David Krejci is not Boston's No. 1 center.
You know that. I know that. The Bruins know that. Krejci knows that.
This, however, has not stopped the Bruins from consistently referring to him as such over the last few years, and at times treating him that way. One of the ways in which he has been treated as the team's No. 1 center is by getting more ice time per game last season, which was, frankly bizarre. Another is the fact that the Bruins just extended him for six years (starting in 2015-16) at a cap hit $7.25 million per. This makes him, ostensibly, the highest-paid Bruin, at least for a little while.
And so this raises a lot of questions, most of which start, and the first of which also ends, with one word: “Why?”
This is, however, more or less a semantic argument. Calling Krejci the No. 1 when for the most part deploying Bergeron as such doesn't really matter in actual practice. You could call Bergeron the No. 4 and if he still played top competition and produced like he does, he'd still be the actual No. 1. The fact is the Bruins have both of them.
Let's start with the easy part and say that David Krejci is about fourth on the team in terms of the value he delivers to Boston, in a best-case scenario.
Probably the most valuable is Tuukka Rask, because it's not every day you get a guy who can post save percentages a dozen points over the league average like clockwork. Rask is paid commensurately, with a $7 million contract he richly deserves. If anything, he delivers greater value than that in terms of on-ice performance, and is thus a bargain, and probably will be for some time to come. He is not merely a “product of the system.”
Next is what most would call a coin flip between either Patrice Bergeron or Zdeno Chara, who both earn $6.5 million against the cap, and will do so for eight and four more years, respectively. (For me, Bergeron is considerably more valuable than Chara; check the WOWYs.) Bergeron, having turned 29 slightly more than a month ago, is inarguably one of the best centers alive, whose value doesn't come in mere point totals, but in grinding every team's top line into dust. His contract is a moonshot home run for Peter Chiarelli. Likewise, Chara is the best defenseman of his generation, and even if he has lost a step in the last year or two, he is, at age 37, still a clear No. 1 defenseman to usurp those of most other teams in the league.
You have to pay for talent. And the Bruins have, unequivocally, both stocked up on and successfully retained it.
But then you get into a more nebulous area with Krejci, who's about to enter the final year of both a very productive, strong-value contract (three years at $5.25 million per), and several months after that, the final year of his 20s (he turns 29 in April). Not long after that, he will begin the first season of a six-year deal that will pay him what is currently the 20th-richest AAV in the league for that season (tied with Kris Letang, and a quarter-million dollars behind Pavel Datsyuk and Steven Stamkos). I would hope very much that no one assumes David Krejci is, was, or will be the 20th-best player in the league, or even something like that, but he nonetheless has significant value, and for Boston specifically.
The prevailing attitude in the wake of the deal's announcement was an unsurprised shrug. “What,” everyone asked simultaneously, “was Chiarelli supposed to do?” And that's the correct reaction. The Bruins couldn't let Krejci hit the market, or even think that was a possibility, because the likelihood that they could replace him via free agency wasn't that strong (Jason Spezza was the only other center worth having from next summer's center UFAs); by trade, it was non-existent. The argument that Krejci would have gotten more on the open market is likely also true, but no one has ever accused the July 1 signing rush as being a worthy-of-Webster's picture of market efficiency.
So the Bruins had to sign him, that much was obvious. And given that we live in the “post-Toews-and-Kane contracts” world, maybe $7.25 million doesn't seem like a crazy amount of money to pay for a fairly productive center. (Krejci is tied for 52nd in the league in points per game among centers with 400-plus games played since his rookie season in 2006-07, barely behind tied-for-47th Bergeron's 0.76.) It is, after all, 2014, and the cap is likely to keep going up for the next few years at least. If, in three years, it sits in the $80-82 million range — which is possible — then Krejci's cap hit could be as little as 8.8 percent of the total number. For 2015-16, that number stands to be considerably higher. At present, he occupies 7.6 percent, meaning this new deal constitutes a considerable raise both in terms of money and cap share, the latter of which is really how you have to look at deals these days.
But again, Chiarelli was backed into a corner, and those who are iffy on the deal would point out that the only way to force his way out of it, other than slightly overpaying for a No. 2 center, is to gun his DeLorean to 88 and not sell as low as humanly possible on a former No. 2 pick who's cost-controlled at $6.5 million until 2019 and posted more than a point a game last season. But the “Should of kept Seguin” crowd, apart from being right, is also being pedantic, because the fact is that Chiarelli didn't, and thus limited his options. That, however, is not what makes this contract so odious.
One thing that makes it so questionable is that it's a contract extended to a player who will be 29 the season it starts, and 35 when it ends. That in and of itself should be worrisome because very few players are as productive as they were in their 20s once they hit The Big Three-Oh.
Why is this a problem for Krejci? He doesn't track like a player who will be able to keep up the 0.75 points per game he's posted with some amount of consistency throughout his career — he rarely strays above 0.85, or below 0.65 — when he's 31, 32, and 33 years old. That's not a knock on him, by the way; most players aren't. Point production tends to drop appreciably between the ages of 27 and 30 or so, and it doesn't tend to improve beyond the occasional freak percentage-riding season after that. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which has often held that a player's peak is usually around or a little after his 30th birthday, the average hockey player actually tops out in terms of production around 24 or 25 and begins to trail off considerably a few years after that. (The ability to drive play in terms of possession stats, however, is generally less dependent upon age. Bergeron, being elite in this regard, could likely keep his numbers elevated well above league average as he grows into his early and mid-30s, where Krejci likely cannot.)
