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Bruins put themselves in unenviable position

Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has plenty of money to spend in free agency.FILE/JEN FULLER/GETTY IMAGES

On Friday, when the NHL free agent market opens for business at noon, the perpetual occupants of salary cap prison will enjoy an unfamiliar feeling of financial fresh air.

The formerly free-spending Bruins, tagged with bonus overages in 2014-15 and 2015-16 for exceeding the cap in the two previous seasons, have money to burn. On Thursday, they allocated $5.25 million annually toward Torey Krug, signing the defenseman to a four-year, $21 million extension. On the same day, they placed Dennis Seidenberg on waivers for the purpose of buying out the two remaining seasons on his four-year, $16 million contract.

The Bruins have approximately $54.5 million committed toward their 2016-17 roster. This leaves them about $18.5 million short of tickling the $73 million cap.


General managers like Don Sweeney with Benjamin Franklins spilling from their pockets have liberal cash reserves for a reason. They don’t have enough good players.

In Sweeney’s sprint toward cap flexibility, the GM has become the steward of a roster that presently qualifies as both inexpensive and not Cup-competitive. Consider some of the chain-pullers from the 2013-14 season, which looks like the organization’s last hurrah: Jarome Iginla, Milan Lucic, Reilly Smith, Johnny Boychuk, Loui Eriksson, Dougie Hamilton, Seidenberg, and Chad Johnson. Now consider the players currently projected to serve as their 2016-17 replacements in some capacity: David Pastrnak, Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes, Kevan Miller, Frank Vatrano, Colin Miller, Joe Morrow, and Malcolm Subban.

It is easy to determine why the Bruins have plunged from the Presidents’ Trophy winner to a team that’s reserved early tee times for two straight seasons. In the cap-mandated cycle of roster refreshing, the Bruins said goodbye, via both shrewd and unforgivable trades and to the richer calls of free agency, to good and expensive players. They filled the craters they left behind with spoonfuls of cheaper soil.


The $16 million of available money, after budgeting for re-signing Colin Miller and Morrow, would be a powerful asset if the Bruins had diamonds to pursue. The UFA market, however, is overflowing with coal.

Eriksson will walk, and rightfully so, because a team will give him greater term than the 30-year-old (will turn 31 on July 17) deserves. Age is the blemish on some of Eriksson’s counterparts. Kyle Okposo is good for 20 goals per year now, but the 28-year-old’s projected decline will take place before the expiration of the long-term contract he’s sure to get. David Backes, 32, plays a power game that does not age well. Troy Brouwer is 30 years old.

On defense, the pickings are even slimmer. Jason Demers is the top prize, which speaks volumes about a market that grew even more limited after the early trades and signings of Keith Yandle and Alex Goligoski. The remainder is like the produce selection at Haymarket: distressed and picked over.

For a GM who needs and can afford two much-needed ribeyes at defense and right wing, it makes little sense to pay for half a dozen hamburgers. So Sweeney’s best alternative is to wait until the overheated trade market — rivals wanted picks No. 14 and 29 and more for a puck-moving defenseman — cools off in the summer months. Wednesday proved the NHL engine is still smoking.

It’s been a mixed first-year bag for Sweeney. But he had the sense of not buying any of the crazy pouring out of Edmonton and Montreal. Former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, as desperate for blue-line help as Sweeney, wheeled Taylor Hall, one of the NHL’s four best left wings, to New Jersey for 23-year-old Adam Larsson. The right-shot Larsson, while improving, doesn’t score that much, doesn’t move the puck swiftly, and doesn’t see much time on the power play.


Chiarelli’s expected complement of trading Hall is signing Milan Lucic, a transaction that underscores Edmonton’s need to win. It is not Chiarelli’s concern that in locking up Lucic long term he is kicking the can forward to the ex-Bruin’s final years, which do not project to be team-friendly.

Meanwhile, the Canadiens declared P.K. Subban’s contract and character so loathsome they booted him from Canada. In return, they received 30-year-old Shea Weber and the 10 seasons remaining on his 14-year, $110 million millstone. The Bruins are better just because the Canadiens are worse.

“You saw a few players exchanged in the last day or so to understand what the value to each and every one of those players,” Sweeney said of post-draft prices. “They’re both really good hockey trades. It will be decided upon, win, lose, or break even, over time. That’s what all general managers are looking to do to improve their clubs. I don’t think the market has changed all that much. It’s just not involving draft pick talk as much as player talk.”

So Sweeney’s best move is to hang tight and cross his fingers that he can initiate action on the post-July 1 trade market. He is not in a position of strength. To acquire what they believed were difference-making defensemen, Edmonton and Nashville ceded assets that Sweeney could not match, even if he wanted to. He could not afford to trade Brad Marchand, Hall’s closest comparable. He has no defensemen mimicking Weber’s skill set, even if it’s diminishing.


The Bruins are in this tar pit because of their own doing on Hamilton. They would not be chasing a three-zone defenseman had they come to a better resolution, either by waiting Hamilton out or matching an offer sheet.

But there’s no undoing a bad deal. It leaves Sweeney with his hand raised if prices come down on Kevin Shattenkirk, Jacob Trouba, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin, and Cam Fowler. Whether Sweeney’s rivals will buy what he’s selling remains to be seen.

It’s not a bad thing to face a cap crunch. The Penguins probably don’t mind.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.