For what seems like the millionth summer in a row — but I’m sure it’s more like the seventh or eighth, which is still an eternity in the NHL — the Boston Bruins are facing a cap crunch. We don’t yet know what the league’s ceiling is going to come to, but a reasonable assumption is that it’s going to go up about $1-2 million at most. Let’s be generous and say it hits $71 million, which is the outside estimate Gary Bettman keeps giving.
Read on past the jump and I’ll break down what the issue is, and how the Bruins can deal with it.
1. The Bruins have a problem
A cap of $71 million gives the Bruins about $6.9 million to spend this summer, but that’s a little more than $64.1 million devoted to just 16 players. They’ve already told Carl Soderbergh they’re letting him walk, and Gregory Campbell and Dan Paille will be replaced internally with kids as well. They still need to re-sign RFA forwards Bretty Connolly and Ryan Spooner. But for the most part, they’ve got the up-front thing figured out and can patch whatever holes they have there cheaply enough.
They’re probably just going to use someone cheap from the farm (Malcolm Subban would be the wise assumption) as the backup to Tuukka Rask.
The back end is the big problem. Zdeno Chara is going to be 38 for the majority of next season, Dennis Seidenberg is 33 and awful, Torey Krug can only be used in selective situations, and Kevan Miller is a borderline No. 6/7 defenseman.
They face decisions to be made on middle-of-the-lineup D Adam McQuaid and Matt Bartkowski, both UFAs, and they can likewise probably be replaced at relatively low cost.
The big question, then, is what happens to Chara’s heir apparent, Dougie Hamilton?
2. Understanding the situation
Let’s say that, conservatively, Connolly, Spooner, and Subban cost the team a combined $3.2 million against the cap (Subban is locked in at $0.863 million, so I’m guessing that Spooner and Connolly carry a combined cost of about $2.3-2.4 million, but again, that’s conservative). That bumps the Bruins up to $67.3 million or so, meaning they have — at most — a little less than $3.7 million to spend on three defensemen.
This is a suboptimal situation, obviously, because even if you get McQuaid and Bartkowski (or their replacements) to take similar cap hits to what they carried last season, that’s another $2.7 million torched and only about $1 million left for Hamilton. It seems likely to me that the Bruins replace at least one of those two guys internally with Joe Morrow — and perhaps Zach Trotman — and if both those guys get slotted in instead, it’s a combined cost of about $1.5 million. That’s much more palatable, as long as you accept that the Bruins defense will be pretty inexperienced/bad, and allows for up to $2.2 million for Hamilton.
Again, this assumes no trades are made to free the Bruins from cap jail, which probably won’t be the case. Who they trade, of course, is up for debate, but if they can free up a few million bucks, they’ll breathe a lot more easily.
But as it stands in that scenario, the defense looks like this:
Z. Chara (38 y/o, $6.92m) – D. Hamilton (21 y/o, ???)
D. Seidenberg (33 y/o, $4m) – T. Krug (24 y/o, $3.4m)
J. Morrow (22 y/o, $0.86m) – K. Miller (27 y/o, $0.8m)
Z. Trotman (24 y/o, $0.63m)
Again, sub-optimal, and what Hamilton gets paid is going to have a huge bearing on the team.
But in an ideal world for the Bruins, Hamilton takes a low-cost bridge deal to “prove it” that he’s worth what he’s actually asking for — reportedly between $6.5 million and $7 million. For me, that looks a lot like a negotiating position, and he might be willing to come down from that — as the Boston media has been howling for the last week, that’s Drew Doughty money — but it’s the approximate neighborhood of where he probably ought to be paid based on his merits.
3. Finding comparables, and evaluating impact
The good news about the state of modern hockey statistical evaluation is that we have a lot of ways to look at the impact a player has on the game, and the ways he compares to others in the sport, even at a similar age.
I ran the numbers for Hamilton using War on Ice’s “Similarity Scores” calculator and the top 10 comparables for what he did as a 21-year-old were:
- Kris Letang (age-23 season)
- Alex Pietrangelo (age-21)
- Kris Letang (age-22)
- Justin Faulk (age-22)
- Kevin Bieksa (age-28)
- PK Subban (age-21)
- Ian White (age-23)
- Alex Pietrangelo (age-23)
- Victor Hedman (age-19)
- Travis Hamonic (age-20)
That’s some high-quality company, all things considered, and almost all those guys ended up cashing in pretty hard at some point in their careers. So that, to some extent, already begins to validate Hamilton’s desire to be paid in the $6.5 million range.
