With Milan Lucic's contract extension Saturday, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli completed his hat trick of locking up potential 2013 restricted free agents. Lucic's three-year, $18 million deal, combined with extensions for Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand earlier this week, means the Bruins have invested $70.5 million in their young core -- just before Saturday's midnight deadline before the NHL-imposed lockout begins and a leaguewide roster freeze goes into effect.
Despite the labor uncertainty surrounding the NHL, Chiarelli now more than ever before has put the NHL on notice that he believes these three players form a strong nucleus for Boston. According to an NHL source, the 2012-13 NHL season -- if and when it happens -- is the final one on Chiarelli's current contract. How Lucic, Seguin and Marchand respond to their GM's faith could very well determine whether he receives an extension himself.
That may be hard to believe, considering he brought the organization its first Stanley Cup in 39 years only two seasons ago. But with expectations so high around this team and formerly frugal Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs giving the green light on three large contracts -- as he and his fellow owners battle the NHLPA to get rid of such contracts -- it's up to the players to return the favor to their boss. Lucic knows he and his teammates must deliver once again.
"Him keeping all the core guys, and guys that I've built really good relationships with here, that obviously makes you want to stay more," Lucic said. "He believes in all of us as players, and we believe in him in what he's trying to build here. A great thing that I've learned and what the Bruins have been preaching more than anything is it's been about team and everyone being on the same page. Peter has definitely done a good job of finding guys who are willing to sacrifice and be on the same page, and I think that's why we're a real competitive team. Obviously, we achieved our ultimate goal in 2011 and we plan to do the same heading into the future."
Lucic has delivered in the first two years of his current contract, cracking the 30-goal plateau and registering 62 points in the 2010-11 regular season and then lighting the lamp 26 times and finishing with 61 points last season. He told the media Saturday he feels comfortable with the steady rise in his game but wants to continue to improve as this contract expires after this season and his new one begins.
"As a player and as a competitor, you want to try to do whatever you can to get better every year," Lucic said. "Right now, I feel like the last two seasons, I've had really good seasons. I feel like my game is continuing to grow. I feel like right now I am heading into the prime years of my career and I want to do whatever I can to help my team win and hopefully win another championship."
But despite two solid regular seasons, Lucic has struggled when it counts most, with just 12 points in 25 games during the Bruins' 2011 Cup run and just three in their seven-game loss to the Capitals in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last spring. He was hard on himself after that series loss to Washington, and he realizes the potential for even harsher criticism that will come with making $6 million per season. But the rugged winger seems to be embracing the challenges that lie ahead.
"Now that I've been given this opportunity to be a big part of the puzzle, as much as I'll have pressure from you [media] guys, you definitely put pressure on yourself to perform," Lucic said. "It's up to me to elevate my game and bring it to a certain standard and that's the responsibility of being an athlete. I know what that responsibility is now. After spending the last five years in the league, you know how hard it is to play day in and day out in the NHL. I'm excited and I'm looking forward to the challenges ahead. I want to do whatever I can to be the best player I can be for the Boston Bruins."
Chiarelli received his fair share of questions and criticism for maybe paying too much to keep Lucic in the fold -- just as he did following the Marchand and Seguin signings.
But once again, the GM stood by his belief that he was simply doing his job to lock up the young core that he believes will help bring another Stanley Cup to Boston in the near future.
"Part of our job is to project on the players and project on player costs," Chiarelli said.
Lucic is slotted to be the highest-paid forward on the team starting in 2013-14 when his $6 million salary kicks in. Now it's up to Lucic, Seguin and Marchand to do their job and earn their keep. No longer are they young, up-and-coming stars; they are the stars, period.