The Bruins, then, are paying top dollar for Krejci's decline years. They're not alone in paying for over-the-hill talent, of course, but it's the rare player who actually holds up his value beyond 30; Joe Thornton, Jarome Iginla, Henrik Zetterberg, etc. can all be expected to keep posting numbers at least somewhat comparable with their career averages, at least in some respects. But all were once the elitest of the elite at their positions, something Krejci never has been.
And that gets to the whole “Is Krejci really the Bruins' No. 1?” argument (he's not). The reason that people think and say this is that he put up more points than Bergeron last season, and got more ice time. I think it's important to explore the reasons for this: 1) Bergeron spent all his time playing Zdeno Chara and pummeled some of the hardest competition in the league — more often than not starting in their own defensive zone — to the tune of a corsi-for rate of 61 percent, and goals-for rate of 68.8 percent. These are ludicrous numbers, and in fact Bergeron drags just about any teammate with whom he shares the ice to elite levels of out-possessing and outscoring opponents. Not even Jonathan Toews is that good at it.
But Krejci posted 69 points last season to Bergeron's 62, and 33 to 32 in the lockout-shortened season, and only trailed by two points (62 to 64) the year before that. He is, therefore, a more productive player in terms of offense. At least that's the argument. But if Bergeron is playing nothing but the absolute steel on offer from every opponent, every night — top pairings, top lines, PK duty — and tasked with shutting them down while also scoring just six fewer points, what does this say of Krejci's ability to “dominate” lesser competition? Well, it doesn't speak too highly.
In fact, Bergeron's points-per-60 at even strength — important for filtering out the fact that Krejci gets about 25 percent more power play time per game — is the best on the team. It is, in fact, 16th in the league among forwards.
And what about special teams? Well, Bergeron's goals per 60 on the power play (which, again, Julien doesn't let him play as much because he wants to save him for the PK) is 14th in the league, though his points-per-60 is miles behind Krejci because of the latter's assist totals, though Krejci plays with much better teammates on the man advantage. Then there's the PK, which is where Bergeron excels, and Krejci doesn't make an appearance for reasons which should be obvious.
None of this, by the way, is to say that Krejci is in any way not a very good center, he would probably be the No. 1 on at least half the teams in this league if you go just by the counting stats. But one must consider that he is put into a far greater position to succeed than Bergeron, and to his credit does so. The team has done basically everything in its power, though, to inflate his numbers.
That Julien uses his bench inefficiently — favoring Krejci over Bergeron in man-advantage and beneficial even-strength situations — is not a reason to think Bergeron is anything less than No. 1 with a bullet. Krejci, meanwhile, is hardly the “1b type” to which those presented with these facts might retreat as a fallback position.
The reason all that data is relevant, though, is to say that the stuff for which Boston is, clearly, paying him more than one of the three or four best centers alive (capital-S Scoring!!!) is perhaps misguided, because it's a thing that they're probably not going to be able to count on for much longer. Maybe two, three more years, one of which won't take place during this particular six-year contract. And the Bruins should know that. They have analytics guys on staff; they have access to all the same data you or I do, and then some.
Another thing the Bruins think is the case with Krejci, and which is not actually significant in any way, is that he is “clutch.” Not that they'd have him out there in the last minute of a game or anything like that — not over Bergeron, because while Claude Julien might misuse his top two centers, he's no idiot — but because he “delivers” in the playoffs. Twice in the last three seasons he's led the postseason in scoring, and in fact has more points per game in his playoff career (.83) than the regular season (.75). So please, don't look too closely at the 0-4-4 in 12 this past spring, or the 1-2-3 in seven two years before that. Unlike Seguin, who “could never put up big numbers in Claude Julien's system,” his inability to score a goal in the postseason was bad luck, you see.
Krejci has always been acknowledged as a “streaky” player, and for two of those really good streaks to come in the team's two Cup runs probably isn't a coincidence. When guys score, teams win. Simple. However, can we really be sure this is a repeatable skill with Krejci? We might never have enough concrete evidence just based on sample size, but the two bounce-outs when he wasn't scoring don't really help the cause.
But that's what almost everything with the Bruins essentially boils down to these days: A desperate loyalty to that 2011 Stanley Cup team. The team will make sure to hang onto just about anyone who was on that club — Bergeron, Milan Lucic, Krejci, Brad Marchand, Chris Kelly, Gregory Campbell, Dan Paille, Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk — and in many cases, but certainly not all, overvalue them.
(Lucic should have been traded years ago, but is going to be a Bruin For Life, without a doubt. Paille, Campbell, and Kelly should have been left out on the curb on trash day, but are instead still with the team despite all logic saying they should not be, and both its compliance buyouts going bafflingly unused.)
This team now has $54 million tied up in just 11 players for 2015-16. That's before they re-sign Reilly Smith and Torey Krug, as well as Dougie Hamilton following the expiry of his entry-level deal. This is an ongoing problem which is going to hurt the team's ability to succeed on the ice at some point, though it hasn't happened yet.
Krejci's been part of the team's solution — a title, two Cup Final appearances in three years, a Presidents' Trophy, etc. — for years now, though demonstrably not as big as people in Boston, including Bruins management, would like to believe. But they never stopped to think that over the course of this next contract, an overpayment in both term and cash for the downside of a No. 2 center's career, he might become an even bigger part of the problem.
But they couldn't consider any other option, because they couldn't afford to lose him altogether. And that unfortunate reality is on Peter Chiarelli.