When the Boston Bruins inked defenseman Dennis Seidenberg to a contract extension last week, they whittled their impending 2014 free-agent class down to eight players. As their NHL payroll currently reads on capgeek.com, they have four forwards, three blueliners and a backup goaltender lacking a deal beyond this season.
Seven additional skaters are only locked in through 2014-15.
If general manager Peter Chiarelli is going to keep up the continuity he has expressed he wants in recent years, it will likely require a few more deals before 2013-14 is over.
The remainder of the 2014 class includes three players who are wholly new to the organization this season: Jarome Iginla, Chad Johnson and Reilly Smith.
Four others―Matt Bartkowski, Jordan Caron, Torey Krug and Kevan Miller―are all still relatively young and inexperienced by NHL standards. It is worth noting that Caron and Krug are each off to promising starts in what should be their first full seasons in the major league, per the Patriot Ledger and Amalie Benjamin of the Boston Globe.
That leaves Shawn Thornton, who is one of the few Bruins still on the team since fortune-turning coach Claude Julien's arrival in 2007-08.
Thornton’s fabled “Merlot Line” allies, Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, each have a deal that will be good through 2014-15. Joining them among the tentative 2015 free agents are three established skaters in Johnny Boychuk, David Krejci and Adam McQuaid, plus two relative newcomers in Dougie Hamilton and Carl Soderberg.
Krejci, like Thornton, has the distinction of being a regular with the team since 2007-08. In addition, multiple developments have put a 180-degree spin on his long-term outlook with the organization compared to a year ago.
There was a time when it looked like the Bruins were bent on fostering young winger Tyler Seguin for an eventual role in his natural position at center. With him and longest-tenured player/alternate captain Patrice Bergeron as the top two centers, there would have been no suitable spot for Krejci by the second half of this decade.
Since then, the 2013 postseason has brought about a change in the forecast. Seguin’s subpar effort brought on his exit through a trade with Dallas, while Krejci led all playoff participants in production for the second time in three years.
Besides shedding the center surplus, the Bruins have also recently bestowed an “A” upon Krejci to periodically share the alternate captaincy with Bergeron.
Krejci is clearly looking like a long-term fixture in Boston. His unmatched 17 assists and 26 points during a run to the 2013 Stanley Cup Final all but verified that his 12 goals and 23 points en route to the 2011 championship were no fluke.
Because he is a proven playoff performer and the franchise has rigidly established its desire to be a perennial postseason force, Krejci is a definite candidate for the next big extension.
His extension should at least resemble Seidenberg's ($4 million cap hit over four years) more closely than Thornton's, assuming they both get one.
Of course, depth production and intangibles are equally vital to big-game success.
That and the fact that his current contract is due to expire sooner should put Thornton in front of the line, even if his next deal is shorter and less lucrative than Krejci’s.
Even if it is, though, it should be a fairly big pact by fourth-line standards. The 36-year-old Thornton is going into his fourth season on a line with Campbell and Paille. Two of those first three seasons culminated in a Cup Final appearance.
A new contract for Thornton lasting any longer than a single year ought to impel Campbell and Paille to seek their own extensions prior to the 2015 offseason.
As Thornton, a habitual hitter and brawler, starts to age in the latter half of his 30s, it is hard to have full confidence in his long-term effectiveness. With that said, his tenure with the team and city make him an enviable veteran presence among Boston’s bottom-six forwards.
It would be worth Chiarelli’s while to pursue an extension of about three seasons, keeping Thornton through 2016-17. When the time comes, that would make for an effective selling point in persuading Campbell and Paille―both 29 years old―to stay on a new deal of at least two seasons apiece.
If one or more of the three Merlot Liners are fading by late in 2015-16 or the middle of 2016-17, so be it. There is no reason why the Bruins could not prepare one or multiple successors for spots on that line over that period.
The fact that Thornton is bound to command less money due to his lower minutes totals and advanced age is another reason why he should have priority on the negotiation schedule. Krejci is consuming $5.25 million in cap space this year and next as it is, and Chiarelli needs to plan meticulously to stay compliant.
Everyone else who is due to hit free agency in July 2014 should log a full campaign with the team―or be on the cusp of completing it―before pursuing a new deal. Depending on their respective performances, they ought to float indefinitely with pending 2015 UFAs Boychuk, Campbell, McQuaid and Paille in terms of position on the renewal urgency leaderboard.
Krejci is easily the most proven veteran among Boston’s 2014 and 2015 free agents, while Thornton represents the most pressing and most manageable call for renewal. The former should immediately follow the latter at the front of the line for the team's hopeful re-signees.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were from NHL.com