Something else has to happen, specifically along the blue line, if the Bruins are going to return to the playoffs next spring. Even with Dennis Wideman plugged back into the equation - and his pending arbitration case makes that a question - the defensive corps needs an upgrade or two, specifically to enhance the transition game, a body or two to deliver the ever-elusive first quick pass out of the zone.
Last week's free agent hunt, which had the Bruins looking for a puck-moving defenseman or a finisher up front, netted ex-Canadiens right winger Michael Ryder. Is he the shooter/finisher they so desperately need? Well, uh, maybe. That's about what $4 million a year gets you in the new NHL's free agent market - a résumé with, shall we say, a couple of question marks and a little bit of 'splainin' to do.
Ryder began last season in Montreal as just that shooter/finisher on the first line, then drifted into oblivion in the first three months, potting only three goals through Dec. 27. He was, in essence, Montreal's second coming of Sergei Samsonov, a man who crept into coach Guy Carbonneau's "doghouse" (Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli's term) and really never found his way back to the penthouse.
Finding offensive pick-me-ups has been a mighty struggle during Chiarelli's stay on Causeway. We've seen guys such as Stanislav Chistov, Brandon Bochenski, and Peter Schaefer hustled in to help fill the net, and the only one left standing is Schaefer, who last season lived a few fathoms below his billing as both an along-the-wall tyrant and scoring threat. Schaefer rehabbed his image with a strong playoff round against Montreal, and if it's that Schaefer who returns in October, then Chiarelli culled a legitimate top-six forward out of Ottawa in that swap for Shean Donovan. If not, then all he got was a pricier Shean Donovan. Right now, Ryder's stick stands as the pro scouting division's litmus test. And if that stick doesn't light up, then Chiarelli will need to take a stick of his own to that scouting division.
Now, how to upgrade the back end - also the domain of the pro scouts.
Puck movers, as expected, carried ridiculous premiums in the open market last week. The best of the bunch, Brian Campbell, hauled in $56.8 million over eight years with the Blackhawks. Wade Redden, whom the Senators made a priority over Zdeno Chara two years ago, ended up on Broadway for six years, $39 million. Ex-UMass-Lowell back liner Ron Hainsey went to Atlanta for $22.5 million over five years. The Habs lost Mark Streit to the Islanders for five years, $20.5 million. Average payout: $5.78 million per year. Their average points last season: 49. And they averaged fewer than nine goals apiece (on average, GMs forked over $642,222 per goal).
And in a flight of fancy to Bizarro World, Jeff Finger, the 240th pick in the 1999 draft, popped up in Toronto with a four-year deal worth $14 million. Indeed, cheap when compared with those other puck luggers. But raise your hand if you've never heard of the Michigan-raised Finger. Thought so.
Heck, Bowie Kuhn once raised a flag over this kind of behavior, preventing Charlie Finley from selling Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox, ruling it was not "in the best interests of baseball." To see the Maple Leafs finger Finger as their guy, I mean, what's happening up there? At some point doesn't Gary Bettman step in for the good of the game, before Blue and White Nation uppercuts him and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment with a class-action suit?
Headed into the holiday, there were at least a couple of obvious paths the Bruins could have considered for the back-end fix, but one quickly disappeared in what has become a very fluid market. To wit:
One respected agent said last week that Boyle was indeed a Chiarelli target (they're both Ottawa homeboys). Schneider could be the backup plan. If so, Chiarelli will have to move salary, because Boston's cap, after the Ryder signing, stands just short of $54.5 million (against a $56.7 million cap). Truth is, Chiarelli, like most GMs, doesn't want go over $55 million. Ergo, for every buck he takes on now, he'll look to dump at least another in return. The new math of the new NHL: Subtraction is much trickier than addition.
Hossa deal a head-scratcherThe most startling move of the free agent market turned out to be, as expected, Marian Hossa's new contract. However, the expected wasn't nearly what anyone expected.
Hossa, who was atop Boston's wish list, ended up taking a one-year deal with Detroit, instantly making the Red Wings a lock to repeat as champions next June. Really, can't we drop the formalities and just fast-forward through, say, 104 games and have the commish hand the Cup to Hossa now and be done with it? The Wings are starting to look like the Bombers, circa late-1920s.
"Tough decision," said Hossa upon agreeing to the deal, which had him turning away some astounding offers. "When I compared the two teams, I felt like I would have a little better of a chance to win the Cup in Detroit."
That comparison, of course, was between the Penguins, his prior club, and the Wings. That's being frank to the point of being cruel, especially with Pittsburgh loaded with young stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (now the proud owner of a contract extension that matches Sid the Kid's). Should make for good fun when those clubs meet again, even before the '09 Cup finals.
Hossa fielded multiple bids, including one, agent Ritch Winter told the Canadian Press, that had the elite right winger leave $85 million on the table. If true, that's a number that exceeds some NHL expansion fees in the '90s (guess that salary cap thing really isn't so bad). Word around the league is that the Oilers really pushed the number. One source had Edmonton offering seven years at $9 million per, while another had the money the same, but for nine years (total $81 million).
"It was incomprehensible - even to an agent," said Winter. "But Marian is a special player."
The Wings insisted that no deal exceed their Nicklas Lidstrom "ceiling" of $7.45 million - a strategy that worked well during Ray Bourque's stay in the Hub of Hockey.
Now Hossa gets to take Detroit on a test drive (rare in that town these days), and decide again next July 1 where he wants to work and how much he wants to make. He'll be 30 then, no doubt with a Cup added to his dossier.
