BRIGHTON, Mass – Certainly the Bruins won’t be idle on the July 1 opening of NHL free agency.
They’ll need to get a veteran goalie willing to hold the third spot on the organizational depth chart, and there will undoubtedly be a bargain forward or two out there that the Bruins can bring in given potential openings on the second and third line.
But the bottom line for the Black and Gold is that they’re not going to be big players in NHL free agency while things are held up with their restricted free agents in Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen. The Bruins have roughly $12 million in cap space in the final weekend prior to NHL free agency opening and all of that money is going to be earmarked for players in McAvoy, Carlo and Heinen that are facing significant raises.
“[We are] cognizant that we have to deal with our RFA players. As I’ve said all along, I don’t have a timeline for that, but they’ll be playing for Boston at some point in time this year prior to December 1,” said Sweeney, casually referencing the deadline when players have to sign or sit out the entire NHL season. “That’s the only real deadline we face, but we’ll be at it. We’ve been at it for a while with those guys.”
As Sweeney referenced, there isn’t a big concern about offer sheets or any of these players demanding trades elsewhere, but it also sounds like there’s very little urgency in negotiations with three significant pieces of last year’s Stanley Cup Final team.
“Very prominently,” answered Bruins GM Don Sweeney, when asked how prominently the RFA situation plays in Boston’s strategy for July 1. “It was a reason why we had tried to be in front of things, but as I said, there’s no timeline to find a deal. Two sides have to find it, and there’s been a patient…overall plan.
“But it’s pretty apparent around the league that the RFAs are being patient in that regard. There’s been a few [to sign]. You know, Philadelphia signed their defenseman the other day. So, I’m hopeful that our players would see it that way, but I can’t force them to see it that way.”
So where do the B’s currently stand with their RFA players in negotiations?
Well, if McAvoy’s camp is looking for the Aaron Ekblad eight-year, $60 million contract then the wait is going to be a long one indeed. Ekblad missed exactly five games in his first two seasons, was a No. 1 overall pick and averaged 13 goals and 38 points in his first two NHL seasons with the Florida Panthers. McAvoy has missed 47 games with an assortment of injuries and medical issues over his first two seasons, was a mid-first round pick and averaged seven goals and 30 points over those first two NHL seasons.
More comparable for McAvoy: the six-year, $31.5 million deal for Hampus Lindholm, the six-year, $32.4 million contract for Sabres D-man Rasmus Ristolianen and the six-year, $34.8 million deal for Dallas Stars D-man Esa Lindell. If the Bruins are offering just shy of $6 million per year on a six-year deal and McAvoy’s camp is expecting $7.5 million per year on an eight-year deal, then it’s clear there are chasms to be bridged in contract negotiations.
It may be that a shorter term bridge deal becomes the best course of action to get McAvoy into the B’s fold and allow him the chance to have the kind of monster, dominant season he’ll need to have before he’s going to get Ekblad money.
The situation for Carlo won’t be quite as difficult.
Certainly the 6-foot-5 Carlo had a strong third NHL season with two goals and 10 points in 72 games, and was strong in the playoffs as a top-4 D-man averaging 21:31 of ice time during the first 24 Stanley Cup playoff games of his career. But Carlo won’t be getting the same kind of payday as McAvoy, and is looking at something more along the lines of $3-4 million per season on a shorter term deal for his second contract.
While not a perfect comparable, the two-year deals handed out to Edmonton’s Darnell Nurse ($3.2 million per year) and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrisey ($3.15 million per year) last summer are in Carlo’s neighborhood with the B’s this summer.
Maybe Carlo gets closer to $4 million per season (like $3.5 or $4 million per season) or another year or two in term, but it’s not going to be a salary cap-busting kind of contract.
The pathway for Heinen is a little more interesting because his 27 goals and 81 points over the last two seasons are strong, but the 23-year-old also took a big step back this past season with just 11 goals and 34 points in 77 games. Signing Heinen to the $3 million per season or so it’s going to take to sign him will effectively eliminate them from any chance of re-signing their own unrestricted free agent in Marcus Johansson, who is going to command in the neighborhood of $5 million per season on a new long term deal.
Kasperi Kapanen just signed a three-year deal worth $3.2 million per season and Andreas Johnsson signed a four-year deal worth $3.4 million per season with the Maple Leafs. Both those players hit 20 goals last season for the Leafs, but Heinen has better numbers than them over the course of the last two seasons. Perhaps Heinen gets a little less in term than the two Leafs forwards, but he’s tracking to right around $3 million per season on a 2-3 year deal.
Put it all together and that’s going to eat up all of Boston’s $12 million in cap space and probably force them to move at least one player to create some salary cap space on their roster headed into the season. That doesn’t leave any room to chase down the Artemi Panarins of the world, or even lock down a top-6 winger that Cam Neely mentioned as a priority headed into the offseason.
Could the Bruins find a way to dump the final two years of David Backes’ $6 million cap hit?
It’s not likely unless they’re willing to part with a first round pick or top prospect, or swallow down somebody else’s equally bad contract. That isn’t smart business for the Bruins, particularly given that Backes still plays a strong leadership role within the B’s team structure.
Dealing players like Torey Krug or David Krejci to create cap room is simply going to create more holes on a team that made it to the Stanley Cup Final last season. Granted there were some extenuating circumstances behind Boston’s march to the Cup Final, but this is still a strong Eastern Conference playoff team we’re talking about in the Black and Gold.
The Bruins have shown zero inclination to move their core players for cap space, and it’s hard to blame them given three straight strong regular seasons with playoffs, and a Cup Final appearance, on their ledger.
Unfortunately, it all adds up to the Bruins being passengers more than movers and shakers when free agency opens on July 1. But it also means the Bruins will have a pretty strong team once all their RFAs are signed, sealed and delivered with some cost certainty added to a B’s group expected to be in a bit of a holding pattern on Monday.
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