Wednesday should have been the winner-take-all exclamation point to the 2013 hockey season. The Bruins were just over a minute from securing a Game 7 at the United Center in Chicago.
Instead, the Bruins bosses will be conducting exit interviews at TD Garden. They will start to recover from Monday night’s below-the-belt 3-2 loss and reload for 2013-14. They still might catch a whiff of lingering cigar smoke from the visiting dressing room just down the hall.
The cancellation of the Bruins’ return flight to Chicago wasn’t enough punishment. By stretching winter into summer, the Bruins left themselves little time to execute their offseason transactions.
The NHL draft takes place in Newark in four days. Free agency will open a week from Friday. The players have earned the right to begin their offseason decompression. No such opportunity is available for general manager Peter Chiarelli and his hockey operations colleagues.
There are post-July 5 certainties. The Bruins will extend Patrice Bergeron to an eight-year deal, the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. Bergeron’s new deal — he signed a three-year extension in 2010 — will become effective in 2014-15.
The Bruins also will re-sign Tuukka Rask, who is scheduled to become a restricted free agent July 5. Either the team or the player might file for arbitration to help frame the contract and eliminate an offer sheet.
The sides should agree on an extension before a hearing. Rask (1.88 goals-against average, .940 save percentage, three shutouts in the playoffs) may not receive Bergeron’s security, but he could double his current $3.5 million salary.
Neither extension is pressing. The time-sensitive decision centers on re-signing Nathan Horton. The right wing is one of seven players who will reach UFA status July 5. The others are Jaromir Jagr, Andrew Ference, Anton Khudobin, Wade Redden, Aaron Johnson, and Jay Pandolfo.
Of the seven UFAs-to-be, Horton is the Bruins’ primary target because of their question marks at right wing.
The 41-year-old Jagr will walk. It is unknown whether Tyler Seguin (one postseason goal) will become a top-six threat worthy of his compensation. Starting in 2013-14, Seguin will make $5.75 million annually for the next six seasons. As of now, it projects to be a premature extension in salary and term.
The question is how far the Bruins will go to bring back Horton.
Horton (7-12—19) was tied for second in postseason scoring after David Krejci (9-17—26). Horton, Krejci, and Milan Lucic (7-12—19) combined to form the Bruins’ most consistent offensive line throughout the playoffs. There are few teams that can roll out a line featuring those two wingers’ power and Krejci’s slippery creativity. It is a line with a sum greater than its parts.
As with Lucic, Horton’s efficiency flickered during the regular season; he had 13 goals and 9 assists in 43 games. But Horton has a two-year track record of postseason presence. In 2011, He had 8 goals and 9 assists in 21 games. Horton scored Game 7 winners against Montreal and Tampa Bay.
Horton’s playoff performance will allow him to seek a raise on his current $4 million average annual value.
The 28-year-old Horton will most likely prefer security over a payday. Concussions (delivered by Vancouver’s Aaron Rome in 2011 and Philadelphia’s Tom Sestito in 2012) ended two straight seasons for Horton. Also, it’s a good bet he will need offseason shoulder surgery.
The 2013-14 salary cap will be $64.3 million. Currently, the Bruins have approximately $60 million committed toward 12 forwards (including Marc Savard), seven defensemen, and one goalie (Niklas Svedberg).
The Bruins will have to take measures to re-sign Horton and Rask. They might have to place Savard on long-term injured reserve, which would allow them to exceed the cap by his $4,007,143 annual hit. That might not be enough. The Bruins might have to trim salary.
Bottom-six forwards Rich Peverley ($3.25 million annual hit) and Chris Kelly ($3 million) could be moved to clear space. Peverley is the more likely trade candidate of the two. He had a disappointing season. The versatile forward had 6 goals and 12 assists during the regular season, then 2 goals and no assists in the playoffs.
Clubs have inquired about Peverley’s availability before. His speed and shot could make him a top-six forward on clubs with thinner rosters. Peverley is good on faceoffs, plays center and wing, and sees ice time on the power play and penalty kill.
The brassier move would be dealing Seguin. The No. 2 pick from 2010 boasts speed and a shot that should make him a first-line threat. But Seguin’s hockey sense and battle level have not developed in line with his skill.
It is a high-risk consideration that would be out of character for Chiarelli. Seguin is 21, and he may “get it,” just like ex-Bruin Phil Kessel.
The Bruins don’t have many holes. Defensemen Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski, and Torey Krug will push for varsity spots. Ryan Spooner could see his chance up front. Svedberg should take over for Khudobin as Rask’s backup.
Right now, the only holes are in their hearts.