The Bruins’ fortunes in 2019-20 won’t rise or fall on the success of their fourth line. You heard it here first: Fourth-liners get their names on the Stanley Cup, too, but the roster marquee names, usually including the goalie, chart the parade route and secure the duck boats.
All that said, the Bruins would have been wiser Monday, and better positioned for another 100-point season, had they kept Noel Acciari on the payroll. They’ll miss him, not for his offense, which was meager, but for his presence, for his ample dollops of feistiness and courage that harkened back to an era when the Bruins delivered those precious commodities not in dollops but in 55-gallon Black and Gold barrels.
Instead, general manager Don Sweeney stepped aside — like so many opposition defensemen scurrying in fear of being pasted to the wall by Acciari these last four seasons — and watched him sign as an unrestricted free agent with the Panthers.
Acciari’s get-out-of-town price: $1.67 million for each of the next three seasons.
If you are a cap geek (my heartfelt sympathies, dear reader), $1.67 million in a hard-cap world of $81.5 million next season represents 2.05 percent of the total cap. To simplify: For every buck the Panthers could spend on payroll next season, just over two cents would go to Acciari. Repeat: two cents.
“I think there is always a breaking point,” Sweeney said in Monday’s news conference when I asked about Acciari walking away for a bigger payday. “And we got to the point where I felt we needed to head in a different direction.”
My two cents: Bad direction.
Two roads diverged in the woods and Sweeney chose the cheap one that sent an undervalued Acciari skipping by the Garden pay window. All after a postseason that added a massive take of 13 Causeway Street sellouts to the Jacobs family coffers.
Acciari was not only a solid fit on the fourth line, able to play both center and wing and kill penalties with precision, but he was also a favorite of coach Bruce Cassidy, who was bench boss in AHL Providence when Acciari, fresh off the Providence College campus, transitioned to the pro game in September 2015.
Cassidy loved Acciari, valuing him as a forechecking menace, a tone-setter, and particularly for his aforementioned sandpaper game and pain tolerance. Those guys are few in today’s game. Not as rare as 50-goal scorers, but rare nonetheless. This is the same Acciari, mind you, who played a sizable chunk of the two-month playoff run with a fractured sternum.
In more than four decades of covering the NHL, I’d never heard of a player fracturing his sternum, never mind playing with a fractured sternum. But Acciari . . . of course. Thank you, sir, may I have another?
Chris Kelly had a broader skill set, and a richer paycheck that topped out at $3 million per season, during his tenure in Boston as a Claude Julien favorite. Kelly also could play center or wing. And like Acciari, his pain threshold was higher than the national debt. Julien ran Kelly over the boards, sometimes to a fault, because coaches value known commodities and unflinching commitment to the task.
For the budget price of $5 million over the next three years, new Panthers coach Joel Quenneville now has that known commodity in Acciari, sent to him gift-wrapped free of any compensation owed the Bruins. Life in Sunrise, Fla., is a wee bit sunnier.
“They had me in as a good fit,” Acciari told the NHL Network Monday afternoon, “and I felt I made the right choice.”
The Panthers, added a smiling Acciari, “made me feel extra special.”
Look, Sweeney will find another solid, dependable fourth-liner to work into the mix with center Sean Kuraly. Joakim Nordstrom paired with Acciari and Kuraly for much of the latter stages of the playoff run. Chris Wagner, another true grit guy, has performed well in that role. And Sweeney of late has stressed how much he likes David Backes (two more years at $6 million per) as a member of the club’s esteemed fourth-line Trench Connection.
The bigger fish to fry on Sweeney’s summer payroll grill are restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and Danton Heinen. As of Monday morning, Sweeney had some $12 million in cap space to divvy among the three. After his acquisitions later in the day of free agent forwards Brett Ritchie and Par Lindholm, that figure dropped another $1.85 million. Sweeney could have skipped those two, signed Acciari, and had some $200,000 in pocket change for his talks with the RFAs.
Part of Sweeney’s factoring had to be Kuraly’s budget-friendly deal that will pay him $1.275 million each of the next two seasons. Ever-improving, Kuraly is the key to the fourth line, with his size, reach, and uncanny ability to cycle the puck down low in a game of keepaway.
Had Sweeney ponied up the $1.67 million for Acciari, Kuraly justifiably could have felt shortchanged by $400,000. But that’s the rub of the green in these things. Look at the $11 million-plus per year the Rangers dumped on free agent Artemi Panarin on Monday.
Panarin, the slick Russian, is now banking some $5 million more per year than Brad Marchand. Both are left wingers. Over the last three seasons, Marchand has collected 270 points, No. 1 among all NHL left wingers, to Panarin’s 243. Marchand, if he cares to, has six more years to grouse over his $6.125 million payout, a deal he signed late in the summer of 2016.
For now, circle Nov. 12 on the calendar. The Bruins and Panthers will be at the Garden that night to face each other for the first time in 2019-20. If Quenneville follows Cassidy’s blueprint, he’ll have Acciari out there for the opening faceoff, hoping for a statement, an Acciari smack in open ice or some thunder along the boards.
The Panthers succeeded in taking Acciari out of Boston, and they did it knowing full well that they won’t take the Boston out of Acciari.