This year’s restricted free agent market has some NHL general managers feeling like those Bostonians who commute in and around this traffic-choked city. Not a lot of movement, we think as we waste hours on road or rail, and not much of it seems reasonable.
Negotiations are crawling between Toronto and Mitch Marner, Tampa Bay and Brayden Point, Colorado and Mikko Rantanen. All but standing still are Calgary and Matthew Tkachuk, Winnipeg and both Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, Columbus and Zach Werenski, and Vancouver and Brock Boeser.
Likewise here in the Hub, where GM Don Sweeney sees nothing but red lights with Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. Neither young defenseman has arbitration rights, the threat of which cleared the recent roadblock with Danton Heinen (two years and $5.6 million, both sides walking away clean before the muck and grinding of a hearing). The threat of an offer sheet to change the flow is not possible in McAvoy’s case (he’s not eligible), and not likely in Carlo’s (though a plucky GM could break with tradition). So like anyone driving out of downtown Boston after 3 p.m., or standing on a Red Line platform . . . we wait.
Better have a good playlist handy. And a snack, too.
Neither McAvoy nor Carlo has reason to budge. Not at this point, after digging in all of last season and holding firm through free agency, Sweeney’s July 1 to-do list be damned. They won’t miss a day of summer training or a single dollar until Sept. 30, when the first paychecks of 2019-20 are cut. The rubber doesn’t really hit the road until Dec. 1, when the NHL puts up a detour sign for any RFA still withholding services.
Yes, this thing could drag on through Thanksgiving, as it could for any of the aforementioned young stars, none of whom have arbitration rights. For those here who want to see McAvoy and Carlo flying around on the Boston back end, it would be as frustrating as hanging around for that next train to Alewife, which should arrive . . . someday.
If McAvoy, Carlo or any other potential RFA holdout has to miss training camp as their representatives hammer away, so be it. Skipping games — and those semi-monthly checks — is less likely, but if neither club nor player will bend, c’est la vie.
There is a loyalty element to this, though it won’t make or break the bank. Both McAvoy and Carlo say they love it in Boston, and both are well-liked parts of the special brew that powered the Bruins during last season’s roller-coaster run. Both would no doubt loathe to see the club start again without them, especially if the defending Eastern Conference champions are slow out of the gate. At any rate, they would much like to avoid the dead end of Dec. 1 and the cautionary tale of William Nylander.
One of last year’s top RFAs in a weaker class was Nylander, a fine player and likely to be a top-six contributor on a very good Maple Leafs team. But he torpedoed his age-22 season by holding out until the RFA deadline. He found no rhythm upon his return, and finished with 27 points in 54 games after posting 61 in each of the previous two full seasons. Not hard to look back and wonder how a full season of Nylander might have boosted the Leafs, who were seven points shy of earning home ice against the Bruins. Nylander admitted, in retrospect, holding out so long was a mistake . . . but that’s a lot easier said when you’re sitting on the $41.77 million, six-year deal that ended that standoff.
But let’s be clear: Players should get their money. As much as possible. They are the reason we watch.
McAvoy’s brilliant vision and skating are obvious. His offensive instincts are elite and he defends with smarts and necessary doses of physicality. Skating against top competition the last two years, McAvoy has shown he is a complete player. According to Natural Stat Trick, he ranks fifth among defensemen who have played more than 2,000 minutes in goals for percentage (57.84) at even strength. The Bruins have scored 107 times with him on the ice, and allowed 78 goals. Among top-pair blue liners, only Tampa Bay’s perennial Norris Trophy candidate, Victor Hedman, has a better rate (58.70).
Carlo isn’t an offensive driver, but he’s an octopus on skates, engulfing enemy wingers who enter his territory. Carlo was on the ice for the fourth-fewest goals at five on five (32) of any defenseman who played more than 1,000 minutes last season. The only better blue liners in that category: teammates Matt Grzelcyk (29) and Torey Krug (31), as well as Colorado’s Nikita Zadorov (30). Carlo, however, played some 200 more minutes than each of them. Ask Auston Matthews and Artemi Panarin whether Carlo rates as one of the league’s best shutdown D-men.
So if this thing drags on until the first snow flurries, remember what’s at stake.
Boston has a window to compete with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak all on remarkably team-friendly deals. Would Sweeney give McAvoy, even though he’s a blue-chipper, $7.5 million a year when no member of what is arguably the best line in hockey makes more than Bergeron’s $6.875 million?
By the way: The deal the Rangers handed Jacob Trouba — seven years at $8 million per — isn’t an exact comparison. Trouba had arbitration rights. McAvoy doesn’t. Trouba had an additional bit of leverage in that the Rangers traded for him, clearly wanting his services. McAvoy’s only leverage is to hold out.
