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For Chiarelli, tight cap could mean headaches

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / May 19, 2009
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Long faces, broken dreams, and bruised psyches were the order of the day on Causeway Street yesterday, more than three nights removed from the sudden-death finish to the Bruins' season that triggered their agonizing summer.

"There's a gnawing sensation at the back of my head that isn't normally there," said general manger Peter Chiarelli, noting a sense of "unfinished business" that came with the second-round knockout. "We are all collectively disappointed by the way it ended."

Amid the ritualistic packing of bags, bundling of sticks, exit interviews, and farewell physicals, as well as the lengthy list of broken players headed to surgery, came the harsh realization that there could be an ample amount of roster turnover before the team reconvenes in Wilmington for training camp in September.

Summer brings change to every NHL roster, even for clubs that win the Stanley Cup, but that is especially so in the salary cap era, and it will be particularly the case this summer with GMs leaguewide preparing for the cap number to peel back a few percentage points from the 2008-09 figure of $56.7 million. Chiarelli, with some $45 million committed to eight forwards, five defensemen, and two goalies, will have some $8 million-$10 million to secure a handful of roster spots and provide the overall organizational depth necessary to cope with the rigors of an 82-game schedule and perhaps a protracted postseason run.

Chiarelli is clearly in a pickle if he intends to ink top restricted free agents David Krejci and Phil Kessel (both headed for surgery and extended rehabs) to new deals. Based on leaguewide speculation, it will cost a minimum $6 million per annum to keep both on the payroll, with higher estimates pegging their combined salaries at $9 million. All in all, not possible, unless Chiarelli offloads Patrice Bergeron ($4.75 million) or Michael Ryder ($4 million) or convinces the likes of, say, Marc Savard ($5 million) or Marco Sturm ($3.5 million) to surrender their no-trade clauses.

Given those options, it's far more likely that one "K" or the other will be gone, and the "K" most likely to strike out is Kessel, a speed demon of a winger who, though valuable for his goal-scoring abilities, doesn't match Krejci's overall game or point production. In a perfect world, sure, Chiarelli would keep them both. But the cap world makes for difficult budget cuts, something all too familiar to a New England sports fan base that has grown mathematically acclimatized to how the Patriots run their cap-strapped business.

"There's going to be some guys that are going to be put in a crunch - on our team and on other teams," mused Chiarelli. "And with the economy going the way it's been going, it hasn't been fun, but at least we are being consistent."

It's the new NHL. Just as teams are being developed, shaped into Cup contenders, they are also being torn apart. The market rate for top talent is high - Savard's $5 million a year looks pedestrian nowadays - and that prevents any club from having more than a handful of name contributors.

Chiarelli six weeks ago inked No. 1 netminder Tim Thomas to a $5 million-a-year deal, negating approximately one-third of the club's summer shopping budget. One of the "K" kids will take a healthy chunk of the remaining $8 million-$10 million, and Chiarelli must hammer out new deals for key youngsters Byron Bitz and Matt Hunwick. It seems inevitable that Chiarelli will move a body or two, one of them perhaps Kessel, prior to the start of free agency July 1.

"I wouldn't want to be a GM, or for that matter a coach, in today's NHL with the decisions that have to be made," Thomas said. "You can't just keep people based on whether you want them on the team. It's crazy. Like Chicago - it's a young team, and if they don't win the Cup in the next couple of years, they'll get broken up also."

The Bruins haven't won the Cup - not since 1972 - but they have that about-to-be-broken-up feel.

Added veteran defenseman Aaron Ward, "You couldn't pay me to be a GM."

As of this morning, figuring that Chiarelli gets new deals done for Krejci, Hunwick, and Bitz, the 2009-10 Opening Night roster would include:

FORWARDS - Bergeron, Bitz, Chuck Kobasew, Krejci, Milan Lucic, Ryder, Savard, Sturm, Shawn Thornton, Blake Wheeler.

DEFENSEMEN - Zdeno Chara, Andrew Ference, Hunwick, Mark Stuart, Ward, Dennis Wideman.

GOALIES - Tuukka Rask, Thomas.

Chiarelli would still need to sign a pair of forwards, and one or both could come from the list of current Boston players about to become unrestricted free agents, including P.J. Axelsson, Mark Recchi, and Stephane Yelle. But he also could opt to reach down to Providence (AHL) for the younger, cheaper likes of Vladimir Sobotka or pesky Brad Marchand.

"I wouldn't pencil them in, but there are [Providence] players that certainly have a good shot of making the team," Chiarelli said. "So, I guess consequently, there'll be players that we don't sign because we have to give these guys a shot."

Chiarelli then was careful to add that it was important not to rule out some of the vets returning.

"We have a lot of things we have to decide upon," he said.

Chiarelli won't stall. Dawdling could be expensive, if not disastrous.

If July 1 were to arrive with Kessel and Krejci still unsigned, one or both could be handed hefty offer sheets, albeit with the Bruins retaining the right to match. But to have only $8 million-$10 million in available funds, it would be folly to allow another team to dictate Chiarelli's designation of funds. The same offer sheets could come the way of Bitz and Hunwick, of course, but the chance of either being extended a huge deal is virtually nonexistent.

The likeliest play here has Chiarelli settling terms quickly with Krejci - his agent is Larry Kelly, Chiarelli's ex-partner in the player-rep business - and then working through his options with Kessel prior to July 1.

The GM believes Hunwick and Ference, when healthy, can cure Boston's mobility issues on the back line.

"Those two players," he said, "can retrieve pucks, and they can move pucks, good skating ability and whatnot. I don't know if there's any weakness that I saw."

But from here that looks like another imperfect answer, one that should have Chiarelli shopping Kessel for a young defenseman with puck-moving abilities that are equal or near Kessel's goal-scoring qualities. Sure, it's a tradeoff, moving a kid with 40-goal potential for a defenseman who might be the key to preventing 20 goals and could trigger the transition to 20 or more at the other end.

That's the salary cap system, full of imperfections and often leading to imperfect endings.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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