Widemans arbitration requestPuck-moving defenseman Dennis Wideman will be back in the Boston lineup, provided the Bruins want to keep him. They'll have a better handle on that once his salary arbitration hearing (date: TBA) is held and a decision rendered (within 48 hours of the hearing).
has created several options
However, don't discount the possibility of Wideman being traded before the hearing. His arbitration case is portable, which means, among other things, he can be shipped out at any time, with the acquiring team left to decide whether to write him a new deal or leave it to the arbitrator to fix the price.
One important caveat: Wideman's decision to go to arbitration is what allowed the Bruins effectively to delay their decision whether to buy out the last year ($4.15 million) of Glen Murray's deal. As things stand, they don't have to make public their intentions on a Murray buyout, or anyone else's buyout, until Wideman's salary is rendered. If Wideman were dealt in the meantime, the buyout option disappears. Other than a trade, the only way to take Murray off the books would be to demote him to Providence, at which point his salary is deleted from the cap.
If the Bruins had engaged Tampa Bay in a deal for Dan Boyle, the 25-year-old Wideman would have been an obvious chip to include. An arbitrator is likely to reward the former Blue (acquired in the Brad Boyes swap) upward of $3 million a year, a figure, though eye-popping, that would be $500,000 under what the Leafs gave Jeff Finger. Yesterday's overpayment looks like today's bargain.
Etc.Movin' on up
Patrick Rissmiller, pride of Belmont and Holy Cross ('02), wrapped up his second full season with the Sharks in May and now is off to Broadway. The Rangers on Tuesday signed the 6-foot-4-inch winger to a three-year deal that will guarantee the ex-Crusader $3 million. Not bad for an undrafted kid who went to his first pro camp in the autumn of 2003 with little more than the promise of a hot shower, clean towels, and minor league per diem.
Ex-Bruin Paul Mara will be back on the Ranger blue line after agreeing to a one-year deal worth $1.95 million, about a 33 percent pay cut from last season. According to his Boston-based agent, Jay Fee, Mara was assured in his exit interview with the Blueshirt coaching staff that the 2008-09 Rangers would suit his game, play to his strengths. There were other teams interested in the former Belmont Hill standout, said Fee. "And he left money on the table elsewhere," Fee said, "but Paul sees the Rangers as a real Cup contender next season and wants to be a key contributor."
With a hat tip to the troubled Ray Emery, Alex Auld landed last week in Ottawa, the Senators signing the ex-Bruins goaltender to a two-year deal at $1 million per season. Emery, who backstopped Ottawa to the Cup finals in '07, imploded this past season, leading, in part, to John Paddock's dismissal as coach. Last month, the Senators bought out the rest of the 25-year-old Emery's deal at a steep two-thirds discount. The unrestricted free agent will now collect $2.25 million over the next four years, rather than $6.75 million over 24 months. Ouch. All in all, the Senators held back some $4.5 million from Emery, paid a little less than half to Auld, and pocketed the difference ($2.5 million). In the process, they got a terrific guy who is capable of pushing Martin Gerber for the top job.
New look for Jackets
Interesting two-for-two swap by the Blue Jackets (desperate for a playoff berth), finally unloading the enigmatic Nikolai Zherdev (No. 4 overall pick in '03), along with Dan Fritsche on the Rangers for a pair of decent blue liners, Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman. Zherdev has tremendous skill, but four years of too much freelancing wore out his welcome in the Buckeye State. If he takes to the bright lights of Broadway (as Sean Avery did before packing for Dallas), the 23-year-old Zherdev still has plenty of time and talent to turn himself into a legitimate NHL star. Meanwhile, Ken Hitchcock's charges will march to a different drum - the one Zherdev didn't hear. The Jackets further fortified the back line with the addition of Mike Commodore (a poor man's Adam Foote?) on a five-year pact worth $18.75 million.
Avery got the dollars he wanted (four years, $15.5 million), but had to move to Big D to get it. "He goes against the stream," said an admiring Brett Hull, the Stars' co-general manager, "which I kind of like. He reminds me of myself in a way." The Golden Brett was both a maverick and unafraid to speak his mind - admirable, even if sometimes over the top and not well-reasoned. However, Avery is a different cat, a sort of Full Metal Golden Brett, and the bet here is the two will have some significant and public clashes over these next, shall we say, interesting 48 months. Meanwhile, Stars agitator Steve Ott, 25, who is under contact for two years at a very friendly $1.425 million cap hit, now looks expendable . . . The Devils turned Newark into the Family Reunion Center with the rehiring of Brian Rolston (four years, $20.25 million) and Bobby Holik (a $2.5 million last dance). Low risk with two very solid citizens and performers. However, both have crossed their 35th birthdays, which means, no matter what, they can only be deleted from the cap via trade. Rolston will be 39 when the deal expires, and his extra dimension is in his legs. Few can keep up that speed in their late 30s, but as far as conditioning goes, he has always been more the exception than the rule . . . Two forwards the Bruins could have targeted, but didn't: 1. Cory Stillman, who ended up in Florida (three years, $10.6 million), and 2. Andrew Brunette (back with the Wild for three years, $7 million). They've both got considerable years over Michael Ryder, but each could put up his kind of numbers each year, for less money . . . That huge shift against the Red Wings in the Cup finals, when he nailed everyone but the Zamboni driver, paid big dividends for ex-Boston College Eagle Brooks Orpik. His new deal with the Penguins, over six years, will pay $22.5 million. And with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury signing Thursday for seven years and $35 million, Pittsburgh stands $10 million under the cap.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.