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What’s Kessel worth?

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / June 26, 2009
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MONTREAL - If all of the rumors swirling around here yesterday come true, Vincent Lecavalier will be traded to the Canadiens today, Jay Bouwmeester will cut a long-term deal with the Flyers, and Dany Heatley will land in Los Angeles with his bag of hat tricks.

On a hot June afternoon in La Belle Provence, the NHL hot stove ran a Paris Hilton kind of hot.

Meanwhile, Phil Kessel? Well, he sort of got lost in the sexier media frenzy here on the eve of the NHL draft. Kessel remains Boston property, subject to his restricted free agent rights, and nothing that Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said yesterday made it sound as if Kessel’s situation is going to change soon.

“I think you’ll see us progress over the summer at a slower pace,’’ said Chiarelli, taking an afternoon break from his team meetings just up the street from the Bell Centre, where tonight’s draft will be held.

Slower, in terms of Kessel, could mean more dangerous, too, because next Wednesday, when leaguewide free agency kicks off, any of the other 29 teams can sign Kessel to an offer sheet. The Bruins then would have their choice of matching the offer or letting Kessel go for draft picks (level of compensation to be determined by his new salary).

For the record, Chiarelli has said he will match any offer to Kessel, and he might - to a point. Chiarelli is nothing if not methodical and calculated, as he has been with the recent free agent signings of Tim Thomas (four years/$20 million) and David Krejci (three years/$11.25 million).

The fact that Kessel remains unsigned, with free agency less than a week away, in itself must be interpreted as a sign of how highly the Bruins value their 21-year-old right winger with 66 lifetime goals. They’ll get to him, sooner or later, just as they’ll get to defenseman Matt Hunwick and winger Byron Bitz. Sooner or later.

Let’s face it, if Chiarelli truly believed the market would shake out big bucks for Kessel, then he already would have done a deal. But if Kessel is not going to come in right now for a figure similar to the $3.75 million average Krejci pocketed, then maybe the open market will set his price - be it north or south of $3.75 million. Remember, Kessel runs the risk that a tepid market only empowers Chiarelli to bring him in under Krejci’s number.

The entire free agent market, by Chiarelli’s view, is going to be a very interesting place, for a couple of reasons:

1. Many clubs, like the Bruins, don’t have a lot of financial elbow room with the cap expected to remain near last season’s level ($56.7 million). With Kessel, Bitz, and Hunwick only three of maybe six players they’ll need to add to their 2009-10 roster, the Bruins already are around the $50 million mark.

2. The cap for the following season, based on preliminary calculations from the ownership and player side, likely will dip, perhaps to the $50 million-$52 million range.

All of which could set up an imperfect storm for free agents this July and next July. True, it’s a supply-and-demand business, and that typically has meant sweeter and sweeter deals for the players. But as the cap flattens or drops, and teams sit with payrolls already near the “fill to here’’ line, the demand has to flatten or drop, too.

True, teams can ditch “bad’’ salaries to the minors and not have a dime of it show on the cap. It’s the ultimate cap relief (see: Peter Schaefer in Providence). However, bad contracts, especially in the current economic environment, never get erased from a GM’s résumé, or a club’s profit-and-loss statement. It may not be cap money, but it is money, every penny of it real.

Chiarelli believes, in fact, that there will be an excess of free agents next week and on into the summer.

“We have to wait and see how the glut unfolds,’’ he said. “I want to be in a flexible position. Next year will be the first time the cap has ever gone down.’’

Bruins fans with memories back to the dark ages earlier this decade will recall that then-GM Mike O’Connell, under the guidance of team owner Jeremy Jacobs, predicted a free agent glut would be at hand when the 2004-05 lockout came to an end. Per that guidance from Buffalo - later denied by Jacobs - O’Connell lost the likes of Sergei Gonchar, Mike Knuble, Michael Nylander, Brian Rolston, and others.

When the lockout ended, O’Connell & Co. had to scurry to sign the likes of Brian Leetch and Dave Scatchard, while facing the stark reality that stars Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov stood less than 52 weeks from unrestricted free agency. The dream free agent scenario turned into a nightmare, one that ultimately cost O’Connell his job.

This time, the calculation from the corner office at Causeway could be dead-on. Sure, there will still be sweet deals, but likely not as many. A guy like Michael Ryder, who last year had the Bruins and Canucks bumping up his price, might be hard-pressed to land a three-year/$12 million deal in this market, and even more hard-pressed in next year’s market.

Could Kessel be dealt today, in the midst of the Bruins figuring out what to do with their first-round pick? Absolutely. The draft has a way of making things happen - precisely why the Lecavalier, Bouwmeester, and Heatley deals were the talk of the town yesterday.

But based on Chiarelli’s demeanor, and how he eyes the game’s changing economics, it seems far more likely that Kessel is kept waiting for his payday and kept on the roster for now.

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