NEWARK — On Saturday night, the Bruins met with Vincent Lecavalier and his agent, Kent Hughes.
The former Tampa Bay captain was once a far-fetched pursuit for the Bruins. But earlier Saturday, Nathan Horton informed the Bruins he would hit the market when free agency opens on Friday. Horton’s impending departure jacked up the heat on the Bruins’ chase of Lecavalier.
The Lightning used one of their compliance buyouts on Lecavalier Thursday. Tampa Bay will pay Lecavalier $32,666,667 over the next 14 years to be rid of his $7,727,273 annual cap hit.
“With what happened with Nathan, it became a little more ripe,” said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli. “We had a good meeting.”
The Bruins didn’t anticipate Horton’s decision. They wouldn’t have been able to give Horton the term and salary he will command on the open market. But Horton liked his teammates and was an excellent fit on the first line with Milan Lucic and David Krejci. The Bruins were prepared to clear salary — Rich Peverley was the leading candidate — to accommodate Horton.
“Yeah. I was surprised,” Chiarelli said. “I respect someone’s decision to go to free agency. I think it was a real tough decision for him and his family. I can never say never. Maybe he’ll come back and want to revisit it. But the message I got is that he’s going to test free agency and wants a new beginning.”
Filling Horton’s spot is just one of the chores facing the Bruins. Chiarelli said his first priority is to extend his go-to players. Deals for Tuukka Rask (restricted free agent on Friday) and Patrice Bergeron (unrestricted after 2013-14) are coming. Neither the Bruins nor the players’ representatives anticipate any roadblocks impeding their extensions.
“Our first priority is to make sure we have our core players locked up,” Chiarelli said. “Then we’ll have to fill in the holes a little bit. It doesn’t mean you can’t do that at the same time.”
Lecavalier would replace Horton as a top-six forward. The 33-year-old left-shot center has 383 goals and 491 assists in 1,037 career games, all with the Lightning. Lecavalier was one of Tampa’s three offensive dynamos alongside Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. In previous seasons, the Bruins matched Zdeno Chara against Lecavalier instead of Stamkos and St. Louis.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 215-pound Lecavalier is strong on the puck and skilled in the danger areas. Lecavalier could man the right-side half-boards on the power play and replace Jaromir Jagr.
To play in Boston, Lecavalier most likely would have to move to wing. Krejci and Bergeron are the top two centers. Lecavalier does not project to be a third-line center. Chiarelli said Lecavalier would be amenable to switching positions.
Landing Lecavalier, however, will be challenging. Lecavalier met with more than five teams before Sunday’s draft. Toronto is desperate for a No. 1 center to play alongside Phil Kessel. The Maple Leafs would trump any Bruins offer in salary and term.
During their meeting, the Bruins pitched Lecavalier on their strong roster. Lecavalier would not have to be a primary weapon.
“I think we’ve got such a strong core that I think there will be players who want to come play for us,” Chiarelli said. “If we don’t decide to proceed on Vinny or he decides to go [elsewhere], that’s not a reflection on him not wanting to win. We’ve got a good, strong core. We’re going to try and keep this core. There’ll be players. There’ll be players that want to win, shooters we can fill in on that line.”
Lecavalier is just one forward the Bruins could pursue in free agency. Jarome Iginla, the would-be Bruin, could be another. Pascal Dupuis, Sidney Crosby’s right wing, also could be a short-term solution.
Both Iginla and Dupuis, more than Lecavalier, fit the shoot-first characteristic the Bruins are seeking for their first line. Chiarelli acknowledged it would be difficult to land a power forward with Horton’s shot and snarl. Of the two characteristics, Chiarelli prefers a shooting touch to accompany Lucic’s brawn and Krejci’s creativity.
“It will be tough,” Chiarelli said of finding a replacement to re-form the line’s former identity. “There’s obviously chemistry there. There’s different ways to look at building your line. There’s building in pairs. Maybe that’s something to look at rather than getting an exact replacement for Horty. To attempt to try and re-create the chemistry, that will be hard. You’d like to have a shooter on that line.”
In Chiarelli’s first year in Boston, the Bruins produced a UFA thunderclap by signing Chara and Marc Savard. They were the foundation pieces for the franchise’s makeover.
Since then, Chiarelli has not been active in free agency. The most significant UFA was Michael Ryder (three years, $12 million) on July 1, 2008.
Come Friday, the Bruins may be more aggressive.
“You’re going to go into free agency, you’re going to overpay. You have to accept that,” Chiarelli said. “That’s the risk and the reward the player takes. It’s the risk and reward the team takes. The reward is that you’re going to get a player that can help you. The risk is that you’re going to overspend in term and value. I think there’s going to be a lot of players. We have to be resourceful.”Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.