The Boston Bruins have been the surprise success story of the winter -- both at the NHL level and locally along the pro sports scene here in Boston.
Praises have been warbled and hymns have been penned about the Black and Gold's grittiness, their willingness to scrap for each other on the ice, the continued excellence that stars like Marc Savard and big Zdeno Chara have displayed on the frozen sheet and the sheer power-packed, punching passion flashed regularly by Hub folk hero Milan Lucic.
But, despite all of these integral pieces to a now-successful hockey team, there's one thing serving as a dominant factor that’s vaulted the Bruins from borderline playoff team to dominant puck force in less than a season.
"Last year we flew under the radar and teams eventually learned that we were playing hard and that we competed," said Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli. "This year after about two weeks into it, we still play a hard game but we’re also playing with more skill and we’re scoring more and people are taking notice of that."
People are likewise taking notice of the youth movement that’s transpiring in the Hub, and perhaps envisioning an ability to cherry pick one or two young pucksters once they get to free agency.
Young stars like Lucic, David Krejci, Phil Kessel, Dennis Wideman, Matt Hunwick and Blake Wheeler have all reached their NHL ripening at the same time, and it's given the B's the kind of depth and skill level that some thought would never be more than a pipe dream possibility on Causeway Street.
With the success that's propelled the Bruins into the cat bird seat in the Eastern Conference and afforded them nice little benefits like seeing their worthy, deserving coach Claude Julien sitting behind the bench for the NHL All-Star game several weeks from now in Montreal, the time is coming to get greedy about the B’s.
The NHL Board of Governors convened in an emergency meeting some weeks back to discuss the financial state of the game and the economic free-fall that's already gripped the United States, and the changing economic climate has hastened Boston's desire to lock down their young assets.
Krejci, Kessel and Hunwick will all be restricted free agents following the current 2008-09 hockey season and key players P.J. Axelsson, Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez -- along with valuable contributors Stephane Yelle and Shane Hnidy – will be unrestricted free agents following the current hockey season.
Clearly GM Peter Chiarelli and the rest of the B’s front office have some work to do to keep a good thing going. The Black and Gold decision-makers will need to take both the short view and long view of the hockey club. It’s one of the biggest challenges that Chiarelli will face – piecing together a team and perhaps even adding on to this season’s club in a legitimate quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup while keeping a wary executive eye squarely on the future and continued projections on all the club’s vital young assets.
Perhaps there will even be another prudent acquisition of a young player or two if the right deal presents itself.
"Part of our group’s job is to project on these players and you get a real good sense of what these guys will be playing for you at the NHL level," said Chiarelli. "When we traded Brad Boyes – and we were criticized for that move – we had to do thorough projections of both Brad and the player that we were trading for, Dennis Wideman.
"We needed a puck-moving defenseman and we knew Brad was going to be a good player…he was already a good player," added Chiarelli. "But that was a case where we were confident about our projections and that’s why we made the trade. Even when I enter into discussions with other teams, I like the young guys too because they have the most room to improve and sometimes you can go out and get a pretty good player."
Hockey sources have indicated that the B’s are well into contract extension discussions with Tim Thomas on a three-year deal worth somewhere between $3-5 million per season, and the 34-year-old fan favorite will likely be paired with young Tuukka Rask following this season.
With that goalie combination likely between the pipes for next season, the B’s will be looking at roughly $9-12 million in open cap space going into next season and both Kessel and Krejci entering restricted free agency (RFA). It’s always been past practice for Bruins management to refrain from talking contract with RFA’s until after the last season of the player’s deal. The B’s had prior assumed the risk that another team could come in and sign their young asset to an astronomical offer sheet – but that business model seems to be changing for the B’s this season.
Chiarelli clearly indicated that he may be initiating discussions with the agents for both young superstars to lock them in with a great deal of salary cap uncertainty over the next two years.
"Generally, you want to try and deal with your unrestricted [free agents] first. Historically, in my time we signed Marco [Sturm] and we tried to sign Brad Stuart. They’re unrestricted and don’t have a level of control with them after their contracts expire," said Chiarelli. "It’s not hard and fast and it depends on the circumstances.
"I think maybe this year we have to look at some other options – and when I say other things I mean a change from our policy or entering into [contract] discussions at some point later on. The sole reason is that the economy has impacted the salary cap and the salary cap is shrinking," added Chiarelli. "We have to average out our salaries over two or three years so we’re going to have to make some hard decisions. So the more groundwork we can get done on some of these restricted free agents, the better informed we’ll be and the better decisions we’ll be able to make."
Kessel is on pace for a 50-goal season and Bruins management has linked him in the past with the maturation path of Sabres winger (and former University of Minnesota star) Thomas Vanek, who signed a seven-year, $50 million pact with Buffalo after potting 43 goals in his second NHL season. It’s not unrealistic to think that Kessel’s camp might be seeking something dreamily similar to that, but it’s unlikely in the current economic landscape. Boston would have to be boxed into such a pact by having some hockey exec masquerading as a drunken sailor, like Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, to sign the young sniper to an exorbitant offer sheet – which is exactly what took place with Vanek in Buffalo two years ago.
Krejci’s value is even tougher to gauge, but it wouldn’t seem unreasonable that he’ll be seeking a raise into the $3-5 million per season range when he’s on pace to put up between 90-100 points this season.
Whether a team swoops in and tries to steal away Kessel with a jacked up offer sheet or not, Chiarelli is rightfully adamant that neither of the bright young hockey lights will be playing anywhere else, anytime soon. It could mean that some higher-priced veterans currently on the roster either aren’t retained or dealt following the season, but the present won’t be sacrificed for the sake of the Black and Gold’s future: Krejci and Kessel.
"I think coming out of the [recent] board of governors meeting and hearing one respected economist from Canada and another respected economist from Wall Street, what they told us about the recovery is that there will the [economic] recovery [but] there’s also going to be a lot of bumps along the way," said Chiarelli. "With the way the salary cap is going to be I don’t see a lot of [offer sheet] maneuvers like that coming, but all it takes is one team so we’ve got to be prepared for that. Certainly in any of those instances if there’s anything that is done then we’re going to match it, because we’re not going to lose an asset."
So, rest easy Bruins Nation. The young center and right winger that have electrified the city with their cerebral passing skills and deadly wrist shot won’t be experiencing any crazy dalliances with NHL suitors.
Even in hard fiscal times with a team that used to carry a lousy reputation in their contractual dealings with younger players, Kessel and Krejci, will be donning the Spoked 'B' for a long, long time.
You can take that to the bank.
Joe Haggerty covers the Bruins for WEEI.com.