We don’t know if the Boston Bruins are still a genuine Stanley Cup contender or a team in transition.
That will be learned in the months ahead, and it will certainly influence roster decisions, such as what to do at the NHL trade deadline and how to divvy up goaltending duties.
One thing it won’t affect at all: Charlie McAvoy getting paid. Because it doesn’t matter whether you’re a good team, a great team or a terrible team: Every team in the league could use a star No. 1 defenseman just entering his prime.
McAvoy, 23, is entering the final year of his second contract and will be a restricted free agent at season’s end. We saw what young RFA defensemen got this offseason: Seth Jones received eight years at $9.5 million per. Zach Werenski got $9.58 million a year over six seasons. Darnell Nurse got eight years with a $9.25 million cap hit. Cale Makar signed for six years at $9 million per.
The Bruins have never had a player with a cap hit higher than $7.5 million (Zdeno Chara’s first deal with the B’s). They currently don't have a cap hit higher than $6.87 million (Patrice Bergeron). That will all change with McAvoy, and it should.
McAvoy currently makes $4.9 million, which is a steal. Nearly doubling his cap hit might sound extreme, but what other choice would the Bruins have? He’s the type of player you hope you can draft, develop and keep around for their prime years.
Though his current contract is a bridge deal, the Bruins don’t want to go short again with McAvoy, as it could just accelerate his eventual departure. McAvoy will be unrestricted at the end of his next contract, even if it’s only a year or two (2022-23 will be his seventh accrued season; you need to be either 27 or have seven accrued seasons to reach unrestricted free agency).
So the Bruins should (and you’ve got to assume will) follow the lead of what Chicago, Edmonton and other teams did with their young defensemen: go long and pay a high price.
Don Sweeney has been good at re-signing players already on the roster (Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak), but it would take a minor miracle for McAvoy’s number to come in at lower than $9 million. He’s easily better than Nurse, and sure, maybe Edmonton has to pay their guys more because it’s Edmonton, but if I’m McAvoy’s agent I’m not settling for a dime less than $9.25 million per.
Money would be tight for Boston; the cap going up would go a long way. Bergeron, who is entering the last year of his deal, perhaps could take a pay cut if and when he re-ups. The Bruins could also pay a team to take John Moore’s $2.75 million cap hit off their paws (bear joke).
When all is said and done, McAvoy ideally will spend anywhere between six and eight years contending for (and winning?) the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defensemen. NHL Network ranked him the ninth-best blueliner in the league prior to last season. Those lists can be bonkers, but McAvoy is conservatively a top-10 defenseman.
Since that first Chara contract, the Bruins typically haven’t had one player make way more than everyone else. If McAvoy is at, say, $9.5 million, he’ll be making roughly $3 million more than the next highest-paid Bruin, which would be David Pastrnak at $6.66 million. (Brad Marchand and Taylor Hall have cap hits in the low $6 million range.)
Any thought of "He's not that much better than these guys" should be ignored. There is a massive premium on elite defensemen and there should be. The Bruins could have avoided this by signing McAvoy for more years and higher dough back when his entry-level contract was up, but they opted for a bridge deal that allowed them more cap space as they tried to get one more Cup out of the Chara/Bergeron/David Krejci/Tuukka Rask era.
Don Sweeney hasn’t aced many draft picks. McAvoy is this group’s crown jewel. Barring the unpredictable, he’ll have a huge payday coming his way.