WILMLINGTON (CBS) – Bruins coach Claude Julien and general manager Don Sweeney have decided they’re on the same page in terms of style of play and what it’s going to take to get the Bruins back into the Stanley Cup playoffs, so they’ve agreed to keep working together.
During his first comments since the Bruins’ switch from Peter Chiarelli to Sweeney in the GM chair, however, Julien did his new boss a disservice. When asked Wednesday to comment on defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who’s scheduled to be a restricted free agent July 1, Julien basically made the case for Hamilton as a future superstar better than his agent or family could have hoped.
“Again we keep forgetting that he’s a 21-year-old and that he’s a real young player. And to have the impact that he’s had on our team and I think people noticed it even more when he missed the last few weeks of the season how much we missed a guy like him,” Julien said at Ristuccia Arena. “That’s the kind of impact that he has on our team and he’s a great defenseman. There’s no doubt we like him. I think his teammates really appreciate what he brings to the table every night and I think they realized what they missed when he wasn’t in the lineup.”
Sweeney’s biggest decision of this offseason will be what he does with Hamilton, who could be seeking a contract as rich as $7 million per season. Julien might have at least helped out by toning down the rhetoric about Hamilton’s path to the Hall of Fame. Few things could ruin Sweeney’s first summer as GM worse than losing Hamilton as a RFA or trading him for pieces that may not pay off until the distant future (because it’s doubtful the Bruins would be able to acquire present-day impact players in any sort of trade for Hamilton).
Julien couldn’t help himself when given the opportunity to sing Hamilton’s praises, and who could blame him? The Bruins, by luck of Toronto’s tanking after the Phil Kessel trade and the foolishness of some of the GMs that had picks ahead of Boston at No. 9 in the 2011 draft, were handed the rights to the type of defenseman that could be among the NHL’s elite within a few years and help Boston survive Zdeno Chara’s closing years and eventual retirement.
Julien loves Hamilton. One has to believe Sweeney does too. That’s why the leverage a team holds over its restricted free agents and the Bruins’ proximity to the NHL salary-cap ceiling shouldn’t deter Sweeney from committing to Hamilton long-term at a salary that will pay him for what he’s expected to be rather than what he is right now.
Hamilton skipped the AHL and made the Bruins straight out of junior hockey during the 2013 lockout-shortened season. He showed flashes of brilliance and poise that we all remember nearly rendered NBC analyst Pierre McGuire speechless. Every year Hamilton has gotten better, even as the Bruins have expanded his role. Last season, he and Chara formed a dominant top pairing at both ends of the rink when healthy. When Chara was out, Hamilton picked up the slack and did as well as could be expected for a young defenseman in that situation with little help from a thin corps of blueliners around him.
Although Hamilton is still filling into his slender 6-foot-5 frame and learning the intricacies of the two-way game in the NHL, his ability to create plays on offense have been a boost to the Bruins the past couple years, especially on the power play. That transition game that everyone in New England is talking about the Bruins improving will need at least one defenseman of Hamilton’s skill to contribute to the turnaround. Players like Hamilton don’t come around too often, especially to franchises that make the playoffs more often than not over the course of a decade. We all know what happened when another rare talent the Bruins drafted with a draft pick from the Maple Leafs after the Kessel trade fell out of favor with management and was severed from the roster.
Without getting into specific comparable players and salaries, by now we’ve learned that Hamilton should be able to ask for anything from $4 to $6 million. An offer sheet from another club could climb as high as $7 million. Compensation from an offer-sheet team would come in the form of draft picks, which would probably be something in the neighborhood of one first, second and third round pick. That’s a horrible return. When you have a talent like Hamilton in your possession, you don’t discard him for an unknown quantity, especially when you’re banking on winning in the near future. Trading another defenseman for draft picks would probably tick off veterans Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Chara so much the dressing room would be wrecked.
The salary-cap ceiling is not the Bruins’ friend right now. Re-signing Hamilton should be the easiest move on Sweeney’s plate. Then he has to make the necessary room. That could mean trading Milan Lucic. Or it could mean dealing Chris Kelly or Dennis Seidenberg and sweetening the pot by parting with a prospect or draft picks to get a team to take a high-priced veteran off the Bruins’ hands. Those moves might not be popular in the present. Down the road, they’ll look wise when Hamilton picks up his Norris Trophy.
Those that would ask Hamilton to sign a “bridge deal” and wait to make his money when the Bruins have more cap space should be forced to spend a weekend stalled on the Zakim Bridge. Bridge deals not only make a player play for less than he’s worth, they also force a team to pay more down the road. The Montreal Canadiens found that out with P.K. Subban, and now they’re paying him $9 million a season when they probably could’ve had him for $7 million without the “bridge deal.” The market is always going to increase the going rate. Teams might as well pay now rather than later.
No one should ask Hamilton to play for less than he’s worth. That would ignore the fragility of players’ careers and the elusiveness of longevity in a league where one hit from behind can end or derail a career. The Bruins are up against the cap ceiling. That’s not Hamilton’s problem. You know what happens to players that sign cap-friendly deals to help out Bruins management? They become Torey Krug and Reilly Smith playing on one-year contracts so the Bruins can keep the team together, only to watch Johnny Boychuk get traded before the season even starts.
If the Bruins are going to continue to build a championship from the goal out to the defense and forwards, they have to be serious about retaining the services of players like Hamilton. If you trade or let Hamilton leave, replacing him in the present and the future will be virtually impossible. Teams are locking up their homegrown stars at a record clip.
Julien was quick to compliment Hamilton, but he wanted no part in talk about the defenseman’s contract.
“I think I’m going to leave that one up to Donnie,” Julien said. “I mean, as coaches, we have our big challenges and that’s Don’s big challenge. So we’re all hoping that he can get something done here with him and that we can see him here at training camp.”
It’s not enough to hope. The Bruins have to sign Hamilton (sooner rather than later), avoid the drama and commit to the kid as their No. 1 defenseman of the near future.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.