Monday, April 6, 2009

Bruins Cap Crunch Pt 2: Bergeron's Days Are Numbered

Since last Friday, when Part 1 of this article was written, we've learned of key details in the Tim Thomas contract:

The contract is a 4-year deal worth $20 million -- more time and money than had been previously reported in the press. Despite the fact that Thomas signed the contract before his 35th birthday, the league will consider him "age 35" at the time of signing. Therefore his cap number cannot change; buying him out will have no effect, a wrinkle that Peter Chiarelli appears to have miscalculated. Oh yeah, there's a no-movement clause in the first 3 years of Thomas' contract. The $5 million cap hit is written in stone.

Good News

As pointed out at Bobby Orr's Bastard, the cap hits for Tuukka Rask and Blake Wheeler will be greatly reduced next season. In a nutshell, the terms of the new CBA will be in effect and players currently on entry-level contracts (including Rask and Wheeler) will have a maximum cap hit of $875,000. This will save the Bruins about $4 million if both players are on the active roster.

Pink Slips

At this point it's clear that the Bruins will have to move some salaries in the offseason. The question is -- who stays and who goes?

For now, we can generally guess that the team will move forward with a Thomas/Rask tandem in net. It's given that Manny Fernandez and his $4.3 million cap hit will be long gone by training camp. Compared to this season's cap numbers, that makes the goaltending position more or less a wash. All things considered, it's also unlikely that the blueliners' combined cap hit will be much different from one season to the next (unless Matt Hunwick hits the jackpot).

That brings us to the forwards.

PJ Axelsson will surely not be brought back at $1.85 million; it's up to him and his agent whether they want to re-sign for significantly less. If not, Axelsson could be replaced by Vladimir Sobotka for only $750k. The net balance of this situation should be a $1m advantage for Boston.

After that, the decisions start to get tougher. Cap casualties could include Chuck Kobasew ($2.3m), Marco Sturm ($3.5m) or Michael Ryder ($4m), though all of these would come at a significant cost to the team's forward depth. Of course, they would also need to be replaced by a bargain-basement player, leaving the Bruins shallower and damaging their chemistry.

A more emotionally-charged option would be to trade Patrice Bergeron. At $4.7 million, Bergeron made roughly the same salary this season as Saku Koivu, Alex Semin and Eric Staal. With all due respect to Bergeron's brave battle against concussion problems, he's being paid too much to score only 7 goals and to be one of only three regular forwards without a + rating.

The cost of keeping Bergeron would be more than meets the eye. Not only would it affect contract negotiations for the team's younger players (Kessel, Lucic and Krecji), but it would threaten the Bruins' chances of re-signing Marc Savard in two years. It's only speculation at this stage, but this pundit would be shocked to see Bergeron in a Bruins uniform at training camp.

How do they do it?

Only two teams in the league have managed to navigate these issues year-after-year, without seeing a significant downturn in the quality of their roster. Detroit and New Jersey have seen potential dynasties crumble in Tampa, Pittsburgh, Boston, Anaheim, Dallas and Colorado... and they keep plugging along, winning division titles and staying in the Cup race despite significant roster turnover. There are lessons to be learned from them:

1) Drafting, developing and trading new players is key to suriving turnover. Trading Petteri Nokelainen and Matt Lashoff in return for veterans made sense for this season's playoff run -- but the cost to the organization's depth is not insignificant.

2) If at all possible, it's vital to work "hometown discounts" into new contracts. Clearly this was not the case with Thomas, but Chiarelli needs to convince players like Kessel and Wheeler that playing for the Bruins is worth a slight pay cut. The Red Wings have been masterful at this game.

3) Today's hero is tomorrow's goat. The biggest risk in the Thomas extension is that he'll turn out to be the next Byron Dafoe. Signing players to long-term, high-dollar contracts is not an advisable approach to franchise-building.

So the Bruins' approach should boil down to a few simple principles:

- Ditch players like Bergeron and Axelsson who are not playing to their pay level. If possible, trade them for picks or prospects who will restock Providence when the P-Bruins are called up.

- Lock up cornerstone players like Lucic and Krejci to short, incentive-laden contracts that will keep them in Boston without removing accountability.

- Exploit Thomas' contract by working Rask into the lineup a few games at a time. He has a minimum of 3 seasons to work on his game behind a possible Vezina winner.

And pray that the cap doesn't shrink too much.

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The Bastahd said...

The reduction in cap-hit to Rask and Wheeler is a guess, not a certainty. I know the bonuses were removed this season because the CBA was set to expire... no idea how it will be handled going forward.

Anonymous said...

Detroit and NJ both had the advantage of building their dynasties while there was no salary cap. Their key players were there when the cap was introduced and they already had lots of post-season success with the franchise. PC is in a much tougher spot trying to give out hometown discounts then NJ or DET. If the B's lose in the first round, good luck. If they win the cup, there is a chance. I would rather keep Bergeron and let Savard walk. Savvy puts up the points, but he is not a Bruin in the same vein and Bergeron. Bergys line is doing really well right now at both ends and I think it will continue next year with Sturm in Reechis place.

Tom said...

As far as I can tell, the rookie bonuses will disappear next season. Even though it's not written in stone yet, that would be the logical way to go -- especially since the cap is shrinking. It's in everyone's best interests to give GMs a bit more breathing room.

Anon, I have to disagree about Bergy vs. Savard. There's just no way to justify nearly $5m a year for a low-scoring depth center, then turn around and fail to re-sign a 100-point man who's been making basically the same. As much as the Thomas extension has tied Chia's hands, the Bergeron contract is even more of an albatross. And that would be the case even if he didn't have that constant risk of injury.

The Caveman said...

No question that Bergy is the contract that will likely be traded this off-season. The notion that they should keep him over Savard, if it were a straight-up choice between the two, is just insane. I'll take Savard.

Provided that a suitor can be found, which is no guarantee, a Bergy trade would really test all the good will that the B's have developed over the season. Should be interesting.

Tom said...

I guess the big question then is: who in the world would take on Bergeron at that price? This might be more of a buyout/waiver situation.

The Bastahd said...

Really not sure a buyout would be worthwhile... would mean having a 1.58M cap hit for the next FOUR seasons. Gotta think that would be pretty restricting going forwards...

Tom said...

Yeah, it would basically be renewing the Murray penalty. I really wouldn't want to assign him to Providence, because that would be too much of a kick in the nuts, but there don't seem many open doors for him.

I guess we can put Patrice on the "to watch" list in the playoffs... his performance will definitely alter this conversation one way or another.