Don Sweeney doesn’t say much about his ongoing business, particularly in regard to contract negotiations for stick-carrying rank and file. Now in his fifth season as Bruins general manager, he prefers to deliver his headlines the way Bobby Schmautz did slappers of decades ago — screamers into the balcony that routinely caught even some of the sharp-eyed Gallery Gods unaware.
There wasn’t much spilled milk up there during the wild-and-crazy Schmautzie era, but his rockets certainly had the Buds flying.
Early last week, Sweeney unexpectedly announced that he had chipped away at his Mount Hespeler-like pile of impending free agents, inking Charlie Coyle for a half-dozen more years (through the spring of 2026) at $5.25 million per, and fellow forward Chris Wagner for three more at $1.35 million.
It was a good Tuesday for a couple of kids who grew up shaping their NHL dreams on Bay State bogs and back streets. In particular Coyle, who, until further notice, will be the highest-paid Bruin next season at $8 million.
Wagner again showed his versatility Thursday night, potting the second goal in a three-goal surge that pulled the Bruins into a 3-3 tie with the Blackhawks — and eventually salvaged a point in a 4-3 OT loss. Wagner broke in alone to score at 15:01, Hawks defenseman Erik Gustafsson stumbling and falling behind the blue line to open Wagner’s flight path.
Wagner can play the crash-and-bang role. He sometimes gets called for shootout duty. He’s also solid at net-front duty. If he were playing a couple of miles up Storrow Drive, he’d be a must-have utility infielder.
“I wouldn’t say it’s old school,” said Wagner, reflecting on the start of his NHL career with the Ducks five years ago. “But I was playing 5 or 6 minutes, running around trying to get nine hits in six minutes. That’s how I stayed in the league. But you kind of build your game and get more confidence.”
Meanwhile, Sweeney has 10 players on his varsity still holding E-ZPasses for July 1 free agency. It’s not crunch time. Hardly. With 208 days to go — including perhaps another protracted playoff run? — Sweeney still has the luxury of time to work the numbers, the heftiest of which appear destined to be poured into the long pockets of Torey Krug’s short pants.
Don’t be surprised, however, if the methodical, deliberate Sweeney fires off another “Schmautzie” or two, perhaps even before the holiday break. The Coyle-Wagner deals indicated that he wants to be proactive. He’s an ex-defenseman; D-men prefer to be looking at the play, rather than backed to the rear wall, face pressed against the glass.
Still fresh on Sweeney’s mind are the protracted summer 2019 talks that didn’t see two prominent young blue liners, Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, get their math in order until mid-September, on the eve of the exhibition season. Sweeney spent his shortened summer talking about the “process” and “finding a number,” saying repeatedly that deals have no timelines.
It was equally clear along the way that both deals took much longer to complete than Sweeney desired. Irked, no. Peeved, just a bit.
Of the deals remaining, Krug and Jaroslav Halak stand to be the trickiest. They both will be unrestricted free agents (the same classification as Coyle and Wagner), which is also true of Joakin Nordstrom up front and Zdeno Chara, Matt Grzelcyk, and Kevan Miller on the backline.
Four others on the current roster — Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk, Brett Ritchie, and Karson Kuhlman — will be restricted free agents. Bjork and Ritchie will have arbitration rights, which typically leads to more negotiating power, provided they’ve produced the kind of numbers that convinces them to choose the process.
Sweeney has these six-plus months in his pocket to work out what really is a collective bargaining process. All GMs work with a bargained, finite salary cap, one that will inch steps closer to $85 million for 2020-21, and getting all deals “under the number” ultimately becomes a CBA-like nip-and-tuck exercise.
Example: A big number for Krug ($8 million?) will mean less available for someone else, perhaps Nordstrom or Ritchie. It’s not like swapping off, say, pension benefits for a health plan, but all player contracts are undeniably connected to one another.
If an individual’s asking price gets too high, there is the harsh reality of having to go cheap lower in the order, often compromising overall talent and the chance to win. Look no further than the December 2019 Toronto Maple Leafs as Exhibit A. The Leafs have allotted nearly 50 percent of the current $81.5 million cap to four forwards. The money’s outta whack, as is the Leafs’ record (13-13-4).
Sweeney also has his eye fixed on the Feb. 24 trade deadline as he run the numbers. It was less than a year ago at the deadline when Sweeney swapped out prospect Ryan Donato for Coyle, who last week had his classification changed from pickup to mainstay. A $31.5 million pay package has a way of framing the verbiage.
Coyle, whose best fit on this roster is as No. 3 center, is only 27. By NHL metrics, that places him a full generation behind thirtysomething top centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. When they move on, Coyle moves up, at least in theory.
It’s still a question as to whether Coyle can drive/pivot an elite line. He has the legs, build (6-3/220), and impressive puck-control skills, but it remains to be seen whether he has the vision, finish, and passing skills to make him a top-of-the-order center.
A proactive Sweeney, if convinced Coyle could thrive at No. 2 center, could kick tires on Krejci in the trade-deadline market. Krejci, 33, will enter the summer with one year remaining on his deal. His $7.25 million cap hit would go a very long way in getting Krug’s deal done (see CBA explanation above).
Is Sweeney there? Don’t bet on it. He has the league’s best 1-2 goalie combo in Tuukka Rask and Halak. He has the same at center in Bergeron and Krejci, and Bergeron’s lingering health issue (core injury) would make it unwise to thin the depth in the middle for a club that looks like it has a realistic chance to return to the Cup Final.
All we can count on for now is that Sweeney is running the numbers, faster than we might think, and the most important figure in-house remains Krug — the quarterback of the power play and among the most prolific playoff point-getting defensemen in the past six years.
It’s possible a new deal for Krug will be next, delivered out of the sky, Schmautzie-like. All we know at this hour is that Sweeney has 10 free agents and upward of $23 million in cap space to make it all work before the puck drops in October 2020.