The Boston Bruins are going to do everything they can to avoid losing their first-line right wing for the second consecutive season. Nathan Horton occupied that slot alongside David Krejci and Milan Lucic before he bolted for the Columbus Blue Jackets as a free agent last summer.
General manager Peter Chiarelli signed Jarome Iginla to take Horton's spot, and the aging veteran filled in admirably. Maybe a bit too admirably.
The former Calgary Flame played so well that he convinced Chiarelli and his cohorts that he's the No. 1 priority for the team as the calendar rolls toward July 1.
The team only has about $9 million in cap space. With the need for two right wings and someone to back up Tuukka Rask plus a pair of defenders to sign, focusing on a 37-year-old forward just doesn't seem like the way to go.
Especially when the two defenders looking for new deals are Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski. That's not the way Chiarelli is approaching things, however. At least not according to Joe Haggerty of CSNNE.com:
A source with knowledge of negotiations told CSNNE.com that the other prospective B’s free agents are essentially on hold while the B’s front office focuses on getting something done with unrestricted free agent Jarome Iginla prior to July 1... Once Iginla is taken care of, the B’s next item on the free agent priority list would be restricted free agents Matt Bartkowski, Torey Krug and Reilly Smith. Both Smith and Krug are looking at significant raises from their entry level contracts...
While it's fine to make signing Iginla a priority, it's a bit startling to see Boston's leading playoff scorer (Krug) on the back burner for a guy who might not be with the team for more than another season. Regardless of how long it takes to iron out an extension, Chiarelli should be tossing that dollar and term at Krug instead of Iginla.
The key to staying competitive in today's NHL is maintaining a steady flow of youth. You've got to keep and groom your own All-Stars, and that's precisely what Krug is. He might not have the name recognition of Patrice Bergeron, but he'll be an asset for the Bruins for the next decade-plus.
Since he was drafted in 2011, Dougie Hamilton has been considered the future of Boston's blue line. That narrative has a nice symmetry to it—the 6'9" Zdeno Chara passing the torch to the 6'5" Hamilton in the defensive zone—but it was Krug who surpassed the former first-round pick on the depth chart during the playoffs last season.
An undrafted defender out of Michigan State University, Krug has a hefty raise coming his way, and Iginla shouldn't be made a priority over him. While it may seem inconsequential right now, the Bruins are leaving themselves wide open to an offer sheet should they make it to July 1 without a deal in place.
Chiarelli can keep Iginla in the loop and let him know what's going on during negotiations. As a veteran, he controls his future. Krug isn't in the same boat, and if the B's want to remain in control of the term and financials for their franchise power-play quarterback, they need to begin the conversation now instead of putting things on hold.
The same goes for Bartkowski. While he doesn't have the same reputation as Krug, he's a serviceable, cheap and homegrown depth defender. He quietly averaged nearly 20 minutes a night last season, and, despite the occasional mental lapse, he still provides quality top-six coverage.
Krug and Bartkowski aren't the only guys in limbo as the B's negotiate with Iginla. Reilly Smith also needs a new contract. No matter where the Bruins lined up Smith in 2013-14, he was successful. Viewed as a bit of a throw-in in the Tyler Seguin deal, Smith surpassed all expectations by posting 20 goals and adding 31 assists.
These aren't bit players the Bruins are passing over to keep Iginla. These are three high-end young players who need to be kept aboard and prioritized over a fading star. It's true that Iginla led the team in scoring last season, but the salary cap forces teams to make tough choices with their money. Barring a cap-clearing trade, Chiarelli has his back up against a wall, and he's leaning in the wrong direction right now.
In a perfect world, all four players would squeeze in under the cap with plenty of room left for a backup who could play 20 starts. That kind of cash just isn't available, even if the ceiling goes as high as the $71.1 CapGeek.com is currently utilizing. That's the high end of the spectrum, and odds seem good that the actual cap will be a bit lower.
If it comes down to a choice—and the pressure will be on within a week or so—Chiarelli needs to cut ties with Iginla and keep his young stars. Depth wins championships in the NHL, and it's players such as Smith and Krug—not Iginla—who have made the B's so hard to contend with over the last few years.
Pay the youngsters their money and let the rest trickle down to veteran plug-and-plays. Otherwise, an aggressive general manager with something to prove might decide to take a shot across the bow of the big, bad B's by sending Krug or Smith an offer sheet.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com.