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The Bear Cave


July 2, 2009 8:35 AM

Busy B's Sign Three on First Day of Free Agency

So much for the first day of free agency being a somewhat quiet one around the National Hockey League. The free agent market has been open for less than 24 hours, and 35 players have already found new places to play for the 2009-10 season. 16 other players enjoyed their previous stays enough to remain there for at least one more year. The highlight of the day came from Marian Hossa, who needed just two hours to secure a contract that will make him a member of the Chicago Blackhawks for the next 12 seasons. Mattias Ohlund was the biggest defensive signing, locking on with the Tampa Bay Lightning for seven years and $26.25 million. In goal, Nikolai Khabibulin will continue his tour around the NHL in Edmonton, after signing a $15 million contract for four years with the Oilers. The forwards served as the focal point of day one, as eight frontliners will make at least $25 million from now until their contracts expire.

According to most experts around Boston, Wednesday was supposed to be a quiet day for the Bruins. There were plenty of reasons to believe that would be the case, as Boston is one of the teams closest to the salary cap. Although the Bruins didn't land any major contracts, they were active in the market, signing one, re-signing two, and losing two to other clubs. The two players that re-signed were Byron Bitz and Johnny Boychuk. Boston's lone acquisition was former Canadien Steve Begin, who was brought in from Dallas. Steve Montador and Martin St. Pierre have both played in their final games with the Black and Gold, as Montador signed on with Buffalo and St. Pierre went to Ottawa.

To recap Boston's day, we begin with the names that the fans have been growing accustomed to over the past year or two. Forward Byron Bitz signed a multi-year extension with the team. Terms of the deal are currently unknown, but multiple years means that Bitz will be with the Bruins through at least the 2010-11 campaign. The 24-year old was taken by Boston in the fourth round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, prior to a four-year career at Cornell University. In 2007-08, Bitz entered the professional scene, putting up 13 goals, 14 assists, and 27 points in 61 games with the Providence Bruins. Bitz began this past season back in Providence, before earning his first shot in the NHL. In 35 games with Boston, the Saskatoon, SASK native recorded four goals and three assists, while providing a plethora of energy from either the third or fourth line. By signing Bitz, the Bruins made good use of their system, saved on cost, and brought back a player who could reach double digits in goals, while dishing out plenty of punishing hits.

The Bruins' other returning player is defenseman Johnny Boychuk. Fans in Boston only got to see Boychuk for a December game in Tampa Bay, but fans in Providence are certainly pumping their collective fists in approval of this deal. The one aspect known about Boychuk's contract is that it is a one-year deal. The financial aspects and terms are still unknown at this point. The 25-year old was picked 61st overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2002. After two seasons in the WHL, Boychuk spent the next four years in the Colorado system, shifting with the AHL affiliates through Hershey, Lowell, Albany, and Lake Erie. Last season, Boston brought the Edmonton native in with the hopes that he would have a positive impact on the Baby B's. Boychuk did just that, earning the Eddie Shore Award as the top blueliner in the AHL. In 78 games with Providence, "Slap Shot" had 20 goals, 45 assists, and 65 points. With those numbers on his resume, Boychuk should have a legitimate shot at making the big club in 2009-10. If not, things could get sticky for the Bruins, as he would need to clear waivers in order to get to Rhode Island. 20 goals might be stretching it at the beginning, but signing Boychuk will give Boston another strong two-way defenseman once he reaches the NHL on a full-time basis.

The newest member of the Bruins is a fairly interesting one. For the second summer in a row, Peter Chiarelli began the free agency period by signing a former rival. Last July 1st, Michael Ryder came to Boston after four seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. This season, Steve Begin makes the transition after parts of five seasons with Montreal's big club. That being said, Begin has two aspects to make the transition easier. First, he spent the final 20 games of last year with the Dallas Stars, meaning the shift isn't a direct one. Second, he played under Claude Julien in Montreal, and really seems to enjoy having Julien as his coach. Begin is a veteran center, who has played in 409 career games. With 47 goals, 39 assists, and 86 points in that time, it is clear that offense isn't his best attribute. The native of Trois-Rivieres, QC will most likely be depended on as a checking line center that will win face-offs and make life miserable for top players on opposing teams. Fans in Boston should remember Begin for that reason, as he crunched Marc Savard with a hard cross check two seasons ago. However, the past is the past, and the 31-year old is now on the right side of the rivalry. The unfortunate part of this deal is that it likely means the end of the road for Stephane Yelle on Causeway Street. According to TSN, Begin signed a one-year deal worth $850,000.

Unfortunately, there was some tough news on Wednesday, as two players have moved on to other teams. While it is certain that the Bruins and their fans will wish these two the best, it is rather challenging to see that both athletes stayed within the Northeast Division. The first player to change addresses away from Boston was defenseman Steve Montador, who signed a two-year deal worth $3.1 million with the Buffalo Sabres. Montador is a veteran of 368 regular season games, but only 13 of those came with the Bruins. The 29-year old was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks at the trade deadline for forward Petteri Nokelainen. In that time, Montador had one assist and 18 penalty minutes, before registering one goal, two assists, and 18 penalty minutes in 11 playoff games. Boston loses a physical and versatile blueliner in Montador, but this will likely open the door for Boychuk at the NHL level.

The other player that is now a former Bruin is forward Martin St. Pierre who signed a one-year contract with the Ottawa Senators. St. Pierre saw some time in the NHL last season, scoring two goals and two assists in 14 games with Boston. However, the majority of his season was spent in Providence, where he led the P-Bruins with 15 goals, 51 assists, and 66 points in 61 games. St. Pierre's success translated into the playoffs as well, as he led the squad then with 16 points in 16 contests. Boston originally acquired the 25-year old last summer, in a trade that sent Pascal Pelletier to the Chicago Blackhawks. Realistically, St. Pierre would have been a tough player for the Bruins to sign, as he was an unrestricted free agent that starred in the AHL, while putting together eight points and 35 games of experience at the NHL level. Luckily, Boston does have young depth at center in Brad Marchand and Zach Hamill, which should hopefully help to take the sting away from losing St. Pierre to the Senators.

All in all, the Boston Bruins have to be feeling good after one day of the free agent period. Steve Montador and Martin St. Pierre have moved on, but Steve Begin, Byron Bitz, and Johnny Boychuk are all signed and ready for strong campaigns in 2009-10. Another win for Boston comes from the fact that Phil Kessel, PJ Axelsson, Mark Recchi, and Stephane Yelle are all still in play on the market.

Looking ahead to Thursday, there should be a drop in the number of players signed on day two. Last summer, 22 players got new contracts on the second day, after 47 on July 1st. 12 of the 22 signed in new locations. After 51 players were taken off of the market on Wednesday, I will predict that 23 will make the headlines on Thursday.

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