Given where the market and McAvoy’s game are going, getting McAvoy on Trouba’s terms might not be a bad move for the Bruins.
What, then, would that mean for Krug, an unrestricted free agent in 2020? On the open market, given his elite offensive production (163 points the last three years, fifth most among defensemen) and the growth in his defensive game, he might get $8 million a year himself.
Carlo’s deal might bring less stress, given the way defensive defensemen are valued, but right-shot shutdown guys who are 6 feet 5 inches and cover a lot of ground are not plentiful. Carlo has Seth Jones’s defensive ability without the power-play skill set. He should be making $4 million per on a long-term deal.
Evolving Hockey projected McAvoy to get a six-year deal with a cap hit of $7,129,068. Carlo: six years, $4,235,288. For what it’s worth, that outlet nailed its Heinen projection (overshot by $19,150 a year). Under those terms, the Bruins would have to ship out a piece or two to keep both players without slicing their salary structure.
Sweeney, with a decision upcoming on center Charlie Coyle (UFA 2020), has to get these deals right if he wants to keep a defensive unit of McAvoy, Carlo, Krug, and Grzelcyk together through their primes. Only Colorado might rival that mix of skating and smarts on the back end, but the Cale Makar-Samuel Girard-Bowen Byram trio is a few years away from its full potential.
Perhaps a compromise is ahead. Perhaps a bridge deal works for both McAvoy and Carlo, who want to get in camp and avoid becoming nouveau Nylanders.
Speaking of Toronto, you may ask, why can’t the Bruins take on a bunch of bad salary like the Leafs did in adding the well-heeled ghost of David Clarkson this past week? In trading for the non-playable winger — to whom former GM Dave Nonis handed $36.75 million over seven years in 2013, a deal that was questionable then and terrible in hindsight — current GM Kyle Dubas added to his team’s stock of dead money, now at some $13.6 million with active players Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott on long-term injured reserve. If any teams tries to hand Marner an offer sheet before the sides can strike a deal, Toronto can toss both Clarkson and Nathan Horton ($5.3 million) on LTIR. Two busted Orange Line carriages, sitting in Wellington yard. It’s a tricky bit of cap management that only works if you have those special-case players, and the Bruins do not.
Short of finding a trade destination for David Backes, who could be stashed in Providence, the Bruins had less than $8 million in cap space as of Saturday. Sweeney and capologist Evan Gold have been making regular commutes to their rinkside offices at Warrior Ice Arena this summer. Shipping salary down the Mass. Pike is a lot more difficult than staring at the cars on the highway, a pastime their view from those big chairs affords them. Not that there’s much time to sit passively.
“When we hired Don that was certainly a conversation about, how do we take this core that won in ’11 and give them another opportunity to win while they’re still somewhat in their prime?” team president Cam Neely said on the Bruins’ break-up day early last month. “We still look at it that way. Our players are one year older. We’re another year removed from winning in ’11. We recognize what we have coming, what we need to have coming. We’re talking pretty big shoes to fill. We’re certainly aware of that. We recognize that. We still think they’ve got some good hockey left in them, but we certainly know that it’s winding down.”
PIECING IT TOGETHER
Cassidy has lots to think about
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, recovering from knee surgery this summer, will have a lot of time to sort out his line combinations. Everything should be up for discussion, other than breaking up the Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron pair and playing David Krejci anywhere but second-line center.
Say Anders Bjork is healthy and ready to challenge for a job. Maybe Peter Cehlarik, who is big and smart but not especially explosive, blossoms in his age-24 season. Maybe Cehlarik fits on Krejci’s left, and Bjork brings the bombs-away speed that line would need.
Maybe that frees Jake DeBrusk to carve third-line matchups, generating scoring chances at a high rate next to puck-cycler Charlie Coyle and playmaker Danton Heinen.
Maybe Cehlarik-Krejci-David Pastrnak could become a second line with size (Cehlarik), creativity (Krejci), and finish (Pastrnak) . . . if someone else could hold a top-line spot.
Karson Kuhlman has wheels and isn’t afraid to shoot, but is he skilled enough to be a full-time top-six right wing? Does Brett Ritchie factor in any of this? What about Zach Senyshyn? What if Coyle is really the answer at No. 2 right wing, and Trent Frederic or Par Lindholm bumps Sean Kuraly up to No. 3 center?
Captains practices begin in about five weeks. Answers ahoy.
Some big names are still out there
A ranking of the top unrestricted free agents still unsigned as of Friday:
1. Joe Thornton, C — Almost feels like cheating, since Jumbo (16-35—51 in 73 games last season) is a lock to head back to the Sharks.
