By Allan Muir
July 06, 2010

There's a learning curve involved with becoming an effective NHL GM. For some, of course, that curve is steeper than it is for others.

For example, less than a year into the job, Stan Bowman of the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks appears to have negotiated some of the trickier elements of his occupation. Unburdened by sentimentality, and wielding a sharp knife, he's proving his mettle by carving several slabs of prime beef from his squad in order to get it under the salary cap for next season.

Bowman identified his core players -- Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, among others -- and started making the tough decisions. Among the victims: Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and Andrew Ladd (all dealt to Atlanta in two separate deals), Adam Burish (lost in free agency to Dallas) and Kris Versteeg (traded to Toronto). Byfuglien, Ladd and Versteeg each played key roles in Chicago's Cup run, so their absence will be keenly felt.

The fact that each player is under 25 was both a blessing and a curse. Bowman had to eliminate players who had yet to hit their primes, but it was considerably easier to find partners who were willing to take on these players' inflated contracts and offer up promising young talent and high picks in return.

Bowman's not done yet. Cristobal Huet will be wearing a different sweater next season, either in the AHL or Europe. Another key player may yet be sacrificed and there are still new contracts to negotiate, including one for Antti Niemi. But Bowman's bold actions leave the Hawks in position to be competitive next season and beyond. He's written a treatise in cap disaster management.

Bruins fans have to be hoping that Peter Chiarelli is paying attention. Unlike Bowman, who inherited his situation, Boston's fourth-year GM is dealing with a mess of his own making. In particular, a cap fine of $1.75 million next season because bonuses put the team over the limit by that same amount last season.

To his credit, Chiarelli has built a solid core of young talent in Boston. The problem is that the majority of these players are his guys...and that makes it considerably tougher to make the difficult choices. In an ideal world, Chiarelli would move veterans like Tim Thomas, Michael Ryder and Andrew Ference for picks and prospects. For that to happen, though, he'll likely need to include high-end sweeteners of his own -- say, Zach Hamill or one of next year's first rounders -- in order to convince another club to take on those salaries.

Chiarelli also wouldn't be opposed to shipping Marc Savard out of town. Rumors have been rampant since the draft that Boston was shopping its No. 1 center, a decision that seems odd considering his production (295 points in 309 games with the Bruins) and his very reasonable cap hit (just over $4 million). But there's a growing sense that this isn't just a case of addition by subtraction in terms of cap space.

Savard's standing within the room -- never that high to begin with -- took a serious hit in the wake of the too many men on the ice penalty that sealed Boston's Game 7 loss to Philadelphia in the second round of the playoffs. Instead of taking the blame he clearly earned with his indecisive play -- waving his stick to signal that he wanted to come off and then changing his mind, leaving the arriving Vladimir Sobotka on the ice just long enough to be whistled -- Savard initially tossed a flaming tire of responsibility around the young forward's neck. Savard later owned up, sort of: "I'll take blame if that's what it is." Not exactly the sort of leadership the team looks for from a veteran.

Chiarelli may yet be able to make a deal for Savard, but it's looking more likely that his cap mismanagement will cost the team a younger, more valuable asset, such as centers David Krejci or Patrice Bergeron or defender Mark Stuart. None of these players would solve the team's cap crunch by himself, but each would make for a compelling component of a larger swap. With Tyler Seguin and Joe Colborne pushing for a job in the middle, the B's have a position of strength at center to deal from. But if that's what it comes down to, it's to Chiarelli's discredit that the Bruins are forced to move pivotal pieces at such an early stage in their careers.

After guiding the Windsor Spitfires to back-to-back Memorial Cup championships, it was only a matter of time before the NHL came calling for Bob Boughner.

What was surprising was how quickly he answered.

On Monday, Boughner stunned the junior hockey world when he accepted an assistant's role under new coach Scott Arniel with the Columbus Blue Jackets. "There's still something deep down inside that says one day you want to get back to the NHL," Boughner said. "This is a great opportunity for me."

You can't blame anyone for wanting to better their position, even a guy who, as part owner of the Spits, was basically calling his own shots in Windsor. But the timing, and the situation, are curious. By taking this job, Boughner walks away from a chance at an unprecedented third straight Cup, a very real possibility even for a team that's facing the certain loss of first overall pick Taylor Hall. Boughner will also forego an assistant coaching spot with Team Canada at the 2011 World Juniors, a job that he recently called "a dream come true."

And while a spot in Columbus allows him to stay reasonably close to his interests in Windsor, it's hard to imagine how this offer was considered irresistible. If it had been an opportunity to apprentice under one of the best, say, Mike Babcock or Joel Quenneville or Boughner's old coach in Nashville, Barry Trotz, then it would make more sense as an ideal step up the ladder to a head coaching position. But Arniel, while highly regarded, is an untested rookie himself and the Jackets are still more likely to make a lottery pick than print playoff tickets.

With Boughner's stock going nowhere but up, it seems likely that a more compelling offer, perhaps even a head coaching job, would have come his way next summer. But maybe this was exactly what he was looking for. A slower pace in a low-pressure situation working with a lot of young players. As he said on Monday, "It's a process. I want to make sure that if eventually one day I do get a head job, I'm going to be very well prepared."

All in all, an odd, unexpected choice, but one worth watching as the Blue Jackets strive to be a competitive club next season.

Lots of chatter about a potential NHL return for Nikolai Zherdev. The fourth overall pick in 2003, Zherdev spent last season in the KHL, where he scored 13 goals and 39 points in 52 games. Not bad totals for a more defensive-minded league, but probably a fair representation of what made the Rangers walk away from him after he was awarded $3.9 million in arbitration last summer. Zherdev lacks the motivation to consistently make the most of his prodigious talent.

It was reported on Zherdev's Russian team's web site that the Sabres and Maple Leafs were in contact with him, but Toronto denied it and it's hard to imagine that Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, whose patience was exhausted by Max Afinogenov, is willing to take on another project like Zherdev, even if he would be an upgrade on Drew Stafford. It is possible that some team looking for a spark would be willing to take a chance -- possibly the Islanders, who at least kicked the high end tires on Ilya Kovalchuk -- but even at a bargain price, say a $2 million cap hit for two years, it's just as easy to imagine 30 teams saying nyet.

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