By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Boston Bruins could absolutely make a John Tavares signing work financially, both short-term and long-term. But it won’t be easy. In fact, it won’t be easy for anyone – and technically, it could be easiest for Boston.
Don Sweeney and the B’s are among five potential suitors for the free-agent center, a list that doesn’t include the team that drafted him, the New York Islanders – who are the only team who can offer him an eight-year deal.
The Isles reportedly have an eight-year, $88 million offer on the table for Tavares, who scored 37 goals and 84 points in 2017-18. Since the start of his career in 2009-10, Tavares ranks ninth in the NHL in scoring. So he’s clearly going to command – and deserve – top-of-the-market money.
Paramount for the Bruins, and Tavares’ other suitors, isn’t whether they can fit him under their salary cap but if they’re willing to do what it takes to make it happen. He’s almost certainly going to become the second-highest-paid player in the NHL behind Connor McDavid’s $12.5 million AAV, so it’s going to take some real maneuvering no matter where he signs.
You could argue that the Bruins would have the easiest task of them all.
What It Means For The Bruins
At the risk of giving you brain-freeze, here’s an all-too-early assessment of what the Bruins would have to do in order to sign Tavares and keep their younger stars intact long-term. In short: you can tell the skeptics that it’s quite possible.
The one big move that would surely be necessary is to trade David Krejci, jettisoning his $7.25 million cap hit and freeing up a top-six center role. If a team is willing to take Krejci’s contract, it’s a no-brainer for the B’s to essentially trade him for Tavares and add roughly $4 million to the cap. That would still leave them with over $7 million in space.
In order to plan for 2019 and beyond, Sweeney would still have more work to do. The remaining $7 million or so in space should be more than enough to extend McAvoy next summer when he becomes a restricted free agent. Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid, and Noel Acciari will all come off the books, creating another $8.475 million.
But assuming Chara comes back on another one-year deal and you swap out Acciari for a similar entry-level contract, that would still only leave the Bruins with around $3-4 million in space to work with. And they still need to sign a backup goalie and identify a top-six-caliber right wing, in addition to a litany of longer-term decisions they’ll need to make.
So in the grand scheme, the Bruins probably also need to unload David Backes. Moving him would create another hole on the right side, but it would also give the B’s significant cap relief to shed his $6 million hit. The Bruins are also potentially going to need that space to re-sign at least one of three other 2019 RFAs in Brandon Carlo, Ryan Donato, and Danton Heinen. But if they can un-burden themselves from Backes’ cap hit, they’d easily get enough room to extend the roster as they see fit.
Trading Tuukka Rask is also an idea for shedding salary. But creating that void in goal would be a much bigger risk than moving on from Krejci and/or Backes, both of whom have reportedly drawn at least some level of interest, and the likely downgrade you’d make arguably wouldn’t be worth the $3-4 million you’d save. Either way, finding trade partners with at least two of the three would resolve the issue with signing Tavares. Krejci and Backes would need to waive their no-movement clauses, but perhaps they agree to move on once the Bruins tell them they’re not in their long-term plans.
It’s not necessarily an easy deal to figure out, but it’s an easy decision to want to make these trades in the first place. It would also make life easier for deciding which other young players they want to keep.
The one big caveat, here, is that Boston would likely be out of the market for an established top-4 defenseman. But you shouldn’t have to be sold on the massive talent that Tavares would bring to the Bruins lineup.
What It Means For The Other Teams
The Bruins aren’t alone. No matter who signs Tavares, that team will have major roster decisions to make, and in many cases be forced to move significant pieces. The case can be made that his other suitors will all have harder choices than the Bruins. Here’s a quick look at the other teams in play, and their cap situations:
Toronto Maple Leafs
Cap Space: $24.6 million
Besides the Islanders ($32.7 million), the Leafs have easily the most space to work with when it comes to courting Tavares. But the cap space is more like a mirage. They need an extension for Auston Matthews, who will be an RFA after next season. He should make, at the very least, the same $10 million AAV that Jack Eichel recently got from the Sabres. Mitchell Marner will also be an RFA in 2019, and he’s not likely to take a discount. William Nylander will become an RFA on July 1. So if the Leafs want to keep all three of those young stars and sign Tavares, they’ll need to shed some serious salary. That could put Patrick Marleau ($6.25 million), Nazem Kadri ($4.5 million), and Nikita Zaitsev ($4 million) on the chopping block, and Jake Gardiner (a UFA next summer) could be gone as well.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Cap Space: $10.5 million
Since Tavares would likely command upwards of $11 million per season, Tampa would be forced to move salary before the start of this coming season. They couldn’t keep the likes of Ondrej Palat ($5.3 million), Tyler Johnson ($5 million), and Alex Killorn ($4.45 million) all on the roster. They’re stuck with Ryan Callahan at $5.8 million over the next two years. It may mean they have to move on from Nikita Kucherov, who will be an RFA next year. Moves can be made, for sure, but of all the GMs in on Tavares, Steve Yzerman has his work cut out for him more than anyone.
San Jose Sharks
Cap Space: $18.8 million
The Sharks could feasibly sign Tavares and be OK for the 2018-19 season, even if they reach a reasonable deal with Joe Thornton. But with both Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture hitting free agency next summer, it’ll be hard for the Sharks to keep either of them. It’s a wonder how much better off they’d ultimately be with that trade-off, and how the roster would look beyond one “all-in” kind of season.
Cap Space: $19.8 million
Dallas could find some easy cap relief if they can find a taker for Alexander Radulov and his $6.25 million cap hit over the next four years. But either way, it’s likely that the Stars would need to choose between Tavares and Tyler Seguin, who’s set to become a UFA after 2018-19 and could really cash in himself. Similar to the situation in San Jose, Dallas’ “big three” of Tavares, Seguin, and Jamie Benn would probably last only one year.
It Can Happen
The whole point of this exercise, essentially, is that the Bruins have no harder of a job than any other team in signing Tavares. They should not be ruled out for cap reasons. Tavares will command the kind of contract that would force any team to make major changes in order to accommodate it. But he’s also the caliber of talent that would make it worthwhile to do so.
Use this as a reason to show the doubters why Tavares in Boston is more plausible than they think. Use this as a reason to believe.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.