SUNRISE, Fla. – The Bruins had little choice but to trade Milan Lucic. As singular as Lucic was to the organization, city, and league, the Bruins were not in a position to extend the power forward upon the expiration of his three-year, $18 million contract after this season.
“It was a very, very difficult conversation to have,” general manager Don Sweeney said of his call to Lucic, the club’s second-round pick in 2006. “I just felt that the situation we were in, it was going to be very difficult to extend the offer to the level I thought it would take to retain Milan going forward.”
They did, however, have a choice on whether to extend or trade Dougie Hamilton. They chose the latter.
The Bruins stuck fast to their principles. But they played it loose in terms of any prudency when it comes to team-building.
Lucic is 27 years old. He will have a good season in 2015-16 for Los Angeles, perhaps playing alongside Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik. He may have three more good ones after that, all at big bucks.
But when Lucic’s legs stiffen, Hamilton’s skates will be buzzing at peak power. Hamilton is 22 years old. He already is a very good three-zone defenseman. He will become even better as he puts on more muscle and pads his résumé with additional NHL experience.
Hamilton has a full toolbox: height, strength, reach, skating, vision. He wanted to be paid accordingly. The Bruins did not agree with his ask.
“We extended Dougie a very significant contract offer,” said Sweeney. “It didn’t lead us to where we thought he’d be comfortable being part of our group long term.”
Sweeney’s offer compared to other contracts signed by good two-way defensemen with expiring entry-level contracts — better, for example, than the six-year, $29 million deal Carolina gave Justin Faulk. The Bruins did not receive a counteroffer. But it’s a good bet that Hamilton’s ask was in the upper atmosphere where Alex Pietrangelo (seven years, $6.5 million annually) makes his living.
“As a coach, I find it very unfortunate that players that have played three years in the league, all of a sudden are looking to be up there with the top-paid players,” said coach Claude Julien. “I preferred the other way. You work your way up with years of service and everything else. That’s not to say he wasn’t in his right. He was in his right to do what he did. I’m not standing here blaming him at all.”
Hamilton will become a restricted free agent on Wednesday, when he will be eligible to sign an offer sheet. What was once the Bruins’ concern now belongs to the Flames.
Calgary GM Brad Treliving did not speak with J.P. Barry, Hamilton’s agent, before making the deal on Friday. But Treliving would not have acquired Hamilton without two things: a good idea of the defenseman’s demand, and an even better idea that the Flames would come closer to meeting it than the Bruins.
“It was a steep price,” a straight-faced Treliving said of ceding picks No. 15, 45, and 52. “Any time you start talking about first-round picks in a deep draft, multiple picks, I think Donny did himself and his team real well.”
Like the rest of the GMs, Treliving knows what Hamilton is and will become. In time, Hamilton will become Victor Hedman: a powerful, mobile, do-it-all defenseman who can defend and attack. He joins Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, Dennis Wideman, and Kris Russell on a defensive corps that is as strong, deep, and skilled as any six-pack in the league.
“He’s able to go back, retrieve pucks, exit the zone,” Treliving said, rattling off a hit list of Hamilton’s skills. “His ability to deny entries. His ability to create offense both with his passing and his legs. His ability to get shots on net. We think this is a real good addition for us.”
The Bruins have nobody like this in their system. The player they once projected to become Zdeno Chara’s replacement as No. 1 defenseman is gone. In return, they received picks that will not help for several years, perhaps when Chara’s skates are hanging instead of digging into the TD Garden ice.
The Bruins knew Hamilton better than anyone else. They identified his potential ceiling. But they also believed the ask was not reasonable given only three years of NHL service.
Some organizations have given defensemen of Hamilton’s caliber term and salary coming out of entry level. Drew Doughty and Pietrangelo were two such players. P.K. Subban, on the other hand, required a two-year bridge deal before scoring his eight-year, $72 million blockbuster.
“Clearly, there’s been a bunch of players that have jumped bridge deals and gone to the next one,” said Sweeney. “It’s up to the individual team and player themselves to find that deal to be made. Whether or not that would have existed here, I firmly believe it didn’t.”
The Bruins had other options besides the nuclear one of dismissing their future franchise defenseman. They could have matched an offer sheet, which they pledged to do. They could have waited until training camp, when bargaining power swung back their way. Or they could have given Hamilton what he wanted.
The third option would have been costly at first. But not long term. Defensemen like Hamilton are hard to find. Since Sweeney started his time in the front office in 2006, the Bruins have never had a defenseman with a comparable skill set. These are players you pay, even if their costs make Harry Sinden, Cam Neely, and any old-guard types want to tell them to go yodeling in the Alps. The Bruins had the money to pay Hamilton after shedding Lucic’s $6 million average annual value. Instead, they even retained $2.75 million of Lucic’s salary.
The Bruins said goodbye to a whole lot of creativity, mobility, and touch. They’re left with Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, and Adam McQuaid. The latter signed a four-year extension worth $2.75 million annually — big term for a stay-at-home defenseman with a history of freak injuries. These are players that should be replaced by younger, cheaper, in-house alternatives, not re-upped for four years.
This is not the group Sweeney expected when he started the night with three first-rounders. He tried to move up from No. 13 for an opportunity to pick Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov, or Zach Werenski, the draft’s three best defensemen. Sweeney failed. Hanifin went to Carolina at No. 5, Provorov to Philadelphia at No. 7, and Werenski to Columbus at No. 8.
“Everybody knew there were three defensemen who might have stood out,” Sweeney said. “I speculated all along where I thought it would break. It went as advertised. We tried as hard as we could to get into that group of players.”
In several years, picks 13-15 Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk, and Zachary Senyshyn (Triplets 2.0) should become good NHL players. This is no comfort to Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, and Brad Marchand. The dressing room they left in April is now in tatters.