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Fewer holes in Bruins’ ice

They can go slow with free agency

PHIL KESSELKrejci money? PHIL KESSELKrejci money?
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / July 1, 2009
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Three years ago today, the Bruins and new general manager Peter Chiarelli signed two free agents that have become cornerstones of the current club.

On July 1, 2006, with interim GM Jeff Gorton pulling the trigger (Chiarelli was still under contract to the Senators, his previous employers), the Bruins plucked Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard off the market. In doing so, the team committed $57.5 million to a shutdown defenseman and a clever No. 1 center who have become go-to guns on defense and offense.

Such thunderous moves won’t take place today.

Much has changed since Chiarelli’s first crack as Boston GM at the opening of free agency. The Bruins have pulled themselves back into contenders’ conversation. They have fewer holes than when Chiarelli took over. For the first time in the post-lockout world, the salary cap will not see a significant bump. In 2010-11, when Savard will become an unrestricted free agent and Milan Lucic, Blake Wheeler, and Tuukka Rask become restricted free agents, the cap is expected to decrease.

Consequently, the Bruins have little free cash with which to go shopping when the market opens at noon today.

“We’re going to sit back,’’ Chiarelli said during a conference call yesterday. “There are certainly players we like and feel that there are good fits for those players. History has shown that whenever people are talking about being reluctant and conservative going into this period, there are always people that will pay. We’ve done our homework and our scouting on these players, the players that are still available, then you go after them. But unless something drastic changes, you won’t see aggressive moves by us to start.’’

Last year, the Bruins signed Michael Ryder to a three-year, $12 million contract. But they can’t afford a similar signing this time around. With 16 prospective big leaguers under contract (nine forwards, five defensemen, two goalies), plus the buyout money owed to Glen Murray, the Bruins have committed $49,383,333 to their 2009-10 roster - a lineup that requires plenty more filling in before the team can do proper battle come October.

Management’s first task is to address Phil Kessel, Matt Hunwick, and Byron Bitz, who officially will become restricted free agents today. Yesterday, Chiarelli said he had enough space (currently $7,416,667) to fulfill all three players’ contract demands.

“We have room to sign our guys for what they’re asking tonight, but we’re not going to do it,’’ Chiarelli said. “There’s a risk of allowing players to go out unsigned into the marketplace. But it’s a risk we’re willing to take. We’re also willing to continue to negotiate.’’

While the three players’ requested numbers are unknown, it may very well be they could command a total close to the $7.4 million. But such a move would leave the Bruins without the complementary players that gave the team enough top-to-bottom punch in 2008-09 to win the Eastern Conference regular-season title.

P.J. Axelsson, Stephane Yelle, Mark Recchi, Shane Hnidy, Steve Montador, and Manny Fernandez will become UFAs today. Their fate (Axelsson, Yelle, and Recchi the players the Bruins most likely would want back) is tied in with how the organization negotiates with its RFAs. And given that the Bruins tried to deal Kessel to Toronto last weekend for defenseman Tomas Kaberle (the trade broke down because of miscommunication regarding picks going both ways), there’s no certainty on how they will proceed with their 36-goal scorer.

They could resume trade talks with Toronto or other teams. They could negotiate an extension with Kessel, especially if the market continues its correction. The Bruins signed David Krejci to a three-year deal worth $3.75 million annually, a number that likely surprised Kessel’s camp because of its under-market value. If the sides can’t make progress over the summer, Kessel may have to accept a deal that would pay him an annual salary similar to Krejci’s.

Another possibility would be for a rival team to sign Kessel to an offer sheet. However, because of the stagnant cap in 2009-10 and the expected decrease in 2010-11, big-bucks offers may be too risky. Teams often must overpay via offer sheet (see Edmonton’s signing two summers ago of plugger Dustin Penner to a five-year, $21.25 million contract that Anaheim declined to match), and would then give up bounties in draft picks as well. Chiarelli maintained yesterday he will match any offer sheets, but noted they must be within reason.

“It’s a tool that other general managers have,’’ Chiarelli said. “I’m on the record saying we’re going to match it. We will. That’s the approach we’re going to take through the free agency period. Things can change and teams can be aggressive. My guess is that there will be overtures at some point. I have to deal with them as they unfold. If, at the end of the day, we feel they’re not prudent, we’re not going to do it. We have a salary structure in place. We’re not going to stray from it.’’

Kessel and Tim Thomas were named to Team USA’s Olympic Orientation Camp yesterday. They were among 34 players extended invitations to the camp, which will take place in Woodridge, Ill., from Aug. 17-19. Thomas should challenge Buffalo’s Ryan Miller for the No. 1 job. Kessel will not be ready for full on-ice activity at the camp, but he is expected to attend . . . The Bruins bought out the final year of Peter Schaefer’s contract, making the winger an unrestricted free agent. They will carry $566,667 toward their cap number in 2009-10 and 2010-11 per terms of the buyout. Schaefer, acquired from Ottawa for Shean Donovan July 17, 2007, spent 2008-09 in Providence, where he scored seven goals and had 19 assists in 47 games. Schaefer was brought to Boston in hopes of being a top-six forward, but he disappointed from the start. In 2007-08, Schaefer recorded a 9-17 -26 line in 63 games.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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