Chara/By S. Bradley

Whether he’s going to fine-tune the team he has assembled or perform a major shake-up with a trade of Marc Savard or another star center in an effort to make sure 2010-11 erases the nightmares of the spring of ’10, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has to at least be casting one eye beyond the upcoming season.

In what might be one of the more under-reported stories surrounding the Bruins, captain and superstar defenseman Zdeno Chara is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent one year from Thursday. July 1, 2010 is also the first day the Bruins, under the guidelines of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, can negotiate a contract extension for their cornerstone player.

Chara’s contract situation could have a huge impact on the future of the franchise and the careers of the coaches, the general manager and everyone that cashes a check from the Bruins. And Chara’s future free agency might already be affecting how the Bruins do business, including the current situation with Savard.

Chiarelli doesn’t discuss contract negotiations with specific players, and Chara’s agent Matt Keator declined to say anything on the record about what could be a record payday for his client. However, one would expect that when Chiarelli and Keator talk about restricted free agents Mark Stuart and Blake Wheeler, Chara’s situation will come up.

You don’t need to be a scholar on Bruins history to know that Chara’s predecessors in the team’s annals of Hall-of-Fame defensemen – in order: Eddie Shore, Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque – all finished their NHL careers elsewhere. Chara would be equally difficult or maybe harder to replace on the Bruins’ back end, especially in a day-and-age where the best players are re-signing with their own clubs for practically their entire career and the salary cap limits ludicrous bidding wars. The modern-day draft, and the attention it receives, also prevents a Wren Blair from working over a family like the Orrs to lure a hot prospect to Boston and makes it rare that a talent like Bourque slips to eighth overall (or that you could acquire a pick that high in exchange for just a player of Ron Grahame’s caliber).

As of now, scheduled to join Chara on the free-agent market among defensemen are Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom, Montreal’s Andrei Markov, Ottawa’s Chris Phillips, Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle, Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen, and Vancouver’s Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff. When you figure that Kaberle is expected to be traded somewhere he can re-sign for the long term, Lidstrom’s two options are usually returning to Detroit or retiring, and the Canadiens are expected to put the full-court press on to keep Markov, it becomes even more evident that Chara will be the crown jewel of the market. With centers Joe Thornton and Brad Richards, and winger Alex Semin, also potential unrestricted free agents that are pretty likely to stay put, Chara’s price keeps going up.

Chara will be 34 next summer, but with his workout regimen and dedication, he’s a young 34. There’s no doubt he could have six or seven solid seasons still in him, especially if the team he plays for in the second half of this decade can reduce his minutes a tad with a solid supporting cast. The goal total might’ve dipped a bit for Chara this season (who on the Bruins didn’t dip in the goals department?), but the assists were still up there, he was a plus-19 on a struggling team, and there’s no telling what his totals will be on an improved Bruins squad this coming season.

It’s not crazy to think that Chara will be looking for a raise on the $7.5 million salary he has been taking home since he agreed to come reawaken the Bruins franchise July 1, 2006. After a slow start, he has been everything the Bruins needed him to be, as an on-ice force at both ends of the rinks, a player that can physically dominate a game (especially in the playoffs) and won a Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman in ’08-09.

During the latter part of the ’09-10 season, Chara obviously didn’t want to talk too much about the future beyond this season. When it was pointed out to him that the re-signing of Andrew Ference coming months after the new extension signed by Savard – a couple players Chara has grown to enjoy playing with and has been through the wars with – he commended both, and others, as guys he is excited to keep playing with. And he held the expected party line of wanting to be in a Bruins uniform for the duration.

“I do. Honestly, I do [want to stay],” he said. “I would like to. Again, you never know what can happen. It’s a business and obviously, myself and my family would like to say. We enjoy Boston, we enjoy the organization. When I signed here, I still believe that this team can go on and win the Cup. And that’s what I’m trying to get done. It couldn’t be a better scenario for all of us to get it done.”

Getting it done would probably be as easy as putting together a deal structured much the way Savard’s is, with a friendly cap hit and plenty of money up front. Although Chara expects to be playing no matter how close he gets to 40, there are ways of making the numbers work – even committing to an eight- or 10-year deal. A cap hit in the $7 to $7.5 million range with maybe $40 or $45 million or so rolling in during the first four or five years would keep Chara rich and make sure the Bruins don’t have a giant hole to fill.

So, how does this tie in for Savard? Well, we know the center signed a “cap-friendly” deal with a hit just north of $4 million in December, but he’s due $25.5 million in the first four years of the contract. The cap might not be the biggest reasons Chiarelli has to move Savard, the actual budget might be. If Chiarelli’s going to get a similar deal done with Chara, and maybe even with center Patrice Bergeron, he’s going to have to break the bank over the next four years or so. If you think Chiarelli has a blank check to do something like that, you must think the Bruins are owned by Mark Cuban. In fact, there are very few owners in all of sports that would let Chiarelli make such an exorbitant commitment to just three players.

It’s a bit ironic that Savard’s original signing could be viewed as an effort to show Chara that the team’s committed to long-term stability and winning, and now it might be a hindrance. It’s also an undeniable truth that when it comes down to keeping Savard or pretty much anyone in the Bruins’ organization, or getting Chara’s signature on a long-term extension, the big man wins in the negotiating room the way he always prevails in the corners of the rink.

No one wants to deal with the distractions that playing with a lame-duck captain could bring, nor would anyone sleep well if Chara hit the open market next summer. Could you imagine if Lidstrom retired and Detroit was shopping for his replacement? And there could be another handful of teams willing to take on an $8 or $9 million cap hit to suit up one of the best three or four blueliners in the league.

Chiarelli has shown a willingness to be proactive with his own free agents over the last 15 months. Now he has to exercise that muscle earlier than ever before, for the good of the team, his job and the franchise.