Ference/By S. Bradley

Well, no one can accuse my readers of sitting back and ignoring the Bruins, even in the dog days of July.

I put out the call for mailbag questions and received enough to fill two entire posts – or even more. Most of you want to know about Blake Wheeler, Michael Ryder, Tuukka Rask, Tim Thomas and Marc Savard. Even in the middle of summer, these topics are hot. So without further ado, here’s Part I of my mailbag.

Jonathan S. writes:

I don’t understand why Chiarelli constantly wastes valuable cap space on mediocre players (Ference, Thornton, Thomas etc.). The Ference contract is beyond bad. Not only is the guy always hurt, he is not a good player yet he gets a raise plus a 3-year extension. Mind boggling. Where is the cap management?

MK: Jonathan, I would disagree about lumping Thornton and Thomas in with Ference. When Thomas signed, he was on his way to the Vezina and still had a solid season last year. Thornton is a perfect fourth-line player and enforcer, and he makes less than a million dollars.

By the same point, the Ference deal boggles my mind as much as it does yours. Even if the Bruins value him as a top-four defenseman and believe that he’ll be healthier the next few years, to jump the gun and sign him to a deal that rich for that long without seeing how the offseason market would play out was maybe Chiarelli’s most bizarre and unexplainable act. At least you could make an argument that the Thomas deal made sense because of the way he was playing and the questions about Rask’s ability to play in the NHL. Ference has had stretches where he has been Boston’s best defenseman. But he was a guy I thought they could bring back on the cheap, or even on a tryout, based on the fact he was going to get surgery this summer.

Your questions about the Bruins’ cap management abilities are valid. While there are a few other teams in similar situations, Boston seems to be in deeper because while Philadelphia can go and move a Simon Gagne, Boston doesn’t seem to be able to move any of its bad deals because those contracts, and the players, are that bad.

Keith writes:
Who in your mind is more important to sign to a long-term deal before the end of next year, Bergeron or Chara? I say Bergeron due to his age and three-zone play. I would like to see Chara back at a cap hit of around 5 million. I am sure Bergeron will command a raise and years. With him at such a young age, it seems like it would have to be something in the 10+ years to make it a cap friendly deal.

MK: The way the Bruins are currently built – with Savard, Seguin and Krejci in the fold – Chara is the more important re-signing to me. Some of my readers give Chara a bad rap, but they fail to think what the Bruins would look like without one of the league’s best defensemen back there to clean up others’ mistakes and shut down some of the top snipers in the league. You can knock his offensive production this season, but considering his busted finger and everyone else’s struggles, you have to look more at what Chara does with his defensive skills and with his intimidation.

Throwing out the fact that his conditioning level probably would allow for him to play five or six more years at a high level, for at least the next three years, he’ll be one of the top five blueliners in the league. The Bruins cannot afford to let him to play those years in another uniform. They haven’t drafted anything resembling a future backline star, and with most of the league’s top young stars signed to long-term deals with their current teams, it’ll be impossible to add another No. 1 defensemen, let alone someone to replace everything Chara provides.

As for Bergeron, he’s a great two-way center who probably has more offensive abilities than he has shown the last two years. All indications are the Bruins want to re-sign him as much as Chara. But when you add Campbell, Colborne and Hamill into the mix of centers, obviously Bergeron would be the easier of the two players to replace – although I wouldn’t want to be Chiarelli if he has to try to do that.

Matt writes:
I find it strange that there has been so much talk about trading Savard these past few weeks. He is a gifted player who can help this team. I read somewhere that he is not well liked in the locker room. Is this true? Is that the reason there wasn’t the expected “fire” from the team when he was hit by Cooke? If Bergeron was hit that way by Cooke do you think there would have been a different response?

MK: While I would never profess to be able to get in the minds of Savard’s teammates, as far as I can tell he’s one of the guys. He might rub some the wrong way with his odd quirks about his sticks and his checking of the stats, but he’s also a light-hearted character that can joke around with everyone. In any dressing room, there are going to be guys that don’t get along. But there are plenty of guys that sing Savard’s praises.

Those drawing connections between the reaction to the Cooke-Savard incident and some dislike of Savard among the Bruins are really stretching. That response was due to other psychological problems the Bruins were suffering from, the least of which was animosity toward Savard. The only reason Savard is on the trading block is he has value and the Bruins need cap space.

