If Loui Eriksson were two years younger, the Bruins would have an easy decision to make.
They would give Eriksson a long-term extension, perhaps as many as seven years at around $5 million annually. It would be market price for a smart, strong, and versatile wing who has been one of the Bruins' three best players this season.
But Eriksson is 30 years old with a concussion history. His trade value is high enough to net the Bruins a major score before the deadline. It's hard to project how many productive seasons Eriksson can play before his skates start to slow.
It leaves general manager Don Sweeney and his hockey operations colleagues with the most important decision of the season: whether to re-sign or trade Eriksson.
It is not an easy call.
There was no doubting Eriksson's talent and value, even before his hat trick in Thursday's 4-2 win over Minnesota at TD Garden. Eriksson has nine goals and eight assists for 17 points, trailing only David Krejci (22) and Patrice Bergeron (18). Only Krejci (20:05) is averaging more ice time than Eriksson (19:50). Eriksson has a team-best 56.2 Corsi For percentage.
He's played both wings. He's seen time on the first and second lines. He's been the net-front and goal-line presence on the best power-play unit in the league. He's killed penalties. He's done everything for the Bruins short of selling popcorn and showing fans to their seats.
"As much as he scored three goals and we can all look at that, it was a great accomplishment, he also was good in the other areas — the penalty kill and in our D-zone," said coach Claude Julien. "He was one of those guys that had his stick in the right places, taking away some of their slot opportunities that they excel in. He was really on top of his game. Not only does he deserve to be the best player tonight because of those three goals, but it's because of the rest of his game as well."
The decision is in Eriksson's hands. It is up to the ex-Star, with counsel from agent J.P. Barry, to determine his worth in term and salary and communicate that to the Bruins. If it is reasonable — four years and $24 million, for example — the Bruins would be best served to draw up the papers as soon as possible to give Eriksson long-term security.
But if Eriksson aims higher, the Bruins will hesitate. Based on his play, age, and the leaguewide market, Eriksson could seek one final long-term score, regardless of who signs his checks. He owes it to himself and his family after double-barreled concussions in 2013-14 via John Scott and Brooks Orpik turned his first Black-and-Gold season into a nightmare.
"The first year, I got that concussion, so that was not the best time in that first year," Eriksson said, referring to the Scott wallop. "Last year, I felt more comfortable. I felt really good last year. So I was just trying to build on it, try to get better this summer, and keep it going here through this season. It's been working pretty good."
If Eriksson flips the pages on his calendar to July 1, 2016, a possible payout will not be as bountiful as it could have been a few years ago. The Canadian exchange rate (currently 75 cents to the US dollar) is not pointing toward a healthy increase in the salary cap — if it goes up at all. Teams are already tight against the ceiling. Owners will be watching their GMs' pens and ensuring they don't sign players to contracts that handcuff them in future seasons.
But it only takes one team desperate for a do-it-all forward to drive up Eriksson's price. Last week, Detroit signed Justin Abdelkader to a seven-year, $29.75 million extension. Compared with Eriksson, Abdelkader is two years younger and half the player.
If Eriksson wants similar term and Barry believes he can get it, Sweeney will be busy calling his counterparts. Eriksson's hockey IQ is high. He's in good shape. He'll make plays with his stick that he can't make with his legs. But high-producing forwards 35 and older are the exception (Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan) more than the rule (Patrik Elias, Vincent Lecavalier).
This season and for several years after, trading Eriksson would not make the Bruins better. He's been excellent with Krejci, both on his left and right flanks.
On the power play, he does not plow into the crease and graft his backside onto a goalie's face like fellow Swede and former Red Wing Tomas Holmstrom. Instead, Eriksson quietly finds soft spots between defensemen, screens goalies, and puts himself in position for tips and short-range garbage goals.
But the Bruins cannot risk holding on to Eriksson and seeing him walk on July 1. If the Bruins put Eriksson in play, they can expect a haul in return. Last year, the Coyotes landed a first-round pick and prospect Klas Dahlbeck from Chicago for Antoine Vermette. The Maple Leafs acquired Zach Sill, a second-round pick, and a fourth-rounder from Toronto for Daniel Winnik. Calgary obtained second- and third-rounders from Washington for Curtis Glencross. Eriksson is better than all three rentals. The Bruins could demand a first-rounder and a high-level prospect.
The Bruins have time before they must make up their mind. The trade deadline is Feb. 29. By then, Eriksson's asking price could go up.