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The Bear Cave


June 29, 2009 9:29 AM

Kessel is Bruins' Main Focus in Free Agency

Time is beginning to tick away, as the free agency period is set to begin on Wednesday. Since the season ended, the Boston Bruins have taken care of business with one free agent, locking up David Krejci for three more years. Although the market opens on July 1st, it is not necessary for the Bruins to get all of their deals done prior to that date.

The name on the tips of all tongues around New England is Phil Kessel. After scoring 36 goals and 60 points in 70 regular season games, Kessel is Boston's biggest free agent this summer. The 21-year old will be looking for quite the raise, as he made just $850,000 this past season. Most experts believe that he will receive a contract in a similar ballpark to the three years and $11.25 million that David Krejci was given. Heading into the free agency period, the Bruins have two aspects in their favor regarding Kessel. First, there are larger names on the market, with players such as Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik available. Second, Kessel is a restricted free agent, meaning Boston has the opportunity to match any offer. However, that can be dangerous, as teams with extra cap space can offer him more money.

The second name on Boston's list should be forward PJ Axelsson. Axelsson is set to become an unrestricted free agent on the first of July, meaning that he would be able to sign with any team that pitches him an offer. One of the biggest knocks on Axelsson is that the fans feel like he doesn't score enough. That fact is true, as the Swedish forward only lit the lamp six times this season, with three of those tallies finding an empty net. However, the reason to keep Axelsson is because of his ability in the defensive zone. The 34-year old is one of the best defensive forwards in the league, and has been a key to the Bruins' penalty kill since being paired with Brian Rolston prior to the lockout. Axelsson made $1.85 million last year, and will likely be looking in a similar range this summer.

Staying with the topic of penalty killing, the third player on the list is Stephane Yelle. Although he was only able to register 18 points on seven goals and 11 assists, Yelle was one of Boston's best bargains last summer. The Bruins signed the veteran center for a mere $750,000. Yelle's abilities to win face-offs and play defensive hockey were his best aspects on the ice, while his leadership and two Stanley Cups added to the environment in the locker room. It is highly unlikely that the 35-year old will keep his contract at the same mark. However, he should be an affordable piece to keep as part of the puzzle.

The next player will make for tough decisions in Boston, as Mark Recchi will be an unrestricted free agent. The Bruins acquired Recchi at the trade deadline, and the forward had an immediate impact. In 18 regular season games, he had ten goals and six assists for 16 points. Recchi followed that up with three goals and three assists during the playoffs. Looking at his contract, the 41-year old made $1.25 million last season, which should still fit in the budget. That being said, there are two questions surrounding the veteran. How many years does he have left, and what type of offers will he receive elsewhere?

Finishing the list of forwards, Byron Bitz is a restricted free agent after his first season in the NHL. Bitz scored four goals and three assists in 35 games, while typically serving as an energy player on the team's fourth line. The 24-year old was under contract for $675,000, and should be in a similar ballpark again this summer. In all likelihood, Bitz will be back wearing black and gold, as the Bruins continue to do well with their younger players.

Moving onto the blueline, the Bruins have three players on pace to hit the free agent market. Matt Hunwick is a restricted free agent, while Steve Montador and Shane Hnidy are both in the unrestricted category. All three defensemen made under $1 million this past season, with Montador making $800,000, Hnidy at $760,000, and Hunwick bringing in $775,000. At 24 years old, Hunwick is expected to be back, as he is one of Boston's building blocks for the future. It is highly unlikely that Montador and Hnidy will both return to the Bruins, but there is a good chance that one will.

Unless something drastic happens, goaltending is the easiest position of them all. Tim Thomas is under contract through the 2012-13 season, Tuukka Rask is ready to become a regular at the NHL level, and Manny Fernandez is an unrestricted free agent. At $4.75 million, there is no way that Boston will re-sign Fernandez, meaning that the crease will belong to Thomas and Rask.

Down on the farm in Providence, there are eight players that are set to become free agents. Jeremy Reich and Johnny Boychuk are the lone unrestricted free agents in the group, while Martin St. Pierre, Wacey Rabbit, Ned Lukacevic, Kevin Regan, Ryan Stokes and Carl Soderberg are all restricted.

As a veteran with 99 games of NHL experience under his belt, Reich could be tempted to look for an offer that will guarantee him time with an NHL club, rather than another full season in the minors. After being named the top defenseman in the AHL, Boychuk will be looking for a similar contract, as he is certainly deserving of a recall. Although he is restricted, St. Pierre is in a similar boat to Boychuk, as he led the P-Bruins with 66 points. Assuming Regan is given the starting job in Providence, he should be a lock to return to the organization. Lukacevic played in a career-high 52 AHL games this past season, which could lead to a return with the Bruins, while Boston is the only organization that Rabbit has ever known. Stokes might bolt after only 20 regular season games, while Soderberg has been anybody's guess since the Bruins acquired him for Hannu Toivonen in July of 2007.

Listed below are the statuses all of the players who were under contract with the Boston Bruins at the end of the 2008-09 season.

FORWARDS:
PJ Axelsson- unrestricted free agent
Patrice Bergeron- signed through 10-11
Byron Bitz- restricted free agent
Zach Hamill- signed through 10-11
Phil Kessel- restricted free agent
Jordan Knackstedt- signed through 10-11
Chuck Kobasew- signed through 10-11
David Krejci- signed through 11-12
Mikko Lehtonen- signed through 09-10
Jeff LoVecchio- signed through 09-10
Milan Lucic- signed through 09-10
Ned Lukacevic- restricted free agent
Brad Marchand- signed through 10-11
Matt Marquardt- signed through 10-11
Levi Nelson- signed through 10-11
Wacey Rabbit- restricted free agent
Mark Recchi- unrestricted free agent
Jeremy Reich- unrestricted free agent
Yannick Riendeau- signed through 10-11
Michael Ryder- signed through 10-11
Marc Savard- signed through 09-10
Peter Schaefer- signed through 09-10
Vladimir Sobotka- signed through 09-10
Carl Soderberg- restricted free agent
Martin St. Pierre- restricted free agent
Marco Sturm- signed through 10-11
Shawn Thornton- signed through 09-10
Blake Wheeler- signed through 09-10
Stephane Yelle- unrestricted free agent

DEFENSEMEN:
Andrew Bodnarchuk- signed through 09-10
Johnny Boychuk- unrestricted free agent
Zdeno Chara- signed through 10-11
Andrew Ference- signed through 09-10
Shane Hnidy- unrestricted free agent
Matt Hunwick- restricted free agent
Adam McQuaid- signed through 09-10
Steve Montador- unrestricted free agent
Jeff Penner- signed through 10-11
Ryan Stokes- restricted free agent
Mark Stuart- signed through 09-10
Aaron Ward- signed through 09-10
Dennis Wideman- signed through 11-12

GOALIES:
Adam Courchaine- signed through 10-11
Manny Fernandez- unrestricted free agent
Tuukka Rask- signed through 09-10
Kevin Regan- restricted free agent
Tim Thomas- signed through 12-13

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