By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Not to frighten you, but Bruins GM Don Sweeney has some big decisions to make soon. And if the Bruins land their prize in pending free agent Jimmy Vesey, those decisions will only get harder.
That’s not to say that the Bruins should not sign the Hobey Baker Award winner, who still has the Bruins on his short list and sounds like he really, really wants to play for his hometown team. They clearly need to make a run at the Massachusetts native. It’s just that their cap space is already dwindling and major sacrifices may ultimately need to be made to keep him and other core players intact.
The Bruins now have just over $6.7 million in cap space for the 2016-17 season with 12 forwards, seven defensemen, and two goalies under contract, according to General Fanager on Twitter. They have two open spots on the active roster, and Vesey would obviously fill one of those – but at what cost?
To figure out the price for landing Vesey, who would immediately be a top-six forward for them, it helps to look at a similar player who entered the league in a similar situation. For Vesey, an uncannily similar comparison is New York Rangers center Kevin Hayes, younger brother of Bruins winger Jimmy Hayes.
After being drafted in the first round by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, the younger Hayes played four seasons at Boston College and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award before becoming a free agent and signing with New York. The Rangers signed him to a two-year entry-level contract worth a total of $7.5 million.
Where Hayes’ contract gets tricky is in the incentives. The maximum entry-level salary for 2010 draftees was $925,000, but the Rangers signed Hayes for an $810,000 annual salary, plus a $90,000 signing bonus and $2.85 million in performance bonuses each season. The bonuses would have only counted against the following season’s cap if Hayes met the performance goals outlined in his contract; he did not.
The Bruins could make a similar gamble if they sign Vesey, loading his contract with performance bonuses that would only count against the cap if he reached whatever goals they lined up for him. But they’d likely have to leave themselves that space – unless maybe they make Vesey score 96 goals. A Vesey contract would probably leave only about $3 million remaining.
With or without Vesey, the Bruins have an imminent contract decision to make, and it’s a crucial one: Brad Marchand is due $5 million in 2016-17 with a cap hit of $4.5 million and is certainly due for a raise on his next contract, which GM Don Sweeney recently said he looks to complete “in short order.” While a new contract for Marchand would likely have a cap hit north of $6 million, it wouldn’t affect the Bruins’ cap until 2017-18 – but they may still have Vesey’s contract to work around, along with several high-priced players from their core.
The Bruins put themselves in this precarious position with their numerous lucrative long-term deals, to which they added David Backes’ $6 million cap hit this offseason. The only way for them to get out from under the pressure they’ve suddenly created for themselves, assuming they want to sign both Vesey and Marchand, is to move one of their higher-priced contracts. Assuming Patrice Bergeron is completely off the table and locked away in the pantry (as he should be), that leaves captain Zdeno Chara ($6.9 million cap hit), goaltender Tuukka Rask ($7 million), and center David Krejci ($7.25 million).
If Chara plays out his contract with the Bruins, his cap hit actually drops to $4 million in 2017-18, which should help to make room to both sign Vesey and retain Marchand. But there’s still a severely limited amount of cap space for the team to work with, especially if they aim to add a top-pairing defenseman in the near future. The team may be better suited moving Krejci and/or Chara’s contracts completely off the books, but obviously, that’s easier said than done. The 39-year-old Chara has suddenly become super-expensive with his sharp decline in recent seasons and Krejci’s multiple hip surgeries likely hamper his potential trade value.
If this is all giving you a headache, imagine how many Advils Sweeney is popping over this.
The team may be able to keep all of the aforementioned players and still have room to sign Vesey, but that may come with a complete depletion of cap space. If they want to retain whatever flexibility they may still have, big decisions need to be made. This front office hasn’t had the best track record in recent years making significant moves, but if they want to keep some room under the cap for future seasons, they’ll have to make another one.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.