Usually beginning on the first day of July, the date was pushed back this year following the lockout shortened season and the league's new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
General Manager Peter Chiarelli and the Bruins' mindset heading into the period was to rebuild their right side. Right wing Nathan Horton had informed the GM that he was opting to not re-sign with the team and would explore the free agent market with his unrestricted free agent status as of today at noon. UFA Jaromir Jagr is likely to not return, though Chiarelli said the team had thought of circling back with the 41-year-old veteran after learning of Horton's decision.
Horton's status pushed the Bruins' GM and his staff to take a different direction than they had anticipated, looking to the free agent and trade markets to reconstruct the right.
"You've got to have alternate plans," Chiarelli had said. "We originally wanted to sign Nathan [Horton] and then we couldn’t. So you have to move quickly."
"So we’ll explore the market [Friday] and we’ll see what is there. We’ll see if we continue our rebuild on our right side."
A significant step in that direction happened prior to free agency, on Thursday, July 4, when Chiarelli announced a seven-player, blockbuster trade with the Dallas Stars that sent Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley (and minor league blueliner Ryan Button) to Dallas.
The Bruins acquired left-shot, two-way mainstay Loui Eriksson, who is slotted to play the right wing with Boston. He finished his seventh Stars season on the top line in that position after Jagr was sent to the Bruins at the trade deadline. The B's also acquired three high-end young players, including 20-year-old Joe Morrow, a projected top-four defenseman with plenty of time to grow, given the B's other young blueliners like Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski; 23-year-old winger Matt Fraser, who has an NHL release and will challenge for a spot on the Boston roster; and 22-year-old Reilly Smith, a "silky smooth type of right winger" with good vision.
It was notably tough for Chiarelli to part ways with two players in Seguin and Peverley, who helped them reach the Stanley Cup Final twice in three years, going all the way in 2011.
"When these guys, Tyler and Rich both, when they’ve gone all this way with you and you’ve had the success, it’s hard, it's a hard decision," Chiarelli said, not long after the trade was official. "They’ve been in the trenches with you. They’ve climbed Mount Everest. They’ve done all these things, all these analogies."
"What you have to understand in this environment right now is the cap goes down $7 million and you have to make some hard choices, hard decisions," he later said on a conference call with media, discussing the trade. "There’s an opportunity to get a very good player, who’s a natural winger [Eriksson], and to get some good prospects and to lower your cap and then maybe to improve in the next market [free agency]."
"These are moves that are predicated on being a successful franchise going forward and making the prudent moves in a timely manner so that you can capitalize the market as it stands."
In addition to bringing in Eriksson and three prospects, the Bruins also acquired cap space and now sit about $9 million ($13 million with Marc Savard placed on long-term injured reserve) below the new, lower salary cap hit of $64,300,000 for 2013-14.
With that space, the Bruins are set to lock up restricted free agent Tuukka Rask ("in short order," according to Chiarelli) and will also look to sign unrestricted free agent, goaltender Anton Khudobin once Rask is re-signed.
But the right side will also be a high priority.
"It's been well-documented, we've got to rebuild our right side so [Eriksson's] the first piece," said Chiarelli. "We are going to have a couple younger guys challenging him. We may go out and get another guy too."
"We’ll go into the market, the free agent market, the trade market, we’ve got some space, we’ve got some players to match that we can still move around - so, I’m not done."
Prior to free agency, I had asked the Bruins' general manager about his overall approach to the period.
"I want to do a thorough sweep of those guys. With Nathan [Horton] gone, we got to look to our right side to see and assess how we are going to reconstruct the right side. We've got some players from within that may be able to fill. I want to do a sweep of these players that will be available in trades and free agency. I’d like to think that we’re a destination for an older player - older, relatively speaking - that wants a chance to win. So I've got to canvas that. It’s about turning over all the stones and seeing—going through the free agent list player by player."
"You make calls and you might and you gauge how the market’s going. You act when you think you have to act. I’m going into it with the approach that we are going to be diligent in talking to these guys and seeing what the trade opportunities are also."
Interview, Buyout Periods Over; Free Agency Begins
While the official free agent signing period started today at noon, teams were actually allowed to make verbal agreements to players on Wednesday and Thursday (July 3 and 4) with a new interview period for general managers introduced under the new CBA.
Teams have also been allowed two compliance buyouts in the next two seasons, during specific windows of availability, as spelled out by the CBA. The first window was open on June 26 and closed yesterday, July 4, at 5:00 p.m. The Bruins did not exercise that option.
Chiarelli said he had reached out to agents on Wednesday and Thursday, had already spoken a couple of players and continued to do that up until free agency opening today.
"You’ve got an extensive book on these guys, you’ve got an extensive network that you can tap in to to find out more about them," Chiarelli said of the free agents available. "I’m confident in group that we have that network of both fronts in pace, so I like to have a chat with these guys and then you can hear it from them and their agents to really see where their interest lies in your team."
"They can hear it from us to where they fit in their team. So, it’s a good sorting out period. These guys are so well-informed and educated as to teams, cap structures, as far as the cities and where they are going to be living - so I think its about the fit that they want to hear so in that sense I think it’s a good period to have."
The interview and buyout periods are over, and free agency under way, but the Bruins are still keeping all options and alternatives open, especially for that right side.
They could look within, at players in Providence like Jordan Caron and Jared Knight, and Chiarelli also noted the flexibility he will have when it comes to waivers (see: Kaspars Daugavins), and trade possibilities.
No matter who the Bruins bring in, by whichever route, the GM is confident they'll be able to rebuild and find players to fit into their contending team.
"I’d like to think that we can be creative in filling these holes. We've got a real good core. We plan to contend for a Cup again," he said. "I think we would attract some pretty good players too so, it takes two sides to be creative. That’s something that we’d be looking at also."
On Tuesday, when Patrice Bergeron addressed media for his season-ending availability, he had the same trust.
"It's a first probably the first time in five years that there’s going to be some changes like that. But it's the business we’re in," said the alternate captain. "It’s the salary cap world, especially this year. It's a lot different, especially with the salary cap going down. You don't want it, but it was something that had to happen."
"It’s unfortunate because you want to keep all these guys," said Bergeron. "But at the same time, you have to definitely trust Peter. He’s done a great job over the years, and I’m sure he’s going to do the same thing again."