Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli expects defenseman Tomas Kaberle to test the free-agent waters Friday, but he's not ready to rule out the possibility of his return to Boston.
"There's no finality to our relationship," Chiarelli said Thursday. "What we agreed to with Tomas and his agent is that he would look into the market and we'd continue to talk with him. There's certainly no finality there.
"If it's not Tomas, we would look to some names in the market and/or we'd look to our younger guys. But let me be perfectly clear -- there's no end to the relationship."
Kaberle and forward Michael Ryder are the team's two most prominent unrestricted free agents. Kaberle was acquired by the Bruins at the trade deadline from the Toronto Maple Leafs and failed to produce like he has in the past, posting a goal and 8 assists in 24 regular-season games and zero goals and 11 assists in 25 postseason contests.
Ryder, meanwhile, was a major contributor to the Bruins' championship run. In the playoffs, the 31-year-old had 8 goals and 9 assists in 25 games after an 18-goal regular season.
"Those are two guys that gave us good service," Chiarelli said. "For the right number, I'd like to have them back."
The only problem, according to Chiarelli, is getting Kaberle and Ryder for the right price with the free-agent market looking as thin as ever.
Chiarelli said he's wary because many teams have a lot of money to spend and need to pay players to reach the floor of the salary cap. As an example, the Florida Panthers signed Tomas Kopecky to a four-year, $12 million deal this week. Kopecky is 29 and coming off a 15-goal, 42-point season with the Blackhawks. Those are strikingly similar numbers to what Ryder posted this past season.
Consider that Ryder has scored at least 20 goals in his career four times, something Kopecky can't boast, his value on the open market may price him out of Boston. Throw in the fact that Chiarelli wants to have money to pay David Krejci and Tuukka Rask when they become restricted free agents next summer, and caution is the name of the game starting Friday.
"I'm a little wary of the market," Chiarelli said. "The cap is high and it's certainly going to come down in some shape or form (in the future). We do have guys we want to re-sign and they're going to command raises. I'm really not in a position to go out and give a guy a big-term contract. I think we can find that help elsewhere and still be in a good position to re-sign our guys as they come up in the next year or two.
"I look at my board and I see the number of players and quality of players, and there's just not the high-end players. Of course, you've got the floor of the cap and teams have to spend so you're going to get contracts that are generally higher in the unrestricted market, but I think they'll be at an even added premium because they have to spend. Then all the other comparables follow in line. That's why I'm a little cautious going into this market. There's not the supply there normally is and the demand is greater."
Along with the potential departures of Kaberle and Ryder, the Bruins will also be without Mark Recchi, who retired following the Stanley Cup victory. Chiarelli doesn't expect to be active in the early going Friday, but he believes that even if all three players aren't returning, there's enough out there to plug those holes with similar players.
"I want to at least maintain the elements that those guys bring," Chiarelli said. "Can I improve it or maintain it going to the open market? I think I can. I'm not in a hurry to do it. So I'm not going to be part of that first flurry. As far as shaking up the roster, I'm not going to do that. The Kaberles, the Recchis, the Ryders, we have to look to replace those guys somehow."
Chiarelli said one way the Bruins can avoid overpaying for free agents is by finding players who would be willing to take less to play for a team that not only won the Stanley Cup, but is in a good position to make another run at it in 2011-12.
"I would anticipate there would be," Chiarelli said. "I would anticipate that people recognize we have a chance to win again and that they want to be here. Discount is too strong of a word, but I think there's a group of players that would be in that mix."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo