From the Bruins’ perspective, Carl Soderberg’s time in Boston is ending in the appropriate manner.
The 29-year-old center will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Soderberg deserves a raise from the $1,008,333 he collected annually for the last three seasons — a price, in retrospect, that was a terrific bargain.
But Soderberg is becoming expendable for two reasons: his price and his replacement.
On the open market, Soderberg will not have much competition. Other UFA centers include Antoine Vermette, Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards, and Matt Cullen. Based on supply and demand, Soderberg could quadruple his annual salary. That’s a lot of dough for the cap-strapped Bruins to spend on a third-line center, especially when they’ve committed more than $14 million per year to David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron.
It’s also more than double what the Bruins will owe Ryan Spooner, Soderberg’s third-line replacement. Spooner’s entry-level contract will expire on July 1. As a restricted free agent, he will be due either a one- or two-year extension worth $1.5 million-$2 million annually.
Spooner is not as thick, strong on the puck, or defensively responsible as Soderberg. But he is faster, quicker, and more creative. Spooner also is 23 years old. His best years are ahead of him. It’s unlikely the same could be said of Soderberg.
Soderberg is a good No. 3 center. He was the Bruins’ only forward to play in all 82 games this season. He scored 13 goals and had 31 assists while averaging 16:48 of ice time per game. Soderberg played well with fellow Swede Loui Eriksson on his right side and Chris Kelly on his left.
At even strength, Soderberg and Eriksson were the second-most reliable offensive pairing after Bergeron and Brad Marchand. On the power play, Soderberg (three goals, five assists) was a down-low option on the first unit.
But Soderberg was not as good as a top-two center. Krejci missed 35 games because of groin and knee injuries. In those games, Soderberg had 2 goals and 14 assists (0.46 points per game). When Krejci was available, Soderberg had 9 goals and 17 assists in 47 games (0.55 points per game).
The Bruins could rely on Soderberg to produce when he was matched against bottom-six forwards and third pairings. His reliability decreased when top-six forwards and top-four defensemen were his opponents.
Other teams recognize Soderberg’s liabilities. But they are not as strong at center as the Bruins. Toronto, for example, has been perpetually shorthanded down the middle. Edmonton will draft Connor McDavid to complement Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. But former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, now with the Oilers, might be interested in Soderberg as an experienced and bigger third-line center.
Soderberg will have company leaving Boston. It could even be Eriksson, his former right wing. Eriksson was an important player for the Bruins in 2014-15. He played in all situations. But his best fit was on the third line with Soderberg. The two clicked, both in open ice and in-tight offensive-zone setups.
Without Soderberg, Eriksson’s future becomes less clear. Coach Claude Julien hasn’t liked Eriksson with Bergeron and Marchand. The initial plan was to play Eriksson with Krejci and Milan Lucic. But that fizzled when Krejci couldn’t stay out of the trainer’s room.
Eriksson is a good player, even better than Soderberg. But Eriksson is also 29. He will be unrestricted after 2015-16.
Eriksson will be one of six right wings bidding for a job in Boston in the fall, along with David Pastrnak, Reilly Smith, Brett Connolly, Brian Ferlin, and Seth Griffith. Pastrnak and Connolly aren’t going anywhere. If the Bruins move Smith, they’d be trading him at his worst value. Ferlin and Griffith are bottom-six players. Eriksson could bring back a mobile defenseman, which is a commodity the Bruins require.
There’s nothing wrong with Soderberg. He will have 15 goals and 30 assists annually for his next employer for at least two more seasons.
But Spooner has the skill to do those things at a higher tempo, for a longer time, and at a cheaper short-term price. This is the way succession plans unfold.