2. Jake Gardiner, D — Ex-Leafs whipping boy, if over back trouble, will be offensive boost for someone.
3. Justin Williams, RW — Scored 23 goals at age 37. If he wants it, Hurricanes would welcome captain’s return.
4. Patrick Marleau, LW/C — Desires a San Jose reunion, but the Sharks may not have room.
5. Brian Boyle, C/LW — Hingham product still a very good defensive forward. Coming off an 18-goal season.
Honorable mention: Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Patrick Maroon, Jamie McGinn, Derick Brassard, Ben Hutton, Connor Brickley, Troy Brouwer, Oscar Lindberg, Cam Ward.
Choosing sides: current vs. former
Summer is a time for frivolity, so would a squad made up of former Bruins beat the current Bruins?
Doubt it. But let’s check anyway.
Team B-Gone is heavy on forwards, questionable on D. We’re looking at something like last year’s Florida Panthers, though I’d take the No. 1 ex-Bruin net option (Martin Jones, we hardly knew ye) or either backup option (Anton Khudobin, Malcolm Subban) over a fading Roberto Luongo.
The first line has playmaker Marcus Johansson on the left of centerpiece Tyler Seguin and sniper Phil Kessel. On a Blake Wheeler-driven second line, Ryan Donato can play his natural left wing, with Carl Soderberg in the middle. Lots of options for the third line, none of them particularly enticing. Do you go with old hands (Milan Lucic, Joe Thornton, Loui Eriksson) or mix in younger players (Brett Connolly, Ryan Spooner, Frank Vatrano, Austin Czarnik)? The fourth line has Noel Acciari, Riley Nash, Vladimir Sobotka and Tim Schaller among the contenders.
The defense is a cupboard more barren. The right side is fine (Dougie Hamilton, Colin Miller, Johnny Boychuk), but the left is frightening: Matt Bartkowski, Matt Hunwick, and Rob O’Gara. Imagine what Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak would do to those guys.
Travel remains one of the great perks of NHL beat life, but we’re not complaining that the Bruins aren’t returning to China this preseason. Last year’s excursion left those who took the journey flat-footed for weeks afterward. Following their maxed-out postseason, the Bruins sent Providence regulars Wiley Sherman and Anton Blidh for the franchise’s annual summer trip, rather than anyone from the varsity . . . The Devils rang in the P.K. Subban era with a welcome party Thursday, a highlight of which was this gift to the loquacious blue liner: a red sequined robe, trimmed with white feathers, in the style of pro wrestling legend Ric Flair. Subban, ever game, donned it and started spouting Nature Boy’s catch phrases . . . One last loose thread regarding David Clarkson: Columbus flipped him to Vegas with the understanding the Knights would take William Karlsson, then the Jackets’ third-line center. Karlsson broke out for 41 goals as a first-year Knight. Among the unprotected players Columbus wanted to ensure Vegas wouldn’t take: defenseman Jack Johnson, who requested a trade by midseason . . . The Rangers have a call to make on 2020 UFA Chris Kreider, due a big raise from his $4.625 million cap hit. His agent, Matt Keator, says there’s no rush. “We have all season,” he said. Keator, also Chara’s agent, reports Big Z is at home in Slovakia, charging up for his 22nd season . . . With the retirement of Matt Cullen, Zdeno Chara (43 on March 18) became the oldest player in the NHL. Chara is the first athlete since Dikembe Mutombo to be both the tallest and oldest active player in one of the four major sports. The finger-wagging Mutombo, who stands 7 feet 2 inches, was 42 in 2008-09, the same season Chara won the Norris Trophy.
Another area for Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy to ponder: his shorthanded penalty kill. Early in the season, load management for Bergeron, Marchand, and Chara would be prudent. The Bruins are unlikely to start the year with second-pair PK defensemen John Moore and Kevan Miller. Acciari now plays for Florida. Brett Ritchie, a depth signing, doesn’t kill penalties. Up front, Joakim Nordstrom, Chris Wagner, Sean Kuraly, and newcomer Par Lindholm (when he plays) will absorb a heavier load. Matt Grzelcyk, Charlie McAvoy, and Connor Clifton will have to join stalwart Brandon Carlo in absorbing back-line minutes . . . Count me as a supporter of paper tickets, even though I faithfully download my boarding pass to my Apple wallet the night before a flight. The Bruins’ recent move to digital had me searching for old stubs. Found my first game at Fenway: Red Sox vs. Royals, July 8, 1992, Hipolito Pichardo vs. Frank Viola. Print, and all the memories it stirs, is alive.