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Now, Chiarelli should reach for a Star

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / February 8, 2011

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His No. 1 center shattered, it’s now up to Peter Chiarelli again to pick up the pieces. How to mend a broken lineup? That’s Chiarelli’s charge, only this time, with a re-concussed Marc Savard done for the season, the Bruins general manager theoretically has the ability to engineer a roster makeover before the NHL trading deadline Feb. 28.

The last time Chiarelli faced this situation, last March 7, the trade deadline had expired by four days, leaving the GM and coach Claude Julien little choice but to tinker with call-ups, try different line combinations, and attempt to squeeze more juice out of the fruits of his laborers.

This time?

“We aren’t going to be able to replace Marc,’’ was Chiarelli’s blunt assessment at the end of yesterday’s news conference at the Garden in which Savard was formally mothballed until at least next season. “We’re looking now at Zach [Hamill] and we don’t know if he’s the answer or not. We’ll want some experience, too.’’

Hamill, despite his first-round pedigree (No. 8 in 2007) likely isn’t the answer now, in part because he has only two games on his NHL résumé. He is skilled, but he is small of frame and short on cred, issues that aren’t going to change much in the short haul, which is the road the Bruins are traveling at the moment with the playoffs set to begin in about two months.

Late yesterday afternoon, Chiarelli summoned rookie Jordan Caron back from Providence (AHL), which is a strong indication that fellow rookie Tyler Seguin will slide into a center’s role and the big-bodied Caron (6 feet 3 inches, 205 pounds) will get back to earning an NHL salary along the wall. Caron was very impressive through training camp and into October, but his game and confidence grew dim through November, leading to his demotion to the WannaBs just as Savard returned.

The perfect move here, especially with goaltender Tim Thomas so hot and defenseman Zdeno Chara in his prime, would be for Chiarelli to make a bold play to land free-agent-to-be Brad Richards.

The No. 1 Dallas center, who won a Cup with Tampa (2004), is the single best answer to replacing Savard, although his cap hit is almost double ($7.8 million vs. $4 million). With the Stars in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, GM Joe Nieuwendyk probably won’t wheel Richards, even at the risk of seeing the 30-year-old walk away for nothing come July 1. The mitigating factor here is that the Stars are for sale and the franchise’s value increases with each postseason win. The Stars win more with Richards, plain and simple.

If Nieuwendyk wants to deal, he’ll no doubt set his asking price around what has become the standard package in such deals: a first-round pick, a roster player, and a prospect. Steep. But remember what New Jersey rolled out last February for Ilya Kovalchuk: two roster players (Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya), a prospect (Patrice Cormier), a first-round pick, and a second-round pick. The Devils also acquired Anssi Salmela and a second-round pick from Atlanta.

Chiarelli, remember, holds Toronto’s first-round pick in this June’s draft, part of the compensation for swapping free agent Phil Kessel to the Leafs. He’s got that requisite carrot, the Toronto pick or his own. He also easily could yield Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart, who earn a combined $3.875 million. With Savard’s $4 million cap relief factored in, Richards’s $7.8 million cap hit would be accommodated, virtually to the penny. How convenient. Toss in a prospect and/or a draft pick, and the deal is there to be served, ideally in a big silver Cup.

Now nearly five years into his Causeway Street tour, Chiarelli has yet to pull off this kind of blockbuster. In February of ’08, he kicked the tires on Marian Hossa when the elite winger was available in Atlanta, but Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero came up with the winning bid, a move that helped the Penguins make it to Game 6 of the Cup finals before bowing to Detroit. The Bruins were done in Round 1, erased in seven games by the Habs.

Acquiring Richards would not guarantee the Bruins a berth in the Cup finals, but frankly, a lineup down the middle of Richards-Patrice Bergeron-David Krejci-Greg Campbell could be considered more formidable than if Savard were still in the equation. Savard is older (33), and his first two months back on the job were not anywhere close to the Savard of old, the Savard who had not yet been blindsided by Matt Cooke.

Richards isn’t as slick a playmaker, but he is a strong, smart, solid producer. As of yesterday morning he ranked sixth in the league scoring race (21-38—59). Boston’s top point-getter, Bergeron, had 44, and ranked 31st overall.

These are the toughest deals for a GM to make because the price is so high and there would be no guarantee that Richards would sign here in July. And if he did, at what payroll figure? His next deal is probably going to bring him around $8 million per year again. And though it’s questionable whether Savard ever will play again, it’s possible, and his $4 million cap hit then would hinder Boston’s ability to extend Richards. Complicated things these concussions, on many levels, especially in a salary-capped system.

Unquestionably, Richards is the move Chiarelli should make, provided Nieuwendyk is dealing. If there is no dance to be had in Dallas, then it’s a steep drop to the land of misfit toys for replacements or alternative approaches.

Chiarelli could look to rekindle talks with Toronto GM Brian Burke about Tomas Kaberle for the backline, or agree to pluck point blaster Sheldon Souray from Edmonton as a discounted waiver recall from Hershey. Who knows, maybe old friend Miro Satan (5-5—10 with Boston in last year’s playoffs) could be coaxed out of Russia, where he was last seen playing with Moscow Dynamo.

Any deal, though, would pale in comparison to Richards, the big get. It would be Chiarelli’s boldest move by far since arriving in town in June 2006, when he officially became the franchise’s picker-upper of shattered pieces.

Almost five years later, he is still picking. Time now to see if he can channel that little bit of Harry Sinden, take these broken wings, and learn to fly. If he was only waiting for this moment to arise, it’s here.

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

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