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At all costs, Bruins needed new spending plan

Incoming General Manager Peter Chiarelli (left) has made immediate changes in the Bruins organization, including hiring Dave Lewis (right) as head coach.
Incoming General Manager Peter Chiarelli (left) has made immediate changes in the Bruins organization, including hiring Dave Lewis (right) as head coach. (AP Photo)

LONDON -- OK, let's start with the grandest irony of all, just to get it out of the way.

Why, oh why, weren't the Bruins spending like this back in the day when there was no salary cap? Now that a limit exists on what NHL clubs can spend on salaries -- that ceiling being $44 million for the upcoming season, year No. 2 of the NHL cap -- suddenly Freres Jacobs and Friends have gone swashbuckling into the free agent market like a bunch of latter-day Rangers, Red Wings, Stars, Avs, and Flyers.

Now, is spending a bad thing? No, it's not, provided the war chest is being emptied out for the right warriors. Before the cap came in, the Red Wings did the best job of spending, spending, and spending more, but they dished it to the right people (in other words, not to Marty Lapointe and Alexei Zhamnov). In Boston's case, the spending now is just, well, an odd thing, or an upside-down thing.

When the Bruins could spend, including the late-'80s and early-'90s when they were oh-so-close to a Cup, they didn't.

Now that they can't spend, or when they're limited by the league's hard cap, they're out there dishing out the bucks like there's no tomorrow. And this was the club, above all 30 NHL clubs, that claimed before the September 2004 lockout that there would be no tomorrow if people spent the way the Bruins are spending now.

I don't get it.

That said, I do like it. A ton.

The Hub of Hockey, its hockey give-a-damn all but busted, finally has a bit of a heartbeat, a pulse that began to pound louder than Big Ben (see above dateline) when 6-foot-9-inch Zdeno Chara (Big Zen?) hitched on Saturday for the princely sum of $37.5 million over the next five years. On an annual basis, it instantly became the biggest contract signed by a free agent in the Cap era. A few hours later, the top free agent forward, Patrik Elias, signed for more total dollars, $42 million, to remain a Devil. However, the 30-year-old Elias signed for seven years, his $6 million-a-year average exactly $1,500,000-a-year less than Chara's.

Marc Savard came aboard the Boston Big Bucks Bandwagon minutes after Chara, and the ex-Thrashers pivot will earn $5 million a year for the next four years. Savard, who will turn 29 two weeks from today, won't bring the impact of Chara, in part because Chara will play upward of 30 minutes a night on defense and Savard figures more as a 19-23-minute guy.

But Savard, an ex-Ranger draft pick, brings the Bruins some desperately needed depth at the pivot, where he and Patrice Bergeron (still due a contract extension) can divvy up the puck distribution duties, perhaps with the kind of impact Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau did last season in San Jose. The Bergeron-Savard tandem is shorter and lighter than those two Bay Area bruisers, but they're also quicker and more clever, and if they've got wingers who can keep pace, they have a chance to direct an offense similar to that of Buffalo's last season.

The Sabres, especially in the second half, perpetually attacked with all four lines, making them hockey's version of streaming data. Veteran pivots Chris Drury and Daniel Briere directed what developed into a very potent offense, the likes of which Bergeron and Savard should be able to match. But again, they'll need help, and a bit of that may have arrived yesterday when the Bruins signed journeyman winger Shean Donovan to a two-year deal. The 6-foot-2-inch Donovan, entering his 12th season in the league, has never been much of a points guy. Bruins management sees him more in a checking role.

``We think he might be able to fit in very well with [P.J.] Axelsson and [Wayne] Primeau on our third line," said assistant general manager Jeff Gorton, reached last night on his cellphone. ``He's got a physical edge. He can block some shots. We see him as an upgrade to the bottom end of our lineup."

In other words, Donovan is the new Brad Isbister, but with the prospect of actually adding something to the equation.

Gorton didn't go so far as to say the Bruins have finished their shopping for now, but soon management's emphasis will have to switch to the likes of Bergeron and Brad Boyes, the team's prime restricted free agents. Both will be looking for major boosts over their expired contracts, and Bergeron could be particularly tough after Carolina handed top young center Eric Staal some $13.5 million over three years. Staal is a little older, bigger, and more of an offensive force than Bergeron. But like Bergeron, Staal has only two years in the league, and is considered his club's No. 1 center. Bergeron's agent, Kent Hughes, no doubt will have Staal at the top of his ``comp" list when it's time to cut a deal.

``We've had some conversations with all our guys, and we even had some with Nick [Boynton] and Andrew [Raycroft] before [they were traded]," said Gorton. ``Now we've got guys like Patrice and Brad and [David] Tanabe to get done, but in fairness to Peter [Chiarelli, the incoming GM], those deals now probably will wait until he comes on board."

All in all, a couple of very impressive days for the previously-busted spoked B's. A No. 1 defenseman. A No. 1A pivot. And a third-line winger with a bit of grit and dimension. All with Gorton channeling Chiarelli, and with new front office addition Don Sweeney aiding in the up-tempo acquisition game.

``You get a guy like Chara," mused Gorton, ``and one thing it does . . . it makes things easier."

Indeed it does. Chara is a unique property, a huge and effective minutes eater whose size and strength lead to an intimidation factor beyond any backliner in the game. A potential team captain, he could be the franchise cornerstone the Bruins have lacked since the day Ray Bourque left town.

Hey, and all it took was money. Who ever thought it was that easy, especially in the Hub of Hockey?

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