By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) – Andrew Ference, Nathan Horton and Tuukka Rask have already made their obligatory statements about wanting to stay in Boston beyond this season and keep the majority of the Bruins’ Cup-winning nucleus together.

All that does is shift the pressure 100-percent to general manager Peter Chiarelli, as he tries to not only fine tune the 2013 squad for a long playoff run but also tries to figure out how to maintain his No. 1 priority – making sure his team is championship-caliber every year – in light of a shrinking salary cap next season.

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Ference, Horton, both unrestricted, and Rask are the only three major free agents Chiarelli has to deal with once this season is over. Rask, a restricted free agent who will have arbitration rights, is expected to sign for something in the neighborhood of Montreal goaltender Carey Price’s six-year, $39-million deal that kicked in this season. Rask knows all too well how browner the grass can be on the other side, while the Bruins have come too far and waited too long for Rask’s ascension to do anything but commit to the Finnish netminder for the long term.

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So that leaves Ference and Horton, and you don’t have to be recovering from a coronary after Horton’s electric two-goal performance last night in the win in Tampa to know which of the veterans has to be on top of Chiarelli’s priority list. The only problem is that in re-signing Horton, Chiarelli won’t be choosing the winger over Ference, he might be choosing to keep the sniper instead of another popular player or two.

With six goals this season, Horton’s on pace for another 25-30-goal season (based on an 82-game schedule) and he’ll be just 28 this summer. While we all know about the fragility of players with multiple concussion in their careers, we’ve seen Horton twice come back from head injuries and return to his former greatness as a player who can both score at a high pace and bang the body without fear.

According to, the Bruins are currently scheduled to be $7 million under next year’s cap without Ference, Horton, Rask and a couple other less-important free agents. If Rask cashes in at say $5.5 to $6 million, that pretty much eats up the space. While the development of Dougie Hamilton, the continued improvement Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid, plus the potential of Matt Bartkowski and David Warsofsky to someday soar into the NHL make Ference replaceable, the Bruins probably won’t have the same luxury when it comes to Horton.

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When you consider the production the Bruins have gotten from Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic, you can’t expect that they’ll become more than the 30-goal scorers they are on an annual basis. Tyler Seguin’s upside seems to put him in that 30-goal realm as well. As far as the farm system, it’s too early to tell is Ryan Spooner will be more of a playmaker or a scorer. Injuries have delayed Jared Knight’s progress in what would’ve been his first pro season this winter.

We’ve seen how rough life can be for the Bruins when they’re missing a player of the caliber of Marchand, Lucic or Horton for more than a game or two. This club’s balanced-scoring approach needs all its participants available and ready to light the lamp and pick up the slack when one or more of the streakier contributors is in a down period.

So the Bruins have to re-sign Horton, and they’re going to have to probably pay more than the $4 million cap hit he already carries. When you look at comparable wingers (29-year-old Jiri Hudler makes $4 million) in terms of age and production, Horton’s already underpaid. That means at worst a $5 million cap hit. And that means that the days of the Bruins paying Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley or Boychuk richly based on intangibles in addition to their part-time production could be over.

The Bruins know all too well how difficult it is to find a scorer with Horton’s uncanny ability to put up numbers over the course of the long season. They’ve seen how Peverley’s goal total has dropped from 22 to 18 to 11. He’s off to a slow start with just two goals this season. Kelly has yet to show last year wasn’t an offensive fluke. Boychuk has done everything asked of him, but based on the Bruins depth at the position and Boychuk’s probable value to another team that might see him as a guy who could produce even more with a bigger role makes him a player the Bruins will have to consider moving.

The free-agent replacements are thin next summer. The likes of aging Patrik Elias, Jarome Iginla and Daniel Alfredsson wouldn’t bring the Bruins the bang for their buck that Horton still in his prime can provide.

As long as Horton is proclaiming his love of Boston and the Bruins, and the hefty money bags that figure to be thrown his way if he hits the market next summer are still out of view, the Bruins would be wise to lock up Horton as soon as legally possible.

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Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for and also contributes coverage to and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.