The Bruins traded for Pavel Zacha without knowing where he might fit into their lineup, or their salary structure.
Amid discussions about a new contract, Zacha opted to flex a bit of financial muscle by opting for salary arbitration before Sunday’s filing deadline. Zacha chose that route rather than accept a one-year, $3 million qualifying offer, which was extended by the Devils before they traded him to Boston last Wednesday.
Zacha, who is a year away from reaching unrestricted free agent status, would be entitled to a one-year award. The sides can settle on a contract at any point before a still-to-be-scheduled hearing, which would take place between July 27 and Aug. 11.
He was one of 24 players who filed for arbitration, a list that includes 35-goal scorer Andrew Mangiapane (Calgary), Jesse Puljujarvi (Edmonton), and Zacha’s former New Jersey teammates Miles Wood and Jesper Bratt.
Players who choose arbitration cannot sign offer sheets with other teams.
Zacha, 25, has set career highs in each of the last three seasons. He scored 17 goals in 2021, 24 assists in 2020 and 36 points in 2022. He was making an average of $2.25 million in each of those years, and could be looking at a contract around the $3.5 million mark.
According to CapFriendly, the Bruins had some $4.8 million in salary cap space after acquiring Zacha’s rights for Erik Haula. General manager Don Sweeney opened this week continuing negotiations with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, who would slot in as the top two centers on the roster. Zacha, a center who shoots left and can play the wing, could become a top-six forward on a full-time basis if either doesn’t re-sign. He could start the year as a wing, with No. 1 left wing Brad Marchand recovering from double hip surgery.
“He’s more than comfortable playing all three positions and being productive,” Sweeney said of Zacha. “We can always move other people around. I think he sees himself as a center and he’s excited to be joining the Boston Bruins. We’re excited to have him.
“I think down the road he’s definitely a center. I think that helps us if we’re able to find the term and agreement.”
Zacha’s camp, led by agent Darren Ferris, could refer to Tyler Bertuzzi, Sam Bennett, Jared McCann, and Victor Olofsson as comparable cases in arbitration. They were of similar ages and contract statuses as Zacha, though almost all of them had more production than Zacha in his contract season (15-21–36 in 70 games).
In 2020, Bertuzzi was 25 and heading into his final RFA year when he asked an arbitrator for $4.25 million. The Red Wings countered with $3.15 million. An arbitrator ruled Bertuzzi, who scored a career-high 21 goals and 48 points on a $1.4 million average annual value, deserved $3.5 million.
In 2019, Bennett was 23 when he and his agent, Ferris, avoided a hearing with the Flames by settling on a two-year deal with a $2.55 million cap hit. Bennett came off a 13-goal, 27-point season, and put up 1-4—5 in five playoff games, at $1.95 million per. Like Zacha (drafted sixth overall in 2015), Bennett was a high pick (fourth overall in 2014).
In March, McCann, then 25, settled on a five-year extension with the Kraken worth $5 million annually. He was a year away from UFA status, making $2.94 million, and led Seattle with 27 goals and 50 points.
In 2020, Olofsson, also 25 at the time, avoided arbitration by signing a two-year extension with the Sabres at $3.05 per. Olofsson put up 20 goals and 42 points in 54 games, finishing seventh in the Calder Trophy voting.
Ferris, of Quartexx Hockey, also represents still-unsigned free agent center Nazem Kadri, and Bruins forwards Taylor Hall and Jack Studnicka. Hall signed a four-year, $24 million deal last July. Studnicka, an RFA with no arbitration rights, is coming off his entry-level deal.
In a league hamstrung by a relatively flat salary cap — teams can spend as much as $82.5 million next season, a $1 million increase over the previous three years — the arbitration process has made teams wary.
Last summer, Nick Ritchie would have received a sizable raise off his $2 million qualifying offer. The 24-year-old had broken out for a career-high 15 goals in 56 games, riding some top-unit power play time (five PP goals, also a personal best). He would have received a sizable bump off his $2 million qualifying offer. Rather than lose an arbitration case, the Bruins cut him loose.
Ritchie signed a two-year, $5 million deal with Toronto, where he put up two goals in 33 games despite riding the first month on Auston Matthews’s line. He was waived and demoted to the minors. He scored 10 times in 24 games after a trade to Arizona.
Along with Ritchie last summer, the Bruins did not qualify Ondrej Kase, who was due a $2.6 million offer. He hooked on with the Maple Leafs for $1.25 million, and signed another one-year deal with the Hurricanes for $1.5 million after modest production in Toronto (14-13—27 in 50 games).
Zacha is likely to stick around, but at what cost? If the Bruins keep their new acquisition while reuniting with Bergeron and Krejci, other players may have to move.
“I feel there’s growth and potential there moving forward. We hope to be able to find a deal with him being a part of the organization now and beyond, that remains to be seen how long that is,” Sweeney said. “Just felt like it was an opportunity for now and potentially moving forward. We identified a player that fit into our organization that we’re excited about.”
Defenseman Jack Ahcan has arbitration rights, but did not file by Sunday’s deadline for players. Teams have until 5 p.m. Monday to initiate the process on a player .… Bruins prospect Brett Harrison was added to Team Canada’s national junior team development camp. The camp, which opens this weekend in Calgary, will set the stage for the 2023 World Juniors in December. Harrison, 19, put up 27 goals and 61 points in 65 games for OHL Oshawa last season. He last played for Canada at the U18 World Junior Championship in 2021. That performance (2-0—2 in seven games) helped convince the Bruins to use a third-round pick (85th overall) on him in the 2021 draft. Harrison missed the entire 2020-21 season when the OHL shut down amid the pandemic. He did a brief stint in the Finnish junior league for KOOVEE U20s, putting up 4-5—9 in seven games.