Anderson: Now is not time for Bruins to cheap out on paying for future

Ty Anderson
September 12, 2017 - 6:32 pm

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

The Bruins are paying over $2.73 million for Jimmy Hayes and Dennis Seidenberg to not play for them this upcoming season. Those buyouts were last resort options, as the Bruins tried to find trade partners for each. The Bruins also have $9.8 million committed to two older, lumbering forwards that combined for just 20 goals and 46 points a year ago in David Backes and Matt Beleskey. And if those two do not turn it around, you’re looking at two more immovable contracts and potential future buyout candidates.

They’re doing all of that -- for a cool $12.53 million of their $75 million salary cap, mind you -- while also finding it difficult to stomach the idea of paying a 21-year-old that scored 34 goals and 70 points last year anything more than $6 million a season.

We are all indeed living in Bizarro World. Or just hangin’ out on Causeway.

By now, the details of another classic Boston Standoff between Bruins general manager Don Sweeney and NHL superagent J.P. Barry (the same agent who represented Dougie Hamilton and Loui Eriksson in two failed Boston negotiations) are well known: The Bruins have come in with lowball offers that have typically maxed out around $6 million per season, while Barry has the idea that Leon Draisaitl’s eight-year, $68 million contract is a comparable for his client. The Bruins, believing that they have all the leverage as it’s basically Boston or Not-In-The-NHL for Pastrnak in 2017-18, have refused to budge, with team president Cam Neely saying that the team will not negotiate against themselves. This has left the Pastrnak camp to play the KHL leverage game.

And for a franchise that’s become defined by their recent mistakes and regrets, the Bruins are playing one odd game of hardball with a talent they’ve rarely possessed.

By now, it should be clear that Pastrnak is a legitimate, budding star that provides a game no other Bruin -- in Boston, Providence, or in some random junior or NCAA city -- comes even close to bringing to the organization’s table. He’s an electrifying scorer that can change the dynamic of any game with a single shift. He’s the right-side gamebreaker on a club seemingly always short on them (or traded them out of town). He is not a right-side embed that will steal money like Reilly Smith has in two different NHL cities, and this is not somebody you had to waste 70 games on to find out if he could hack it next to Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, a la Brett Connolly.

This is a high-end talent that’s only going to get better.

In the entire, almost century-long history of the Bruins, only two other players have scored 30 goals and 70 points in their Age-20 season: Barry Pederson in 1981-82, and Bergeron in 2005-06. And since 1999, only eight players in all of the NHL have accomplished what Pastrnak did last year. That group includes Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin, Anze Kopitar, and Connor McDavid.

And it’s hard to imagine Pastrnak not being able to duplicate or top his numbers from a season in which he missed seven games because of an elbow issue, undisclosed injury, and suspension. Especially with consistent top line and power-play unit minutes.

Yet, given the diminishing returns of those aforementioned recent investments, it’s somewhat understandable if the B’s are gunshy about another long-term commitment.

But these are the years that you should actually want to invest in.

Over the last six seasons, 81 of 120 total players that have finished their respective season in the NHL’s Top 20 in points were in their Age-21 to Age-28 seasons. That figure bumps up one if you focus on the yearly Top 20 in goals over that span, at 82. The trend is only going up, too, with 14 of last year’s Top 20 scorers in that age group.

It may seem random, too, but these ages are also important in the sense that they would be the years the B’s would lock Pastrnak in for on the eight-year deal each party is seeking, and also because they are typically considered the prime of one’s NHL career. Once you go beyond 28, now more than ever in a speed-based league, you begin to enter dangerous territory where the success and value can fade -- and quickly.

So this is where paying a premium for a player’s prime comes into play for the Bruins, which is not to be mistaken for paying for the exodus of that prime, which has been consistent mistake made by the B’s over the last five years that’s made ‘em this way.

The Bruins made David Krejci their highest-paid player on an extension signed when he was 28. He’s often drawn the ire of fans since then, with a slight dip in overall production and growing health concerns -- Krejci has now had two significant hip surgeries in his career, and was not even close to 100 percent in the B’s reintroduction to playoff hockey last season -- entering the fourth year of that deal. Franchise goaltender Tuukka Rask bet on himself on a one-year deal, carried the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final, and then earned an eight-year mammoth extension, starting at 26, because of it. It’s only now that he’s making $7 million per season that the Bruins realize he can’t be a 65-game goalie, and will only need to further vigilantly manage his workload as he enters his 30s.

This was the Bruins essentially having to pay extra for strong past performances.

Outside the organization, Beleskey cashed in after his Age-26 season in Anaheim, set career-highs in Boston at 27, and then fell off a cliff last year. The B’s hope that a healthier Beleskey returns to what he was in his first season in Boston, and it’s probably more of a seriously dire need than it is a hope. Backes, brought in because he hits hard, yells at people and can hold his teammates accountable, is now 33 years old, and had some nagging health issues a year ago. An at times odd fit in the lineup last year, the Bruins are praying a slimmer, quicker Backes can somehow reverse the aging process.

These are questionable to borderline bad bets.

What’s not a bad bet, however, is gambling on an in-his-prime sniper like No. 88.

Signing Pastrnak to a long-term deal would be the Bruins by all means jumping ahead of paying the $9 million he could and would command after a bridge deal that’d come with his continued success and even more expensive second contracts for future stars (you’re a lunatic if you don’t think fellow young stars like Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Patrik Laine will continue to move the needle on second deals). This is something that the B’s got ahead of with a Tyler Seguin contract extension inked before they decided that his personality was not a fit for what they wanted to do in Boston, and one that’s turned out to be a straight-up bargain in Dallas.

A long-term deal would be the Bruins identifying Pastrnak as an integral part of their core and committing money to that cause is one of the reasons why Bergeron and Marchand took team-friendly contracts in the first place. And at the risk of getting hung up on the ‘it’s just one season’ narrative, keep in mind that the B’s had zero games of Backes before they identified him as a member of their core, and that Pastrnak’s consistent upward trend in his three-year career is that of a potential franchise piece.

You’re supposed pinch pennies around your top players to re-sign players like Pastrnak, and not squeeze them to accommodate future mid-tier talents and fill-in roleplayers.

It’s what the Bruins did this summer, too, opting to sit almost all of the 2017 free agency period out, spending less than a combined $2 million on free agent adds Kenny Agostino and Paul Postma, settling for less with Ryan Spooner, and walking away from all veteran free agents, leaving them with over $10 million to re-sign Pastrnak. It was clear that the Bruins based their offseason inactivity around Pastrnak’s inevitable payday, and it was even alluded to by Sweeney, who mentioned that he’s envision his club beginning the season with less than $3 million in cap space. So, a sudden change of direction on that front would be a shock and straight-up inexcusable.

Now is simply not the time for the Bruins to suddenly cheap out on another elite player, or even squabble to the point where they’re allegedly OK with him missing time. Nor is it time to let their past contracts stop them from investing in a player they’ve longed for.

That time passed this franchise by about $25 million and four departed superstars ago.

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