But you can also examine his dCorsi impact, which mostly corrects for a lot of things people (i.e. Boston media fanboys) would argue limits his value. Things like, “Claude Julien’s ultra-defensive system,” and “He plays a lot with Chara and Patrice Bergeron,” both of which are always going to make people look better than they really are. And in terms of dCorsi impact, I compared him to the 10 highest-paid defensemen in the league.
The circle right below Hamilton’s (you can see it poking out from the top left a little bit) is that of Chara himself, who even at age 37 put in another borderline Norris-worthy season. That in and of itself is incredible, but the fact that Hamilton more or less matched and perhaps even improved upon that is incredible as well. He was 20 years old and holding his own against some of the best defensemen in the league.
Is he Drew Doughty yet? No he isn’t, mainly because he doesn’t drive the offense as much. Is that a knock on him? No, mainly because Doughty is arguably the best defenseman in the league. Is he already at least banging really hard on the door to the room labeled “World’s Elite Defensemen?” This indicates that he is.
So too does a little something called “the eye test,” which people who think these stats are BS says is the most important thing in the world. The eye test says Hamilton makes everyone around him better, and that’s backed up by the basic WOWY possession numbers as well:
Look at the numbers for Chara without Hamilton. That’s amazing.
4. Making it work
So the issue is that the Bruins cannot afford to pay him what he’s actually worth, which sounds like a “Bruins” problem more than a “Dougie Hamilton” problem. Him taking a bridge deal would be a major disservice to himself and his future earning potential. Say he takes between $2.5 million and $3 million for the next year or two before he really cashes in. That pushes his earning power back, and also the date on which he comes up for an extension.
If he took an eight-year deal this summer, he hits unrestricted free agency at 29 or 30, meaning he can probably get one more long-term, high-dollar deal out of just about anyone (and likely, he’d still be “worth it” for the majority of that contract). If he waits two more years, he maybe gets a little more — an extra, what, $1.5 million to $2 million per season? — but pushes his UFA status back to 31 or 32. That limits the money he’s likely to get at the back end of the deal, especially in terms of years.
By the time Hamilton is 30, most teams will almost certainly have wised up to the market inefficiencies that currently exist about age and value, and it will be harder for Hamilton to cash in on a deal that pays him until he’s, say, 38.
So the Bruins have to figure out what they’re going to try to force Hamilton to do. With the local media now crowing about a bridge deal, that’s obviously the preferred solution to this problem, but it probably isn’t one that seems tenable. Hamilton would, in short, be a fool to take anything less than $6 million on a max-length deal. And $6 million would be a significant savings versus his actual value within, say, one year of signing this deal, if not before then.
5. A dollar value
The obvious concern for Boston is that Hamilton gets offer-sheeted, because they’re probably not going to be able to match anything that would lure him away without making significant roster changes (and they should trade Lucic anyway). The two teams you hear come up over and over as potential landing spots for Hamilton via offer sheet are Edmonton — Peter Chiarelli of course has first-hand knowledge of Hamilton’s prowess — and Columbus.
If they can sign him for less than $7,305,316 — let’s say $7.3 million — the compensation is a first-, second-, and third-round pick in the next draft. Anything above that level and it’s two firsts. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Colorado hop in the mix either, if they
can re-acquire their second-round pick for next season. Edmonton and
Columbus are both all set there, though even with Hamilton in the fold that looks like it’d probably be a top-10 pick the Oilers are giving up (though one never knows, does one?).
The question for Boston is do they value the player, minus whoever they have to give up to clear the space, over the draft picks and flexibility?
If I’m Don Sweeney I have a checkbook out right this second and sign him for as long as possible at just about any reasonable price point he can name. And I see what I can get for anyone even remotely expendable (Lucic, Smith, Seidenberg, and so on) to free up the room after that. Yeah, that probably makes things a little difficult in terms of getting a decent return, but I’d rather have Hamilton for the better part of a decade than just about anything you could pull for roster castoffs.
It’s not an easy position in which the Bruins find themselves yet again this summer, but this is an easy solution.