Hockey Notes

New signposts alter Chiarelli’s direction

By Kevin Paul Dupont
December 6, 2009

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Marc Savard and Milan Lucic now both have good deals in hand, the two forwards coming to terms with Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli in remarkably easy fashion. Neither came close to testing the free agent market (July 1). Both deals quietly avoided media and public scrutiny and the usual angst inherent in both, especially when the topic reaches the talk-radio bandwidths. The deals, both central to the club’s success, pose little threat to Chiarelli’s ability to manage the salary cap, be it short or long term.

“I think it’s something I’ve changed my stance on a little bit,’’ said Chiarelli, noting during the news conference Thursday to announce Savard’s deal that he is being more proactive in dealing with his pending free agents. “It’s just a function of the salary cap and the younger free agency years.’’

But it is also a function, Chiarelli later conceded, of how the Phil Kessel negotiations played out earlier this year.

Kessel, back in town last night with Toronto (in case you somehow missed that), ultimately was shoveled to the Leafs during training camp, Chiarelli left with little choice but to acquiesce to Leafs GM Brian Burke’s offer of a pair of first-round draft picks as well as a second-rounder. In the end, Kessel, by Chiarelli’s read, wanted out of Boston, and he specifically wanted Toronto, which had him on the hook for a five-year, $27 million offer, some $15 million and two years more than the Bruins wanted to fork out for a three-year pro with a career total of 66 goals.

Ultimately, Kessel and the Leafs dictated Boston’s business. Sure, Chiarelli could have refused to deal, and opted instead to match a Toronto offer sheet, but he was of no mind or cash position to pay Kessel $5.4 million a year, or perhaps more. Had Kessel signed an offer sheet and Chiarelli opted for the compensation, the return would have been only a first-, second-, and third-round pick. The offer Burke extended - and Chiarelli finally accepted - was tantamount to an offer sheet that would have paid Kessel in the $6 million-$7.5 million bracket.

“Painted into a corner,’’ is how Chiarelli portrays the process.

Now we have a GM who since has gone on to tie up Savard and Lucic for a total cap hit of about $8 million. If he were to keep up his proactive post-Kessel agenda, he today could extend the deals of free agents-to-be Shawn Thornton and Andrew Ference. If those deals aren’t forthcoming in fairly short order, then it might mean one or both are gone after this season.

According to a pro scout of one Eastern Conference club, “Ference’s name has come across our desk repeatedly for trade in recent weeks.’’ Which could explain, in part, why rookie defenseman Johnny Boychuk stuck around for two-plus months before the Bruins last week finally sent him to Providence for conditioning.

Beyond Ference and Thornton, the Bruins also have Mark Recchi, Steve Begin, Derek Morris, and Boychuk on course to be free agents July 1. But because they are all on one-year deals, signed this summer, the CBA dictates that they can’t be extended until Jan. 1 at the earliest. Of greater concern is the group - including Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Michael Ryder, and Marco Sturm - on course to reach the UFA threshold July 1, 2011. They can be re-signed anytime after this coming July 1, which could add more spice to what in recent years has become hockey’s most interesting day on the calendar.

Chiarelli, while acknowledging that the Kessel experience convinced him to speed up his pace in the Lucic and Savard talks, noted that he has a history of dealing ahead of the curve on his free agents. In February 2007, he signed Sturm to a four-year deal ($3.5 million average), well ahead of the July 1 UFA date. For weeks prior to trading Brad Stuart to Calgary, also in February 2007, he attempted to lock up the defenseman on a long-term deal for around $5 million a year.

“But he wanted to be on the West Coast,’’ said Chiarelli, who flipped Stuart for Ference and Chuck Kobasew. “So, while it [the Kessel experience] certainly prompted me a little, it’s not like it’s the first time. The main distinction in all of this - and I’ve said this many times - is that the player didn’t want to be here. And that’s a huge distinction.’’

Blackhawks’ dollars don’t make sense
The deals signed last week by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and especially Duncan Keith officially and forever severed any lingering ties to the old Bill Wirtz regime in Chicago. In Keith’s case, the Blackhawks also severed any ties to reality (a state they rarely lived in during the miserly Dollar Bill’s days).

Beginning next year, young stars Toews and Kane each will pocket an average of $6.3 million for five years. Their annual payouts will be identical: $6.5 million, $6 million, $6 million, $6.5 million, and $6.5 million. Compared with the likes of, say, the Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel) in Vancouver, or Anaheim’s Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, or Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles, the Kane-Towes payouts are right on the money. Solid value.

However, Keith’s deal is beyond extravagant, all the worse given that fellow Hawks back liner Brian Campbell is hauling in a bloated $7.14 million through 2013-14. Grossly overpriced.

Keith, 26, will earn an average of $7.913 million over the first four years, $7.55 million for the next two years, $5.5 million for another two, $4 million for two more, and then slightly more than $2 million for the final three. Total: 13 years/$72 million, for a cap hit of $5.54 million. If you’re still holding on to your calculator, it exceeds the 12-year/$62.8 million deal, in both gross dollars and cap hit, that career marksman Marian Hossa pocketed with the Hawks in July.

OK, it’s a good bet that neither Keith nor Hossa will reach full term on their deals. If Keith retires after 10 years, he’ll have earned just under $66 million. They’ve still paid out huge money for a guy who, though well-conditioned and both a solid citizen and performer, is by no means considered an elite NHL defenseman. OK, they like him, and most teams have a guy like that - someone hauling in A-list money for what most of the world perceives as something less than A-list talent.

