So, here’s the good news if you’re the Boston Bruins: Danton Heinen has agreed to a two-year, $5.6-million contract, a deal that locks the 24-year-old in for a couple of seasons at a reasonable $2.8-million cap hit and sees the two sides avoid the arbitration hearing that was set for Aug. 3. It’s a tidy little pact, a bridge deal for a bottom-six winger who has 27 goals and 81 points in 154 games over the past two seasons.
But here’s the bad news: the modest cap space with which the Bruins had to work over the remaining months of the off-season has now dwindled further, and while getting Heinen’s contract done is all well and good, Boston has bigger restricted free agent fish to fry. And worse than that, barring some sort of Kevin Labanc-esque sweetheart deals, the Bruins no longer have room in the budget to take care of the most pressing bits of business. In fact, as we inch closer to mid-July, the Bruins’ spending room rests somewhere in the $8.1-million range, and it sits there with RFA defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo yet to put pen to paper on new contracts. That’s a problem for a few of reasons.
First, McAvoy, 21, isn’t a burgeoning No. 1 defenseman. No, he’s already there. He’s a big-minute, top-pairing blueliner who is most likely destined for Norris Trophy candidacy in the not-too-distant future. Second, Carlo, 22, is a steady blueliner who had something of a star turn in the post-season, proving his merit as a shutdown defender on the Stanley Cup finalist Bruins. And third, and most importantly, the money simply doesn’t add up.
In any exploration of future contracts, the simplest and most reliable gauge is past pacts handed out to similar players at similar points in their careers. Defensemen, admittedly, are more difficult to figure out than forwards, if only because the counting stats – goals, assists, points, power play goals, so on and so forth – provide a better base than the events that are trickier to measure. For instance, the majority of rearguards, those not of the pure-offensive breed, are paid as much for the offense they prevent as they are the offense they produce. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s look at contracts handed to RFA rearguards coming out of their entry-level agreements to get a gauge of what McAvoy and Carlo might be worth.
In the past three seasons, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Brady Skjei, Noah Hanifin, Shea Theodore and Jakob Chychrun have inked long-term deals with cap hits in the $4-million to $5.3-million range coming out of their entry-level agreements. Some of those blueliners would be put in the same category as a McAvoy or Carlo. Others? Maybe not. Regardless, one thing is clear: both Bruins RFA defensemen are in for significant raises, especially if we account for some cap inflation. Even the most modest of estimates might put the pair at, what, a combined $10-million cap hit? Suffice to say, Bruins GM Don Sweeney has some cap-related decisions to make.
The easiest solution, of course, would be roster trimming. With Heinen signed and the impending deals for McAvoy and Carlo, Boston is primed to have 13 forwards and nine defensemen on the roster ahead of next season. If we then assume the $10-million combined cap hit for McAvoy and Carlo – again, that would be a somewhat meager sum for both defensemen – the Bruins would be exceeding the spending limit by roughly $2 million. In order to get back under the cap, however, Boston could go ahead and send one of Steven Kampfer or Connor Clifton to the AHL. That would save Boston somewhere in the $1-million range. Add to it the demotion of new signees Brett Ritchie or Par Lindholm, or some combination of three of the suggested players, and suddenly the Bruins are cap compliant.
That’s hardly ideal, though. Not only would Boston remain tight against the cap, they’d risk losing each of Kampfer, Ritchie and Lindholm on waivers (Clifton can pass through without issue), potentially hamstringing their own depth in the process. Beyond that, it leaves little wiggle room to add as the season moves on and could prove a hindrance if there needs to be an addition to cover for an injury at any point in the campaign.
But if Sweeney doesn’t want to take that tack, if he doesn’t want to expose multiple players to waivers, the Bruins do have other options, such as going the buyout route with David Backes, whose $6-million cap hit has become an anchor in Boston. Cutting bait with Backes makes sense, too, right? He lost his spot at times throughout the campaign, was made a healthy scratch and he’s not the fit the Bruins had hoped he would be. The reality is, though, that buying out Backes would have little cap impact. If Boston chose to buy out the 35-year-old in the second window, the Bruins would get a mere $333,333 in cap savings this coming season, all the while incurring cap hits of $3.7 million in 2020-21 and $666,667 in 2021-22 and 2022-23. Given future cap concerns – Torey Krug, Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk are among those who need new pacts next summer – that’s not ideal.
It’s not a one-or-the other proposition, though, and Boston does have one more option: shipping out some salary. Crazy as it might seem, too, don’t count the possibility that Backes is a possibility for such a move. Sure, it seems unlikely there would be any suitors, but remember that bottom-feeding, rebuilding teams have proven in the past they’re not afraid to use cap space to their advantage, and Backes’ contract gives him serious cap-dump potential. His salary for the coming campaign is a mere $1 million and he will be paid out $4 million next season, $2 million less than his cap hit. With that in mind, he could be the kind of addition a budget team looking to sneak above the cap floor considers. If the Bruins are willing to sweeten the pot with a pick or a prospect, it’s not out of the question that a team such as the Ottawa Senators, who need to add roughly $600,000 in salary, would bring Backes aboard.
That’s not to say he’s the only trade candidate. Defenseman Kevan Miller carries a $2.5-million cap hit and plays third-pairing minutes. John Moore is likewise in the bottom half of the blueline depth chart and counts against the cap for $2.75-million for each of the next four seasons. There have been rumors, as well, about David Krejci in the past, though moving any major pieces seems unlikely as Boston prepares for another potential championship run with a team that came within one victory of standing in the winner’s circle.
Whatever move the Bruins make, it can’t just be one with this season in mind, either. Once McAvoy and Carlo are signed, Boston will have to turn its attention to its upcoming free agents, and the money spent to retain the two RFA rearguards is going to eat into the projected $32.1 million the Bruins have available for next summer. So, be it Backes or otherwise, it’s likely someone will be gone before the season starts. Such is life in the salary cap era.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
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