Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli and the rest of the Boston front office are surely be training their concentration and focus on the annual NHL Entry Draft this weekend in Montreal — and some of the misdirection and conflicting smoke signals consistent with the process have already begun.
But amid the usual subterfuge, however, the B’s brain trust will also be dealing with real big club issues like the ongoing negotiations with restricted free agent goal-scoring winger Phil Kessel. Both Chiarelli and Kessel’s agent, Wade Arnott, are expected to be in Montreal on Wednesday, and plan to continue discussions on the 21-year-old superstar’s future in Boston.
The B’s made a qualifying offer to Kessel this week — a perfunctory move by Chiarelli to keep Kessel a restricted free agent (RFA) if the July 1 free agency period comes and goes without any movement on a contract. An RFA must receive a “qualifying offer” from his team, or he becomes unrestricted, and the qualifying offer will be 100 percent of last season’s salary for players making under $800,000, and 75 percent of last season’s salary for those making over $800,000.
According to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, a restricted free agent can accept an offer sheet from other teams. But the RFA’s old team can match the offer or receive compensation, as in the previous free agent system. If both sides can’t come to an agreement prior to training camp and no offer sheets are received, a restricted free agent must sign a contract within 14 days of the opening of training camp, or be ineligible to play that season. This is designed to prevent lengthy holdouts in contract disputes.
Arnott didn’t voice much in the way of surprise that a deal has yet to be reached with his speedy young superstar. Kessel’s agent felt like there might be some progress made in his client’s situation over the next few days with all the key players in the same place.
“We’ve had discussions at this point with Peter, but nothing to report actually,” said Arnott of negotiations that have been ongoing for the last few weeks. “I’m not surprised. We know July 1 is coming, but we’re all going to see each other starting (Wednesday) for draft weekend. July 1 will be right around the corner as well, but I’m not surprised (that there’s no contract).”
There’s been wild speculation that Kessel will be traded before July 1, and that his name has been tossed around in several potential deals that could both, 1) allow the Bruins to move way up in the draft and net one of the top four close-to-NHL-ready talents among the eligible group of amateur players, and, 2) fortify a need amid a less-than-ideal situation at the defenseman position.
Chiarelli said in general that — given salary cap considerations and particular player situations — there have been plenty of eye-opening names available on the NHL trade market this summer. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that deals will be pulled off throughout the weekend.
“Based on what I’m hearing in general conversations I’ve been having, there seems to be more significant players out there,” said Chiarelli. “So activity prior to the actual trade has actually increased.
“I don’t know that there’ll be any more trades than we’ve seen in the past, but I get the sense that there’s more activity, conversations and discussions. I would assume that — I know that — the other managers are thinking conservative like myself. Before you take on something (in trade) you really have to think twice about it. There is increased activity, but I don’t know if that translates into trades.”
There’s also a school of thought among some the extended negotiations and trade rumors are a tool being used by the Bruins to speed up the maturation of a sometimes immature young player in Kessel. Think something similar to the technique being employed by the Celtics with Rajon Rondo and trade rumors this summer — a development that might help a younger, immature individual snap into that next phase of maturation as a player.
There have been times in his first three years in Boston where the 21-year-old hasn’t always been on the same page with Boston’s coaching staff, and there’s a continued feeling Kessel is only just scratching the surface in terms of what he can do with his speed and shot.
Arnott wouldn’t confirm or deny any of the trade speculation, but instead deferred all potential thoughts about a Kessel trade to the one man that would potentially pull the trigger on a trade that could send the young superstar out of Boston.
“You know what? It’s a good question. I can’t comment on that,” said Arnott. “That is something for Peter to answer for you. I suggest you ask him that question.”
During a recent conference call to discuss the NHL draft, Chiarelli, of course, wouldn’t comment on anything involving the ongoing negotiations with Kessel.
In general, Arnott gets the sense that there’s going to be plenty of wheeling and dealing on the floor of the Bell Centre this weekend and there’s optimism that the two sides can bridge some gaps to hammering out a deal.
“The sense, the sense we get is that there’s more discussions and obviously publicly you see that there are more player issues around the league at the NHL level. You combine that with the draft, and there might be an opportunity (for trades and signings),” said Arnott. “Obviously with the economics and the times that we’re in, you add all of that up and there’s definitely a great opportunity for movement.”
While visiting a local school for a Bruins-related community event last week, Kessel himself denied that his side has made any demands of $5 million a year for a contract. But it’s clear his elite credentials combined with his on-ice skills and production set put him in the $4 million a year NHL neighborhood of fellow young superstars like Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin.
There’s been further speculation that Bruins management is set against giving Kessel more money than the $3.75 million per year that’s already been awarded to fellow restricted free agent David Krejci. It appears that — given Boston’s salary cap outlook over the next few seasons — there’s a required level of creativity and outside-the-box thinking in the contract negotiations, and perhaps talks have even involved a one-year deal for Kessel in the 2009-10 season.
A repeat of anything close to last year’s 36-goal season would then further cement his resume for a long-term contract and give him the arbitration rights that he doesn’t currently hold headed into this summer’s negotiations. One thing remains the same, however: Kessel has told his representation that he doesn’t want to go anywhere else but Boston for next season and beyond.
“Phil is the player and he wants to stay in Boston,” said Arnott. “Phil is open-minded (with regard to contract talks) and his first priority is still to remain with the Bruins.”