By Allan Muir
The sting of Monday night’s bitter Game 6 loss hasn’t begun to subside, but the front office staff of the Boston Bruins doesn’t have the luxury of waiting around until everyone gets over it. As well their team performed en route to 14 playoff victories, the B’s still came up short in the end. They were a little too slow. They didn’t have enough finish. They’re lost their cool. And that means changes are coming for an organization that wants to be the best.
There’s not a lot of sex appeal to any of the options they have at hand, but given the restraints that Boston faces under a diminished $64.3 million salary cap, the quiet potential of some long-simmering prospects offers their only real chance to get back to the Cup final in 2014.
The Bruins have eight of their top-12 forwards under contract through the end of the 2014-15 season. Patrice Bergeron, who can become a UFA next summer, is expected to sign a long, lucrative deal over the next few weeks that will carry him into the golden years of his career in Boston. That makes nine. Shawn Thornton was reduced to spare part status in the Cup final when the injury to Gregory Campbell dissolved the fourth line, but he could be given a short-term extension as well to carry him past next summer.
That’s 10. And that doesn’t leave much room, financially or physically, for the new blood this team needs to address its shortcomings. It’s been reported that GM Peter Chiarelli won’t exercise his right to buy out anyone this summer. That might be a ruse to maintain trade values, but it’s more likely that attrition and/or trades will be needed to clear the path for fresh faces.
Unless he’s willing to play for 25 cents on the dollar, lead-footed possession specialist Jaromir Jagr is done in Boston. He was a noble experiment, but he didn’t work out. It’s time to move on.
It’s also expected that the Bruins will part ways with Nathan Horton. The first-line winger has been a beast in the postseason, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy — or show something approaching consistent effort during the regular season. Even if there was room under the cap to make him a reasonable offer, it’s a good bet that someone out there can throw more money at the UFA than Boston.
Rich Peverley’s $3.25 million hit is a little steep for a bottom-six forward without a clearly defined role. He has a limited no-trade clause (he can submit a list of 15 teams), but the Bruins might be able to move him if they retain some salary.
Kaspars Daugavins, who made a brief appearance in the Final, is an RFA. They’ll let him walk.
So, who has the tools to step in … and more important, who can they afford?
After impressing during a two-game trial in the Cup final, Carl Soderberg looks ready to stick. He might get a look at one of the two vacated right wing spots in the top six, but it’s a safer bet that he slides onto a revamped third line role that limits expectations while he acclimates to his first full season of North American hockey.
Jordan Caron (25th overall, 2009) battled through an ineffective first half and injuries in the second, but seemed to re-establish himself as a full-time option for the Bruins with a strong playoff performance for AHL Providence. His scoring touch doesn’t merit a top-six role, but he could step in as a useful third-liner with decent wheels and a physical edge if Peverley’s spot opens up.
Ryan Spooner (45th overall, 2012) has the speed and creativity to add some skill to the top-six, but it won’t be easy to get past the fact that he’s (maybe) 5-11, 180 pounds. Not that guys his size can’t thrive, especially with the kind of slick playmaking skills he brings to the table, but he has to prove that he can find the space he needs to be successful — and stand up to the beating when he can’t. Still, if the Bruins want to boost their power play, he’s the best option in the system.
Free-agent signee Carter Camper is even smaller, and that’s probably what kept him from being asked to join the Black Aces for the Cup drive. Still, he was Providence’s best forward during its playoffs. He got a three-game cup of coffee in 2011-12. He deserves a longer look next year.
On the back end, Chiarelli has six defensemen under contract, including rookies Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton. Both need — and should get — more consistent minutes next season. If he’s ready to commit to both, that may force his hand with UFA Andrew Ference, who has been a useful second-pair player since joining the team, and has had a significant role in developing its culture. But at 34, he’d be a risk to sign beyond two years, and if he expects a raise on the $2.25 million he earned this year, even a short-term deal might not work out.
He still has something to give and his veteran presence can’t be overvalued at this time of the year, but if the B’s let Ference walk, look for Matt Bartkowski, who survived the aborted Jarome Iginla trade, to assume a regular role on the third pair. He doesn’t bring a ton of upside, but his speed and minuscule cap hit (just $650K) make him an appealing option.
Goaltender Anton Khudobin may be an unknown quantity around the league, but he was dynamite as Tuukka Rask’s backup. A UFA this summer, he’s expected to return to Russia where he’ll get a chance to start in the KHL. His spot will be filled by Niklas Svedberg, who tied a Providence record by winning 37 of his 48 appearances during his rookie season. It’s a bit of a risky move, especially after he struggled in the playoffs, so look for the Bruins to add an affordable veteran who can play in the AHL and step in to spell Rask if things go south for Svedberg.