No time for Bruins to take some time off
We’re entering the traditional downswing of summer, where teams round out the bottom of their lineups with depth signings, beef up their AHL rosters with veterans, and prepare arbitration cases. The weeks ahead, however, will not allow Bruins management much time for air.
It’s already been a breathless offseason that’s included the following: contract extensions for Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Mark Stuart, Daniel Paille, and Shawn Thornton; a trade for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell that saw Dennis Wideman, the No. 15 pick in the 2010 draft, and a 2011 third-rounder jettisoned to Florida; Cam Neely assuming the team presidency; lead assistant Craig Ramsay winning Atlanta’s head gig; Vladimir Sobotka being traded to St. Louis for the rights to David Warsofsky; and Tyler Seguin joining the organization as the No. 2 overall pick.
But there’s still work to be done before the puck drops in Prague Oct. 9. Based on conversations with principal players, here’s how this observer sees things unfolding prior to the start of the 2010-11 season:
1. Trade Marc Savard. Sure, there might still be questions about Savard’s character, concussion history, and offensive-centered game. But Savard (left) remains on the block for two major reasons: The Bruins believe David Krejci can be a No. 1 pivot, and that Seguin can start 2010-11 as a third-line center. When the Bruins were negotiating with Savard last year, they never believed the first-round pick Toronto surrendered in the Phil Kessel trade would be a top-two selection. Savard remains attractive — several teams continue to kick the tires — because of his cap-friendly number ($4.007 million per season) and his projected production. Because of the full no-trade clause that activated July 1, Savard has the upper hand in dictating his destination (his three children live in Peterborough, Ontario). But the Bruins could widen the scope by taking a drastic route: threatening to place Savard on waivers, thereby giving 29 teams, starting with Edmonton, a crack at claiming the center and rendering his no-trade irrelevant. It would be a last-resort move that would see a point-per-game center walk for nothing, with cap relief being the only benefit. The more logical transaction would be swapping Savard to Toronto for Tomas Kaberle. The Maple Leafs continue to hold out for a better return, but the trade makes too much sense not to happen. Kessel gets his old center back. Savard moves closer to his children. The Leafs, who signed Brett Lebda to a two-year deal last Wednesday, give the Bruins Kaberle, the puck-moving defenseman they need.
2. Extend Blake Wheeler. The left wing’s arbitration date has not been set (it will be between July 20 and Aug. 4). But neither player nor club wants to go to a hearing. Wheeler, whose comparables include Toronto’s Nikolai Kulemin ($2.35 million) and Buffalo’s Drew Stafford ($1.9 million), could do very well in arbitration, considering his game translates well to paper. In his first two pro seasons, Wheeler scored 21 and 18 goals. He’s appeared in 163 of a maximum 164 games. Wheeler’s recorded 20-plus assists each season. Those offensive numbers would look even better if Wheeler played in an up-tempo system — he could have scored 30 goals while skating on Chicago’s third line, for example — than for a defense-first team. This past season, coach Claude Julien trusted Wheeler on the power play (2:04 average ice time per game) and penalty kill (1:10). Arbitration awards are based strictly on comparables, and Wheeler’s scored more points and played in more games than Kulemin. But to these eyes, Kulemin’s the better player. And in arbitration hearings, organizations often take off their muzzles when critiquing a player’s game. The Bruins would have every right to detail Wheeler’s shortcomings — weak puck protection, inconsistent performance, perimeter rather than danger-area game. Not things any employee wants to hear from his boss. Instead, expect Wheeler to sign an extension for somewhere between $1.8 million and $2.2 million prior to the hearing.
3. Re-sign Campbell and Adam McQuaid. Like Wheeler, Campbell filed for arbitration. But with numbers not on his side like they are with Wheeler, the fourth-line forward should draw an annual payday in the $850,000 range. McQuaid, who didn’t have arbitration rights, is also a restricted free agent. McQuaid, in the mix as the No. 7 defenseman, could earn an extension worth an annual $850,000 or so. Perhaps even less if he agrees to a one-way deal.
4. Assign Michael Ryder to Providence. Because Wheeler and Campbell filed for arbitration, there will be a second buyout window later this summer. But the Bruins will not buy out the $4 million remaining on Ryder’s contract. That would be $1.33 million of dead money applied toward the cap in each of the next two years. Far more palatable cap-wise to send Ryder to the AHL, much like the route Peter Schaefer took two years ago. Once that happens, Ryder will not be brought back for fear of a reentry claim, which would force the Bruins to assume half of the right wing’s remaining salary. There haven’t been any takers on the trade market so far. No reason to believe there will be any prior to the start of the season. Brad Marchand and Jordan Caron could battle for Ryder’s spot.
5. Make sure Tim Thomas is physically ready for camp. Thomas’s situation (36 years old, no-trade clause, $5 million annual cap hit for three more seasons, offseason hip surgery, loss of starting job), combined with the movement toward inexpensive goalies, has made the former Vezina Trophy winner immovable. Considering the hip procedure and his slight downturn in 2009-10, other general managers want to see him in game action before they consider acquiring Thomas. Just about everything went sour for Thomas this past season — torn hip labrum, broken hand, backup role for the Bruins and Team USA. He’ll be motivated to grab the No. 1 job back from Tuukka Rask. But all the body parts — players coming off hip procedures can develop knee and back problems if the rehab isn’t executed correctly — have to be tip-top.
“Responses indicate that while several coaches like the concept, there are concerns about the potential for unintended consequences,’’ committee chairman Forrest Karr said in a statement. “By using the rule in exhibition games over the next two seasons, the committee will have more concrete information.’’
The proposed change, included in a series of tweaks, was presented by the committee earlier this summer. The primary explanation was to address the hypocrisy inherent in allowing icing, which is forbidden during even-strength play, when killing a penalty. By introducing the change, the theory was that it would lead to more scoring chances for the power play, and perhaps prevent penalties from occurring in the first place because of the punitive nature of the no-icing approach.
But the coaches complained that by preventing icing, it would be far more difficult to clear the zone and change tired penalty killers for fresh ones.
“It’s the one that’s gotten the most ire from the coaches,’’ said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. “In the last rule book, you couldn’t change up when you iced it [during even-strength situations]. Now, if you get guys killing penalties and you ice it, then they can’t get off. They were worried not just about the effect on the scoreboard, but with fatigue and guys getting hurt.’’
Had the rule been passed, it would have led to a fundamental shift in killing penalties. Defensemen would have to chip the puck out or carry it out themselves.
“I guess you try and skate the puck out,’’ said Boston University defenseman David Warsofsky. “But then you turn it over and your coach is yelling at you. I don’t know what you would do. Make a good breakout pass, I guess.’’
Another concern was how the rule change might have affected the recruiting wars. As recently as 10 years ago, colleges were guaranteed that the best American players would go the NCAA route. But with many top-flight Americans choosing major junior — Cam Fowler, Austin Watson, Emerson Etem were recent first-round picks who played in the Central Hockey League — the colleges are finding it harder than ever to recruit high-end talent.
The fear was that introducing a rule that further highlighted the differences between the college and NHL games would swing more kids toward junior and its pro-style approach.
“I know this ongoing competition with the CHL is real,’’ Bertagna said. “A lot of Americans go up there. It was a good draft for college kids and a good draft for American kids. But it’s an ongoing battle [coaches] have to live with. Every little development that affects them is a factor. They just don’t think it’s in our interest to make dramatic rule changes that somebody, rightly or wrongly, can use against them.’’
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.