But Keith, even if out in the free agent market July 1, 2010, would not have commanded a $72 million commitment from anyone. The circumstances are reminiscent, in ways, of the five-year, $39 million deal Brad Richards inked with Tampa in the summer of 2006 prior to his becoming a free agent. We were all left to wonder, why? By February 2008, Richards was dealt to Dallas, a precursor to GM Jay Feaster resigning that July. Coincidence? We think not.

No question, the Hawks want to win and win tomorrow, if not sooner. But there is a fine line between the aggressive securing of assets and wanton overpayment. Not to mention the sticky work ahead for rookie GM Stan Bowman, who will have to move some salary off the books (Brent Sopel? Patrick Sharp? Cam Barker?) to make it all work under the 2010-11 cap.

Hurricanes lose strength
Drowning in their own ineffectiveness, the Hurricanes right now look as if they’ll bag the No. 1 pick in the June draft. Despite yesterday’s win (which ended a five-game skid), the Tropical Depressions boast only 17 points in the standings - 6 fewer than the Leafs in slot No. 29 (or No. 2). The Hurricanes/Whalers have never held the No. 1 pick, but they hit big-time on two of their three No. 2’s, Eric Staal in ’03 and Chris Pronger in ’93. Sylvain Turgeon, No. 2 in ’83, was a bust. They dealt away their two primo picks in recent years, Jack Johnson (No. 3/2005) to Los Angeles and Andrew Ladd (No. 4/2004) to Chicago. Hard to believe this is much the same cast that made it to the Eastern Conference finals last spring after edging out the Bruins in Game 7 of Round 2. Perhaps hardest on the eyes has been spiritual leader Rod Brind’Amour, 2-6 -8 and a team-worst minus-19 as of yesterday. Hard way for a hero to exit.

The Pangs of youth
Growing up in suburban Ottawa, Chiarelli was a regular at the outdoor rink in his neighborhood, where the lights kept the sheet aglow until 11 p.m. “That’s where you learned your stick skills - not that I had any, but that’s where you learned them,’’ recalled Chiarelli, who eventually became Harvard’s captain. The best stickhandler in Chiarelli’s neighborhood? None other than Darren Pang, the 5-foot-5-inch netminder who went on to play 81 games in the Blackhawks net before working his way into the broadcast industry. In the outdoor games, “Panger’’ shed the goalie pads and played forward. “Unbelievable stick skills,’’ recalled Chiarelli. “I think he got most of that from playing lacrosse. When he played out [at forward], you could barely get the puck away from him.’’

Laboring along
All remains eerily quiet around the Players Association office in Toronto, while separate player-directed committees review: 1. the union at large, specifically what led to the dismissal of Paul Kelly as executive director and 2. the structure of the constitution and bylaws. The first group, which includes Recchi, Rob Blake, Chris Chelios, and Nicklas Lidstrom, will be directed by a top-line forensic review company that should be able to drill down to the nitty-gritty details, especially on the accounting and information-technology ends of the business. All in all, it will be weeks, if not months, before the executive director position is filled. Some rank-and-file members believe that Kelly, although he has moved on to direct the new venture College Hockey Inc., might be asked to return to office.

Alex being Alex
Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, suspended two games for his leg check on Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason - which left Ovechkin with a banged-up right knee of his own - could be back in the lineup tomorrow night in Tampa Bay. Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau had to clarify comments he made earlier in the week when he said Ovechkin played a “reckless’’ style that he might need to curb. All in all, Boudreau emphasized in comments to the Washington Post, he doesn’t want AO to change his style. “That’s what makes him three things,’’ said Boudreau. “One of the best players in the world, one of the best personalities in sports, and the reason you pay to watch guys like Alex.’’

Officially part of it
Kudos to local guys in stripes Chris Rooney (South Boston) and Brian Murphy (Dover, N.H.), both of whom will be working their chilled whistles at the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, Bruins vs. Flyers, over at the Yawkey Way Cash Box. Rooney and Murphy also will be Olympic officials in Vancouver in February.

Loose pucks
Although they weren’t invited to Team Canada’s summer camp, Savard and Bergeron remain on GM Steve Yzerman’s watch list. One or both could still be invited to Vancouver. Many pundits haven’t had Joe Thornton suiting up for The Provinces, but Jumbo Joe again is putting up big numbers and is pulling away with the league’s assist lead (33 entering last night’s game) . . . The Leafs, 5-1-1 in their last seven entering last night, will look for a major change in net in the offseason, unless Joey MacDonald, 30 in February, really is the answer. Don’t laugh, because Craig Anderson, 36-43-13 prior to this season, sure has turned into the answer in Colorado. Vesa Toskala will be out of TO faster than Manny Fernandez left Boston. Jonas Gustavsson underwent a second heart procedure (ablation), after experiencing a racing heart Tuesday night at Montreal. The young Swedish star required an ablation in the preseason, but often a second zap is needed for the heart to stay in rhythm . . . Maybe he arrived running on pure adrenaline, but ex-Hab Guillaume Latendresse was the Wild’s best player in his first two games upon arriving from Montreal for Benoit Pouliot . . . What is it about the bad-luck Panthers? Monday night, defenseman Keith Ballard nearly decapitated his own goalie, Tomas Vokoun, when he swung his stick in frustration following an Ilya Kovalchuk goal. Dazed and with his left ear in need of stitches, Vokoun was taken off the ice on a stretcher. “Easier for me to have a cut ear,’’ Vokoun said later in the week, sympathizing over the guilt Ballard felt. Remember, it was just less than two years ago that Florida forward Richard Zednik came near death when his carotid artery was sliced by teammate Olli Jokinen, the big center upended, his skate blade just missing Zednik’s jugular vein. Vokoun is OK and will be back on the job as soon as his ear can handle the rub of his mask. Ballard, who lamented how kids might interpret his anger and actions, as of late last night had not been added to the Florida Marlins spring training roster.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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