chosen to test the market as a free agent, where might he have landed? According to a key front-office member of a Western Conference club, the likeliest suitors would have been Colorado, Edmonton, and Philadelphia. All of them, he figures, would have slotted Thomas between $4 million and $5 million a year.

As for some of the other prime talent on target for unrestricted free agency:

Jay Bouwmeester. The 6-foot-4-inch, 25-year-old defenseman, still trying to inch the Panthers into the playoffs, should bring the biggest dollar among blue liners and possibly top the entire class of UFAs. "Plays 30 minutes, skates like the wind, and puts up 40 points," said the front office exec. "He's not physical, but it's sure tough to get around him." Projected price: possibly a Zdeno Chara-like $7.5 million a year.

Marian Hossa. No telling whether he will sign again in Detroit, where he went last July on a one-year deal, the most stunning signing of summer '08. His agent, Rich Winter, as of Friday still awaited an offer from Wings GM Ken Holland. The number will be lower than the $7.45 million he earned this season.

Marian Gaborik. The sensational but oft-injured Wild winger last summer snubbed an extension of eight years believed to be worth $8.25 million per season. He missed a huge portion of this season again with injury. If he remains in St. Paul, it likely will be on a short (one- or two-year) deal. Vancouver, forever in need of scoring, could top the shopping list if Gaborik is free.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The Canucks need to keep the talented Swedish twins, but may not be willing to pay the $12 million or more to keep them. If not, the Leafs or Habs might pay that freight.

Mike Komisarek. Head-scratcher why the Habs didn't tie him up this season. The 6-4 blue liner won't get Bouwmeester money, but five years/$25 million is a likely starting point for the 27-year-old stud.

Etc.

Home run?
Devils coach Brent Sutter has freely admitted that he is homesick for Alberta, where his wife and high school-age daughter have remained the last two seasons. His deal with the Devils runs one more year, so it's not likely he would leave, even if both NHL jobs in Alberta (Edmonton and Calgary) were to open over the summer. It's all but a fait accompli that Craig MacTavish will not be back in Edmonton. And if Mike Keenan can't coax his Flames to a long run, he could be gone, too. The easiest fit for Sutter would be Calgary, where his brother, Darryl, is the GM.

Decline and fall
The Oilers are expected to miss the playoffs for a third straight season after making it to Game 7 of the Cup finals vs. Carolina in 2006. The last time something like that happened? The Rangers lost Game 7 to the Red Wings in 1950 and then missed the playoffs for the next five years.

No shot at Espo
Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin fired nine shots on net Friday night in a 5-4 OT loss to Buffalo, increasing his league-leading total to 496. With just a week to go in the regular season, it appears Phil Esposito's mark of 550 (in 1970-71) is safe.

Loose pucks
Sad to learn of the passing last week of Ray Bourque Sr., who was a regular visitor to the Garden during his son's two-decade turn on Causeway Street. The elder Bourque loved to tell the story of how his son's constant shooting of pucks in the cellar left a wide crack in the foundation wall that had to be patched before the family moved to new digs in Montreal. He was also convinced that Ray could have been a standout catcher in the major leagues . . . Ex-Bruins president and GM Harry Sinden has hooked on with an online company, Sports Management Worldwide, to teach an eight-week "Hockey GM and Scouting" course. For details, check out SMWW.com. No doubt the instruction on how to string up agents and reporters and hang them out the office window is a show-stopper . . . In his new deal, Tim Thomas will receive a $2 million signing bonus each of the first two years, then $1 million in the third and fourth years . . . The Wild still aren't certain whether Jacques Lemaire will return to their bench in 2009-10 for a ninth season. Meanwhile, there are murmurings in Montreal that GM Bob Gainey might try to recruit Lemaire as the new Habs coach once Gainey steps down as interim after this season . . . How prudent for Vincent Lecavalier to exit the Lightning lineup to have his ailing wrist surgically repaired. Without Big Vin in there, the Bolts are sure to freefall and increase their odds of being able to select either John Tavares or Victor Hedman with one of the top two picks in the draft . . . Christian Hanson made his debut for the Leafs Friday vs. the Flyers. The son of Dave Hanson, one of the infamous brothers in the movie "Slap Shot," Christian signed a two-year deal with the Leafs last Tuesday. His proud dad sat in the stands and was cheered loudly when introduced to the Philly crowd. Imagine that, Flyers fans giving up the love for "Slap Shot" memories. Astounding.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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