When news broke Wednesday that defenseman Andrew Ference and the Bruins had agreed on a three-year extension worth $2.25 million per season (a total of $6.75 million), many were surprised that general manager Peter Chiarelli decided to re-up with the oft-injured 31-year-old blue liner now instead of waiting until the end of the season to evaluate his defense.
With Dennis Seidenberg headed for unrestricted free agency and both Johnny Boychuk and Mark Stuart set to become restricted free agents, the belief was that Ference could fall last on the priority list because of his age and injury history. Also, the possible crop of UFA defensemen next season — which includes future Hall of Famers Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Niedermayer and former Bruin Sergei Gonchar — would be intriguing as well.
But with the Bruins' cap situation and the fact that Chiarelli does still have his own free agents to deal with, the likelihood of him dipping into the free-agent pool and bringing in a new defenseman was unlikely. Now it's all but impossible barring a major trade to unload salary prior to July 1.
Not counting the pending free agents, the Bruins' salary-cap hit for next season is in the ballpark of $45 million and with a $56.8 salary cap that is expected to go down a bit, if Chiarelli locks up his own, there's not much cushion left to bring in outside help.
But Chiarelli apparently values the intangibles — grit and leadership — that Ference brings and didn't want to chance losing those attributes this summer.
"Really, no reasoning behind it. I guess we got ahead of it in trying to be proactive on some of these players and it was we came to an agreement at this time, and that's really the reasoning," Chiarelli said in a teleconference when asked why he didn't wait until the end of the season to renegotiate with Ference.
"Andy has been a real character player for us and he's a stabilizing factor on the defense. He speaks his mind and I respect that greatly. He competes night in and night out, and we really felt it was important to get him in the mix for the next three years. He's a real cog in our defensive unit and he complements everyone well. We're happy to have him signed for the next three years."
Chiarelli also pointed to Ference's adaptability on the ice as another key reason to keep him around.
"He can play in a multitude of different spots, which is why he's attractive," Chiarelli pointed out. "He can play in the top four. He can play on the bottom pair. His game lends itself to different roles. He's versatile. That's why he's attractive."
Chiarelli did acknowledge Ference's injury history and believes the rewards outweigh the risks that come with the rugged rear guard's game. Ference was also apparently given a clean bill of health as far as the future goes.
"He plays a hard game and he does have injuries as a result," Chiarelli said. "But that's part of the package. But he takes very good care of his body and he's an important cog on our defense. I was given an assurance with regards to his groin and core area, and everything is repairable and everything will be fine. We're prepared to take the injuries based on the way he plays. He plays hard and that's what happens when you play hard."
As for what this means regarding the rest of his unsigned defensemen, Chiarelli didn't divulge much except that he likes the way the Bruins defense has played this season and that he believes Seidenberg has fit in well.
"We're always evaluating. And the last two games we've played well defensively and, in fact, the whole year we've played well defensively," Chiarelli said. "We're always evaluating and we brought a new member into the mix in Dennis Seidenberg and he's fit in well. I'm not going to comment right now on what our plans are. There seems to be a good mix there right now and we'll see how it plays out the rest of the year."
In other words, if you're one of those free agents on the Bruins blue line or if your play hasn't been satisfactory, you'd better finish strong. As it currently stands, there doesn't appear to be much cap room for Chiarelli to strengthen other areas of the team.