Before the conclusion of the second round of the playoffs, Peter Chiarelli considered the inevitability of replacing Zdeno Chara. It was not an exercise the Bruins general manager enjoyed.
“Sometimes it creeps into my mind, and I have cold sweats,” Chiarelli said. “You talk about replicating in aggregate. That’s probably what we’ll have to do. We’re not going to find another player like Z.”
That process will begin this summer.
For the second straight postseason, Chara cracked at the wrong time. In Game 6, Chara’s misplay on Max Pacioretty led to Montreal’s second goal. In Game 7, Chara, like all of his teammates, fought the puck in the first period. The Bruins couldn’t recover from their early panic attack.
But a defensive makeover won’t be about replacing Chara. The 37-year-old strongman still projects to be a suffocating presence in 2014-15. It will be about reducing Chara’s workload and initiating the shift from shutdown hockey to efficient puck retrieval, rapid movement, and transition play.
Under the divisional playoff format, it’s possible that the Bruins could repeatedly clash with Montreal and Detroit. Both teams emphasize skill and speed. The Bruins have to get faster and quicker to avoid future hiccups. They spent too much time chasing the Canadiens instead of controlling the pace, and lost to them in seven games.
The best way to defend is to spend minimal time in the defensive zone. Dougie Hamilton is good at triggering the transition with a seam pass or a puck-pushing rush. Torey Krug can do it, too. The Bruins require another defenseman with a similar tool kit.
Keith Yandle and Alex Edler are two who fit the profile.
Yandle led Phoenix in scoring with 8 goals and 45 assists for 53 points. The 27-year-old Milton native likes to push the pace.
Edler is coming off a down season in Vancouver. He had 7 goals and 15 assists in 63 games under one-and-done coach John Tortorella. If Jim Benning, Chiarelli’s assistant, lands the Vancouver GM job as Mike Gillis’s replacement, his knowledge of the Bruins system could make a deal easier.
In Games 6 and 7, the Bruins couldn’t bust Montreal’s forecheck. Part of that was because of the jitters of Krug, Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski, and Kevan Miller.
But the Canadiens also took advantage of the Bruins’ defensive composition. Puck-moving does not occur instinctively for Chara, Miller, and Johnny Boychuk. When healthy, Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid are also defense-first blue liners.
They’d also require big returns. From the varsity, the most reasonable ask would be for Brad Marchand. The 26-year-old is locked in for three more seasons at $4.5 million annually. The No. 2 left wing (25-28—53, fifth-most points on the team) brings a unique mix of speed, skill, and feistiness. He could also help on the power play, where he couldn’t crack either of the Bruins’ units.
Boychuk would also draw interest. The right-shot defenseman is in his sweet spot as a shutdown man. He’s under contract for one more season. Because of his hard shot, punishing hits, and experience, Boychuk would be a good addition for a contending team in search of a roughneck.
In the AHL, Boston prospects who’d draw the most interest are Ryan Spooner, Alexander Khokhlachev, Zach Trotman, David Warsofsky, and Malcolm Subban. Warsofsky would be the easiest to give up because of his redundancy with Krug (vision, power-play touch, small stature). The Bruins wouldn’t be as eager to see the others go.
But it’s a price the Bruins have to consider. Defensemen who can retrieve the puck and move it swiftly touch the game in all three zones.
The puck spends less time in the defensive zone. A puck-mover, with either a pass or a rush, slingshots his teammates through the neutral zone. Because of the momentum they gain over the blue line, the forwards flood the offensive zone with speed and numbers.
The Bruins’ muffled defense-to-offense transition was a reason why the No. 1 line didn’t produce against the Canadiens. When David Krejci handles the puck and his wingmen barrel into the offensive zone, teams can’t slow them down. They create chances off the rush. They cycle down low. Eventually, chances turn into goals.
The Bruins are satisfied with their forwards. For most of the season, they rolled three strong, heavy, hard-to-play-against lines. Patrice Bergeron had a career year. Carl Soderberg took off after moving from left wing to center. Krejci’s postseason dip overshadowed a consistent regular season.
On the wing, Jarome Iginla was a good fit as Nathan Horton’s replacement. If Iginla is willing to accept a one-year, bonus-heavy extension, the Bruins would like him back. He complements Krejci and Milan Lucic well.
The first line draws top-pairing assignments. Unless they believe Loui Eriksson could be a top-line gunner, the Bruins don’t have a shoot-first right wing who could take over Iginla’s shifts.
Because Iginla is a 35-or-older player, the Bruins could sign him to a low base salary and let him make big bucks — $6.5 million would be a reasonable price — via bonuses, which could be rolled over toward 2015-16.
That’s what they did this season. Iginla’s $1.8 million base salary allowed the Bruins to fit him under the $64.3 million cap. But mostly because of Iginla’s bonuses, the Bruins will be charged approximately $4.5 million in overage penalties in 2014-15. The ceiling, projected to be around $70 million next season, will be $65.5 million for the Bruins because of the overage situation.
This doesn’t leave the Bruins with much space this summer. Shawn Thornton, Andrej Meszaros, Chad Johnson, and Corey Potter, who will be unrestricted, are not likely to return. Krug, Bartkowski, Reilly Smith, Jordan Caron, Matt Fraser, Niklas Svedberg, and Justin Florek will be restricted.
Krug and Smith are the top priorities. Neither is eligible for arbitration nor an offer sheet. Krug ($925,000) and Smith ($900,000) will at least double their current entry-level salaries, most likely via two-year bridge contracts. The Bruins will qualify Fraser, Svedberg, and Florek, which will result in minimal raises.
Bartkowski could be traded. Another team that likes the 25-year-old’s skating and strength could be willing to live with his diminished hockey sense. The Bruins might not qualify Caron, which would make him unrestricted.
For the regular season and one round of the playoffs, the Bruins were very good. They don’t need to tear down their roster to be good again next year.
But they require reinforcements on defense. Chara is 37. Seidenberg is coming off a major knee injury. It’s not time to rebuild. But it’s time to refresh.
Roster breakdown for 2014-15
Tuukka Rask, $7m, Will return
Zdeno Chara, $6.9m, Will return
Patrice Bergeron, $6.5m, Will return
Milan Lucic, $6m, Will return
David Krejci, $5.25m, Will return
Brad Marchand, $4.5m, Trade candidate
Loui Eriksson, $4.25m, Will return
Dennis Seidenberg, $4m, Will return
Johnny Boychuk, $3.3m, Trade candidate
Chris Kelly, $3m, Will return*
Gregory Campbell, $1.6m, Will return
Adam McQuaid, $1.5m, Will return*
Daniel Paille, $1.3m, Trade candidate
Carl Soderberg, $1.01m, Will return
Dougie Hamilton, $894,167, Will return
Kevan Miller, $800,000, Will return
* Likely to return because of injury or low trade value
Matt Bartkowski, Restricted, Trade candidate
Jordan Caron, Restricted, Unlikely to return
Matt Fraser, Restricted, Will return
Justin Florek, Restricted, Will return
Chad Johnson, Unrestricted, Unlikely to return
Torey Krug, Restricted, Will return
Jarome Iginla, Unrestricted, Likely to return
Andrej Meszaros, Unrestricted, Unlikely to return
Corey Potter, Unrestricted, Unlikely to return
Reilly Smith, Restricted, Will return
Shawn Thornton, Unrestricted, Unlikely to return
Keith Yandle, Defenseman, Phoenix: 8 goals, 45 assists, 53 points
Alex Edler, Defenseman, Vancouver: 7 goals, 15 assists, 22 points