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Hockey Notes

Chiarelli really had no choice

Kessel forced way out of town

By Kevin Paul Dupont
September 20, 2009

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According to the Bruins, Phil Kessel got what he wanted Friday night when he was traded to the Maple Leafs and then signed a new contract that will bring him $27 million over the next five years. Kessel informed the Bruins he wanted out of Boston, general manger Peter Chiarelli finally confirmed yesterday, and thus turned his restricted free agent status into a Frommer’s Guide to Toronto.

Not hard to imagine Kessel making the request. Chiarelli kicked the tires on dealing him at the trade deadline in 2008 and ’09, and then felt he had him dealt to Toronto on the morning of June 26, only to have the trade fall apart later that day. It’s uncomfortable for any player to have his name bandied about so often and so publicly, and it’s probably particularly difficult for a 21-year-old.

All in all, Kessel and his agent orchestrated a clever, successful, and lucrative free agent departure, with annual salaries of $4.5 million, $6 million, 6 million, $5.1 million, and $5.4 million. When it became clear to everyone that Kessel preferred to be in Toronto more than anywhere else, including his hometown of the last three seasons, Chiarelli had little option but to acquiesce.

Had Chiarelli not swapped Kessel to Toronto for a pair of first-round picks and a second-rounder, he likely this morning would be faced with committing $27 million to a kid with 66 career goals and not much grit in his tool kit. And if Chiarelli chose not to match the presumed offer sheet, then the compensation, as spelled out by the collective bargaining agreement, would have been only first-, second-, and third-round draft picks. The potential for Brian Burke rolling out the offer sheet ultimately forced the deal, with the Leafs GM deftly, and in concert with Kessel’s stated desires, forcing Chiarelli’s hand.

No other suitor stepped up with an offer, Chiarelli also confirmed, and that was because no club wanted to yield assets to Boston and then be positioned to suffer Burke’s roundhouse right of an offer sheet. Imagine if the Predators swapped Colin Wilson for Kessel one morning, only to see him that afternoon sign the Leafs’ offer sheet? Just wasn’t going to happen, not without Kessel checking off on a sign-and-trade deal, and he wasn’t going to do that after determining over the summer that he wanted to wear Toronto’s Blue and White.

All of this has to be a cautionary tale for Chiarelli, even though he comes out of it OK now that he is armed with five of the top 60 picks in next June’s draft. No telling, of course, if he makes all those picks, because he also can convert some of that stock into roster players. If he stands pat through, say, the Olympics in February, he could end up the chief rainmaker at the March trading deadline. That’s the kind of leverage the Penguins had in the spring of ’08 when they landed elite scorer Marian Hossa and then made it to the Cup finals.

As for that cautionary tale, the Bruins ended up allowing the Leafs, with Kessel complicit in the strategy, to dictate too much of their business. Burke didn’t make Chiarelli knuckle under per se, but no GM wants to feel like another GM’s quarry or feel outstrategized. This came very close, too close for Chiarelli to be comfortable, which is a scenario he can’t allow to happen again as Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler approach their July 1, 2010, restricted free agency.

However, there is also a key difference between Kessel, Lucic, and Wheeler. As much as Kessel ended up wanting out of Boston, the Bruins, as they demonstrated with their repeated attempts to deal him, also wanted Kessel out of Boston. The fan base won’t like either of those truths, saying the kid would have been easier to sign if he had been shown more love. Who knows? His agent, Wade Arnott, did not respond to an e-mail.

By allowing it to play out, the Bruins came to an organizational decision that Kessel’s overall game wasn’t enough to justify paying him as an essential member of the team. The salary cap allows only so many core players. Here in the Hub, Kessel was not deemed to be one of them.

Remember, they drafted Kessel, paid him very well, brought him along, coached him, and simply weren’t convinced he was the real deal (contrary to much of the fan base). If he turns out to be one of the game’s few elite goal scorers, they missed the mark, badly. If he turns out to be someone more like, say, Maxim Afinogenov, then they just made a very shrewd deal, one that has given them the assets that could be turned into goodies for a long Cup run or transformed into high-end prospects.

Argue what you will over the decision to let Kessel go, or how it played out under Burke’s clever hand, but there is no arguing that the Bruins now own a bounty of draft picks that allows them multifold opportunity to manage the cap more efficiently and mold their roster.

If nothing else, all of it also demonstrates that Chiarelli oversees a management team that has a specific, defined way it wants the team to play, identifies who can and cannot execute within that definition, and then has the conviction to live with the consequences. Maybe you don’t like the plan, but it’s a plan, and that has not always been the case on Causeway.

