June 29, 2011

Kaberle return looking less likely as July 1 looms

by Jesse Connolly

Tomas Kaberle led Bruins defensemen with 11 points in the playoffs. (Getty)

On breakup day at TD Garden, Tomas Kaberle indicated he'd like to return next year for another season with the Bruins. Later that week, general manager Peter Chiarelli said the two parties would chat.

With the Czech defenseman set to be an unrestricted free agent in less than 48 hours, however, it appears the time for talk is now over.

TSN's Darren Dreger reported on Twitter that the Bruins sent out an email to the rest of the league on Tuesday that Kaberle's negotiating rights are available. Any team willing to pony up would then have exclusive rights to hammer out a deal with the 33-year-old blueliner before July 1.

Two of Kaberle's biggest competitors among defensemen looking to strike it rich this summer have already been dealt the same fate.

The Canucks traded the negotiating rights to Christian Ehrhoff to the Islanders in return for a fourth-round pick, while the Canadiens sent James Wisniewski to the Blue Jackets -- a team dramatically retooling itself this offseason -- for a seventh-round draft choice.

In his second season in Vancouver, Ehrhoff set career-highs in nearly every offensive category, including a 50-point campaign that ranked him seventh in the NHL. Just ahead of him in that race was Wisniewski, who racked up 30 of his 51 points last year in Montreal after arriving via trade from the Isles.

Both the 27-year-old Wisniewski and Ehrhoff, who will turn 29 in July, were expected to command big bucks -- indicating their requests were too hefty for their former clubs. If Wisniewski was only able to fetch a seventh-round pick, odds are that the Bruins won't find any takers for Kaberle's rights, given that the longtime Maple Leaf is six years his elder.

While the odds of Wisniewski signing in Columbus remain unclear, it's becoming increasingly less likely that Ehrhoff decides to ink a deal to call Long Island home next season. But, if the two are somehow locked up by Friday, Kaberle would appear to be the best available defenseman on the market.

One team keeping a close eye on all that transpires with the trio of d-men is Detroit, who will need to find a replacement for recently-retired, top-flight puck mover Brian Rafalski.

So what does it all mean for the Black and Gold?

If the Bruins aren't willing to break the bank for Kaberle, who cost them a hefty package back in February to begin with, odds are that both Ehrhoff and Wisniewski might be completely out of Boston's spending range. And while both are the best of this year's crop of free-agent defensemen, as their numbers in 2010-11 certainly back that up, neither has ever been considered elite at their position.

The B's could elect to go for a cheaper option via free agency, as the likes of Ian White (San Jose), Anton Babchuk (Calgary) and Andy Greene (New Jersey) are among those expected to be available when the frenzy begins in two days.

Internally, the Bruins also have a number of d-men working their way toward full-time NHL gigs, spearheaded by Steve Kampfer, the U. of Michigan product who had five goals and five assists in 38 games with Boston last season.