As soon as the NHL free agent feeding frenzy commenced last Saturday, Tyler Bertuzzi was projected to land one of the heftiest contracts.
So when he finally settled on a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Maple Leafs, it came as a surprise to many.
Count general manager Don Sweeney and the Bruins among those who shared that sentiment.
“Probably a little bit,” Sweeney said. “I’ll speak more generally than just talking about a player on another team at this point in time. There were players that were looking for longer-term deals and my discussions were focused on that, and some teams were in a good position to be able to give shorter-term deals at the right numbers and we had to go and fill our gaps.”
Boston was motivated to retain Bertuzzi beyond the 28 games he logged in a black-and-gold sweater.
Given his age (28), impressive postseason debut (10 points in seven games) and chemistry forged with David Pastrnak, the Bruins envisioned Bertuzzi as a potential piece of a reworked core. But only at the right price. Boston crafted an additional $6 million in cap space by dumping Taylor Hall’s contract on the Blackhawks for defensemen Ian Mitchell and Alec Regula.
As expected, the Bruins and Bertuzzi’s camp were not interested in seeking a one-year deal once negotiations began in earnest.
“Was (a one-year deal) a non-starter if we offered a much higher number?” Sweeney said. “Maybe not, but those weren’t a focus of the discussions.”
Whatever longer-term deal Boston offered Bertuzzi before free agency opened was not enough to dissuade him from entering the open market. Be it an underwhelming annual payout or a contract a few years short of what Bertuzzi was seeking, the top-six forward opted to test his luck in a potential bidding war.
By the time offers fell short of Bertuzzi’s expectations and a pivot to a one-year deal was on the table, Boston had allocated what little cap space it created to shore up multiple spots on the roster with Milan Lucic, Kevin Shattenkirk, Morgan Geekie, and James van Riemsdyk.
Even if Lucic was interested in seeking a reunion with Boston right off the bat, the others might have been off the market if Boston waited on Bertuzzi.
“There is a risk and reward in the strategy and there were some teams that were in the position to wait it out. I think it looks like we’re going to have a lot of flexibility moving forward,” Sweeney said. “So, it’s just where we are in our cycle, and we needed to fill some holes.”
An unforgiving market
Once Bertuzzi made the call to consider one-year contracts, Boston had little flexibility to accommodate a deal.
Perhaps another trade involving a valuable asset such as Linus Ullmark or Matt Grzelcyk could have opened an avenue.
But after relinquishing a useful middle-six winger in Hall for two fringe blue liners, Sweeney acknowledged that a cap-crunched marketplace likely would have seen Boston give up another useful cog for an underwhelming return.
The Hall trade gave Boston the leeway to sign four players for a combined cap hit of $5.05 million. But Boston wasn’t going to rid itself of two useful veterans to keep Bertuzzi, especially on a short-term deal.
“Even in the Taylor Hall [deal] where we freed up enough space to do what we had to do; you aren’t trying to walk a good player out of your lineup,” Sweeney said. “We had a really good team this year and we had a lot of really good players. We had tough decisions to make and we’re still waiting on some decisions. So, that’s not the goal — stripping things down — and you see teams do that around the deadline when there have been situations that have been determined. We have a competitive core and we’re trying to complement that and allow some guys to grow. We have three players [Mitchell, Jeremy Swayman, Trent Frederic] that filed for arbitration and two of those were on our team and an important part of that as well, that we have to factor in.”
No decisions yet
Sweeney had no updates on the playing futures of Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci. He did, however, announce that Patrice and his wife, Stephanie, recently welcomed a new addition to the family with the birth of their son, Felix … Arbitration hearings for players will be held July 20-Aug. 4. However, Sweeney is hopeful that Boston will be able to work out contracts for Swayman and Frederic before to potentially contentious hearings. “We’re all working hard on that front. Having pretty much constant dialogue with all three players (including Mitchell) and representatives,” Sweeney said. “But, we know there’s a path and there will be a right solution on the other side and one way or another they will be part of our organization.”
Conor Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.