Three days until NHL free agency, market already thinning

Sullivan won the '09 Masterton

The biggest NHL free-agent news today involved Joni Pitkanen spurning the open market to stay with Carolina for — what I believe to be a cap-friendly — $4.5 million for three seasons.

To me, a puck-mover like Pitkanen in the prime of his career (he’s only 27) could’ve commanded a lot more. Obviously, he’s happy to be with the Hurricanes and wants them to have some flexibility to improve a team that has missed the playoffs the last two springs.

Pitkanen’s signing comes on the heels of Kevin Bieksa’s decision to remain with Vancouver for $4.6 million over five years. With Christian Ehrhoff and Ed Jovanovski now the biggest names among defensemen seemingly set to reach UFA status, Bruins defenseman Tomas Kaberle’s price has definitely been elevated unless he’s willing to trade a stable home for cash. Boston’s options for a Kaberle replacement have also slimmed.

But with Steven Kampfer and Matt Bartkowski in line to compete for playing time next season, the Bruins might not need a big-name replacement. A guy I would look at is Sami Lepisto, the former Phoenix blueliner who was not tendered a qualifying offer by Columbus. Lepisto is 26 and a solid third-pair puck-mover who made just $800,000 last season. If the Bruins could bring him in — at say a cool million — to compete with Kampfer and Bartkowski, they might be set on their back end.

Brooks Laich’s decision to re-sign with Washington at $4.5 million per season shows he’s comfortable in D.C. It also sets a bar for free-agent forwards not named Brad Richards. If a versatile, tough-nosed 28-year-old like Laich is worth $4.5 million, then a one-dimensional, 31-year-old like Michael Ryder might be worth half or less than that. At any price, the Bruins might have already decided to move on from Ryder.

A guy the Bruins should definitely take a look at is Steve Sullivan, who will not be re-signed by Nashville. He’s a bit long in the tooth at 36 and he was limited to just 44 games last season due to a sports hernia and a MCL injury. But his back and head problems from the past are reportedly no longer an issue. He’s the type of dressing-room guy that could help make up for Mark Recchi’s loss and he could be a huge boost to Boston’s stagnant power play. Obviously he’s going to take a pay cut from his $3.75 million, and maybe he’d be willing to take a Recchi-like bonus-laded deal to join the defending Stanley Cup champs.

It’ll be interesting to see how many worthwhile players are still available on Friday. Regardless of the star power on the open market, it’ll also be intriguing to watch how Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli goes about fine-tuning his Cup champs.

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