Bruins Must Find Ways to Sign Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara Beyond 2011 They are the faces of the franchise.

Zdeno Chara has served as the Bruins captain since his first game in Black and Gold in 2006, with Patrice Bergeron stitching an A to his sweater as one of his assistants that same season. Since then, the two veterans have led the club on and off the ice, with Chara solidifying his status as one of the premier defensemen in the NHL and Bergeron overcoming a severe concussion to re-establish himself as one of the league's top two-way forwards.

The two are linked in another way, as well: Both are entering the final years of their current contracts this season. But will this actually be the final season in Boston for either player?

Both Chara and Bergeron have been effusive in their praise for the city and the organization, and Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has made no effort to hide his hopes of re-signing both. In a June radio appearance on WEEI, he stated, "We're going to extend them both."

Earlier this month, Chiarelli reiterated those desires, noting that negotiations have begun.

"We've had talks, recent talks, and we'll continue to have talks," said Chiarelli. "We'll see where things go."

But retaining every player you want isn't always a simple thing in a salary-cap world. As the Bruins are finding out this summer with their current cap crunch, hard choices often have to be made.

That doesn't mean they can't re-sign Chara and Bergeron. It just means this is likely to be a long and complicated process.

Chara will be making $7.5 million this year, the third-highest salary for a defenseman in the league. Only Chicago's Duncan Keith, who succeeded Chara as Norris Trophy winner this past season, and Philadelphia's Chris Pronger make more. Unlike Chara, Keith, 27, and Pronger, 35, are both entering the first year of long-term extensions, and while their salaries ($8 million for Keith, $7.6 million for Pronger) are higher, their cap hits are substantially lower. Keith's salary drops to $1.5 million in his final year for a $5.54 cap hit and Pronger's deal ends with two years at $525,000 to lower his hit to $4.92 million.

Pronger's deal is one of the contracts that the NHL is still investigating for possible cap circumvention. With Ilya Kovalchuk's 17-year contract rejected on those grounds, it likely won't be possible to sign Chara, 33, to a cap-friendly deal similar to Pronger's or the extension Marc Savard signed, which is also being investigated.

The thought of a Bruins defense without Chara logging close to 30 minutes a night is unsettling to say the least. But can the Bruins afford to give Chara a raise or even keep him at his current $7.5 million cap hit without such cap relief, especially with the increased risk of injury or simply a potential decline in play as he hits his mid-30s?

The Bruins should be in better cap shape next year, as Michael Ryder ($4 million), Marco Sturm ($3.5 million), Mark Recchi ($1.95 million, including bonuses) and Mark Stuart ($1.675 million) will all be coming off the books. They'll still have $36.8 million committed to eight forwards, four defensemen and two goalies, leaving a little less than $23 million available for another five forwards and three defensemen, assuming the cap stays close to this year's $59.4 million limit.

The Bruins will likely have less than that to spend though, as they could be facing cap penalties again next year if Tyler Seguin and Co. reach most of their bonuses, which would then be applied to next year's cap. And with the CBA set to expire after the 2011-12 season, there likely won't be a bonus cushion in effect next year, making things even tighter. The Bruins will have restricted free agents Blake Wheeler, Matt Hunwick and Brad Marchand to deal with next summer as well, while also looking ahead to David Krejci and Tuukka Rask needing new deals in 2012.

Bergeron, 25, will be making $5.75 million this year, the 35th-highest salary among forwards, though his cap hit is only $4.75. At his age, he should be just entering his prime, but his concussion history does present some risk. Can the Bruins find a way to keep his cap hit close to his current number, or will he be looking for more after his strong rebound year last season?

Bergeron will be facing some competition on the open market if he becomes a free agent next summer. Forwards Joe Thornton, Brad Richards, Alexander Semin and Simon Gagne are also due to hit the market, though Bergeron's two-way play should still be in high demand.

On defense, Nicklas Lidstrom, 40, headlines next year's crop of potential free agents, but he's unlikely to leave Detroit if he decides to continue playing. That leaves Andrei Markov, Tomas Kaberle and Christian Ehrhoff the biggest names available, putting Chara in an enviable position as the top free-agent defenseman. That situation netted him a record deal from the Bruins five years ago, but Boston would be hard-pressed to top that now.

Then again, it would be even harder to see how they could continue the strides they've made in recent years without Chara and Bergeron, two of the principal reasons for that resurgence.

NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.

Friday, Aug. 13: With Dennis Wideman gone, does the defense have enough puck-moving ability and skill to contribute to the offense?

Sunday, Aug. 15: How much will Nathan Horton help the Bruins offense?