Dan writes:
Obviously the Bruins would like to trade Ryder, and probably Tim Thomas as well, but since there seems to not be any takers, could they offer a pick along with one of those players to entice a rebuilding team to take these guys? I know picks are valuable, but I feel strongly that the Bruins are very close to being a true contender, and with 2 firsts and 2 second-rounders in the 2011 draft, perhaps the B’s could part with one or two to get the salary relief they so badly need.

MK: Dan, sweetening a deal with a draft pick is definitely a possibility. But I think Chiarelli values those picks too much to do that. If he can get ownership’s permission to bury Ryder in the minors this season – if Ryder doesn’t look like he’s going to turn things around – he can solve his cap problems without executing a salary-dump deal. Thomas coming back wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, especially if Julien gives him enough playing time to raise his stock for a potential midseason trade.

Thomas/By S. Bradley

Black Eye writes:
Let’s say that Tim Thomas is on the Boston roster at the start of the 2010-11 season. That seems highly likely. If that comes to pass, will either Thomas or Rask accept a backup role in the good sport fashion we’ve seen from them in the past? Or will the team try to balance the workload so as to keep both relatively happy and increase Thomas’ trade value? It seems like an unfortunate situation — albeit the kind of problem you like to have, I guess. I just wonder how long both guys can keep egos and professional ambitions in check if this isn’t resolved.

MK: We all know that there are few better people in the Bruins’ locker room that Thomas. His competitive nature will force him to battle for playing time, but I can’t imagine him ever doing anything to sabotage Rask or the team. That being said, there’s no doubt that if both players are in black and gold Julien will try to balance things out for the first two months the same way he did last year, the same way he did with Fernandez two years ago. If both players play their best, Boston could have the best one-two punch in the league and Thomas’ value could go through the roof. If the Bruins can’t make a move, then they’ll have two solid fresh goaltenders come the stretch run. Rask is definitely going to be a great goaltender for a long time, but there’s no guarantee he won’t have some hiccups in his second full NHL season.

Digger writes:
What’s it going to be? Tuukka has a Vezina-worthy year? Tuukka does okay but has to lean on Thomas as a back-up? Tuukka keeps letting in the frequent softy and he and Thomas split the season? Tuukka has a sophomore/Raycroft slump and Thomas takes the No. 1 job?

MK: Ah, I love the crystal ball question. First off, don’t ever say Rask and Raycroft in the same sentence. Many goaltending experts saw the holes in Raycroft’s game long before he fell off the cliff. And his inability to get playing time during the lockout really sidetracked him.

Do I expect Rask to win the Vezina? No. But I expect him to duplicate last season’s performance over the course of the season. I also expect him to get more playing time regardless if Thomas is here or not, and that could open the door for a few more poor games or maybe a few spectacular performances that put him in the Vezina discussion. The Bruins obviously want to see how Rask responds now that he’s a known quantity, and that’s why they haven’t jumped at just any deal to get Thomas’ $5 million off the books. We shall see if Rask can live up to the hype this fall.

Keith writes:
In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a number of young goaltenders suffer from “Andrew Raycroft syndrome” — namely tanking after a successful rookie season. While I would imagine that the specific reasons vary from case to case, I was wondering if you had any general thoughts on the causes of this syndrome and which of next year’s crop of sophomore puck stoppers are most likely to come down with a case of the “Raycrofts.”

MK: I thought this was going to be another Raycroft-Rask comparison question, but I guess you’re looking at the league in general. When it comes to Rask and Howard in Detroit – really the only two netminders that could fit this category – I don’t see either being anything less than a standout No. 1 for years to come. Like Rask, Howard was developed in the Red Wings organization for a few years until he was ready and he did a great job when finally given a chance. Playing in a star-studded lineup with some of the best defensive players in the league in front of him, Howard should be ensconced in Detroit’s crease.

The reasons for Raycroft’s decline were as much about the lockout and his mental makeup as they were about his abilities. Rask is in a different class than Raycroft, Blaine Lacher, Hannu Toivonen or any of the Bruins goaltenders of the past that probably still give you nightmares. So you can breathe a sigh of relief now.

Read Part II.

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