Orr & Co. to stage ’70s show at Fenway?

According to team principal Charlie Jacobs, the Bruins still hope to include members of the club’s triumphant 1970 Stanley Cup team in a charity event, perhaps a game, while the ice is in place at Fenway Park for the Jan. 1 Winter Classic.

The league figures the ice should be ready to go by approximately Dec. 18-20, and Jacobs said during Thursday night’s Town Meeting that he’d like to stage an alumni event in the days leading up to Christmas.

A couple of issues here: 1. Given other civic and charity plans, possibly even public skating, the base paths could be a bit crowded to work in an event of this scale. 2. If it’s not a charity gig, the NHL could raise an objection to a large-scale pay event being staged on its sheet prior to the Winter Classic.

All that said, it would be one fine sight to see Bobby Orr, now 61 years old, take a skate through the Back Bay. Imagine the memorabilia shots of No. 4 cruising through open ice, with the Green Monster in the background.

Etc.

Tracking the railroad
Slowly but surely, more NHL players are beginning to realize that Paul Kelly, the former executive director of their Players Association, was railroaded out of office at the end of August in a coup d’etat that has made the union, again, the laughingstock of the professional sports world. Old lion Chris Chelios roared once more last week, telling ESPN, “There’s no doubt, the procedure was questionable.’’ Superstar Sidney Crosby, following the lead of his agent, Pat Brisson, added, “I think we all deserve a good explanation.’’ In the days leading up to his ouster, a small group of players came to Kelly, concerned that the union’s constitution was circumvented (i.e. violated) by the process that led to a long-term contract extension for Ian Penny, the Players Association general counsel. Kelly, according to a number of reports, then went on an aggressive fact-finding mission, with the aim of protecting the players’ rights per the constitution. The union’s executive board then turned around Kelly’s intentions and fashioned him as a latter-day Ted Saskin, the NHLPA’s former executive director who was sacked for snooping through the e-mail accounts of members. In the minutes leading up to Kelly’s ouster, by a 22-5 vote, Chelios cautioned fellow players that it was unwise to be taking a vote on such a sensitive matter with the clock approaching 3 a.m. in Chicago. Gee, think so? Chelios was ignored, the vote was held, Kelly turfed. How about this morsel from Trevor Linden, the NHLPA’s former president, aimed directly at Penny, who is now interim director? “When you look at a guy like Ian Penny,’’ Linden told TEAM 1040 Radio in Vancouver, “he’s basically undermined two executive directors to this point, so I’ve got concerns about their ability to hire someone.’’

Kasper reappears
Ex-Bruins center and coach Steve Kasper has transitioned out of the agent business and is back in the rink, recently hired as an Eastern pro scout by the Maple Leafs. Kasper still gets a bum rap around here as being the boss who kept Kevin Stevens and Cam Neely nailed to the bench for a full game. Overall, he was a smart, effective, and very determined performer in his days wearing the Black and Gold. He also was a decent coach, unfortunately saddled with a roster that lacked depth and talent.

Hidden sniper
If the Capitals can’t find space on the varsity roster, they’ve told Christopher Bourque that they’ll try to find him a new NHL port of call rather than dish the ex-BU winger back to Hershey (AHL). Now entering his fifth pro season, the 23-year-old Bourque collected 73 points over 69 games last season with Hershey, then tacked on 21 more in 22 postseason games. Amid the emergence of Washington’s high-powered offense, the 5-foot-8-inch Bourque has been lost a bit in the shadows, logging only 12 games and 1 goal during his infrequent visits to D.C.

Loose pucks
The Devils could get off to a slow start given that top gun Patrik Elias had a groin injury repaired via arthroscopic surgery Tuesday. Think maybe coach Jacques Lemaire will batten down the hatches even tighter? Is that even possible? . . . After shattering a pane of Garden glass last season with one of his Loochomotive checks, how can Milan Lucic top that this season? A young fan at Thursday’s Town Meeting gig wanted to know. “I’m going to have to break two at once,’’ mused Looch, “and maybe take the boards out, too.’’ . . . It’s a vastly different time, of course, but based on Claude Julien’s rousing reception the other night, bringing 1,000-plus fans to their feet at the State of the Bruins affair, he may be the most popular Bruins coach since Don Cherry. Pat Burns connected with the fans, too, but Julien, fresh off winning the Jack Adams Award, clearly has won over the Spoked-B set.

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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