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Cruel summer for Boston Bruins GM

Photo: David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated

Boston's Big Three of Patrice Bergeron (37), Zdeno Chara (33) and Tuukka Rask (40) may have one more Stanley Cup run left before it's time to reconfigure the Bruins.

The Bruins' press conference on Tuesday to announce the signing of depth defenseman Matt Bartkowski  was noteworthy for one reason: It highlighted how little general manager Peter Chiarelli has been able to do to improve his club this summer.

Of course, if he decided to hang up a Gone Fishin' sign tomorrow and head to a cottage for the rest of the summer, there'd still be a lot to like about his team. The B's will enter next season as the defending Presidents' Trophy winners, led by Vezina-winning goaltender Tuukka Rask, Norris finalist Zdeno Chara and arguably the best all-around forward in the league in Selke-winner Patrice Bergeron.

Boston is a thoroughly modern team that dominated possession (54.1% Corsi, fourth in the league), crushed at even strength (NHL best 1.53 goal differential) and boasted the league's third-ranked power play (21.7%) and eighth-best penalty kill (83.6%). With most of the same players returning, the Bruins will be a dangerous club again next season, certainly capable of repeating as the top team in the East.

But they also may have missed their window of opportunity to win another Stanley Cup. And that's on Chiarelli.

The GM is starting to feel the heat locally for his dormant off-season, and justifiably so since he shed more talent then he added. The key point of frustration for fans is this: A team with an offense that ran cold in the postseason lost Jarome Iginla, its leading goal scorer and its first line right wing,  and replaced him with the block letters, TBD.

It may turn out that Chiarelli already has Iginla's replacement in-house. Maybe it's Loui Eriksson, the oft-concussed winger who last season never quite looked like the league's most underrated player, which he was in each of the five years before arrived in Boston. Maybe it's David Pastrnak, the promising first-round draft pick who dazzled in development camp and happens to be a right-handed shot, which most of the team's top prospects aren't.

But it looks more like Iginla left a big hole that will be filled by committee. Or not. And that's plenty of reason to worry.

Chiarelli couldn't patch the problem in free agency because he didn't have any cap space to work with. He has less than $400,000 in the cookie jar right now and still has four of his own players to sign, including Torey Krug and Reilly Smith. Chiarelli have another $4 million in the bank once he's able to put Marc Savard on long-term injured reserve, but that won't be enough money to help him fill out the roster. Which means a trade to dump some salary is almost inevitable.

It could be the recently signed Bartkowski who is sent packing. More likely, though, it'll be hard-hitting blueliner Johnny Boychuk, because his departure would clear more than $3 million in cap space (trading Bartkowski would clear just $1.25 million). But with both of those players under contract for just one year, the return won't be spectacular. Chiarelli will have to accept a player with untapped potential, or lesser talent, and another expiring deal.

A lesser talent, who wouldn't be part of the long term picture, might work best since Chiarelli has two significant expiring contracts of his own to address: those belonging to David Krejci and Carl Soderberg. Soderberg was a pleasant surprise in his first full season, a big-bodied, hockey-smart center who brought scoring touch (16-32-48) to the third line. His production last year may represent the best of what the young Swede is, or it may be just a hint of what he can bring in the future. Krejci, on the other hand, was invisible in the postseason, a huge disappointment after leading the playoffs in scoring in two of the previous three years. He'll still be looking for a significant raise on his current $5.25 million, though, and that may be a tough pill for the Bruins to swallow unless the cap takes an unexpectedly large leap next summer. And whatever he costs it'll make the $6 million that Boston was slated to pay Tyler Seguin look like a bargain by comparison.

Ah, Seguin. It's the deal Chiarelli will probably take to his grave, but it's also one that deserves not a moment of criticism. It was the right move at the time, a swing-for-the-fences gamble by a GM who watched his team fall two wins short of the Stanley Cup and recognized the need to alter his mix and add depth. It was risky, but it also was exactly the sort of move that Bruins fans were denied annually by Harry Sinden during the Ray Bourque and the era of the Just Good Enough Gang.

It didn't work out. That happens. At least Chiarelli tried.

But now he's scrambling and trying to capitalize on Chara's waning abilities while dealing with a cap crunch of his own making. And Chiarelli's chances of adding the pieces that are needed to compete with the Kings and the Blackhawks and the Ducks for the Cup don't look good.

So it may be one last run for this group, and then ... something different. Maybe Chiarelli passes on Krejci next summer. Maybe he sits Chara and opens a conversation about moving him and the last three years of his deal to a contender to help rebuild the Bruins on the fly. Or maybe he has something else up his sleeve.

Unless all of a sudden he's content with his team being just good enough.

 

 

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