This is the first in a five-part “Rebuilding the Bruins” series about the breakdowns that doomed the team this season, and what must change for the Black and Gold to once again get moving in the right direction.
In many ways, this offseason is shaping up as a typical one for the Boston Bruins. There'll be roster fixes -- like last year's Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton trades on NHL draft weekend -- that they hope will result in upgrades and improvements. They'll work with their prospects and draft picks, looking for maturation and development . Hopefully, they'll work toward building a greater level of accountability and urgency among the core players, most of whom are expected to return.
And it some ways it's atypical. The heat is most definitely on president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney after a second consecutive late-season collapse left the Bruins -- again -- one point shy of the postseason. Ownership clearly expects better, and has made its "expectations" clear.
The question is: Are Neely and Sweeney doing what needs to be done to get the franchise back on track?
“If people were to ask ‘Who is head of hockey operations?’, it’s a collaborative effort between a number of people,” said Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs. “But if you ask for one sort of name, I would say it’s Cam Neely. I’m fairly certain my father" -- team owner Jeremy Jacobs -- "would share that sentiment.
"I just want to clarify. . . about investing in our team. It’s something that we continually do. We had leveraged our future (in recent years in an attempt to win immediately) to the point where something had to change last summer. We made the change and we’re righting the ledger, if you will, by stocking our team back up with prospects with the ability for cap flexibility to make the proper moves moving forward.
“We will always invest in this team. I think now we’re back on the right side of the ledger. We have an opportunity in front of us to move forward. We are a cap team and there should be expectations in an Original Six market that we continue to be a playoff contender and, frankly, a Stanley Cup contender. Given the mix of talent that we currently have on the roster and the youth that’s coming in, Cam’s aware of those expectations, as is Don.”
Those expectations underscore how much work there is to be done for a middling hockey club with some valuable individual pieces -- Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, David Pastrnak -- but far too many weaknesses that can be easily exploited by the better teams around the NHL.
The reality is, the Bruins are stuck in the mediocre middle right now . . . and that's a bad place to be. They're picking at No. 14 again, where the truly game-changing type of young player that Boston needs isn't available. In addition, the Bruins won’t be a true Stanley Cup contender again until they have a No. 1 defenseman in the 25-to-33-years-old range capable of playing 30 quality minutes per night over a long, two-month postseason run. They could also use a big, strong right winger with top-6 offensive potential. And they need to come up with an adequate backup goalie for Tuukka Rask.
That's a lot of work for Sweeney in one offseason.
“We just need to continue to get better, you know?” said Sweeney. “This is a performance-driven business and we’re going to be held to that standard and you know we fell short. We do believe that we should have [been in the playoffs]. That's not disparaging against the eight teams that [started the playoffs in the East] . . . [those] that are there they deserve it, and we fell just short of that. I still believe that we had a strong enough group to get in and challenge there. Then you just wait and see what happens.
"But we fell short in that and I take ownership of it. It’s on me; it’s not on anybody else to continue to improve our roster. That’s on me.”
Many around the league use terms like “half-pregnant” when describing the Bruins. Last season the B's had one foot pointed toward a rebuild and the other foot pointed toward competing for a playoff spot. In the end, they accomplished neither. Clearly, they were good enough to be in the playoffs -- the seventh-best goal differential in the East, a top-five offense and well above-average special teams’ play was enough to offset their shaky defense -- but Sweeney has to realize that even they'd made it they were destined to go out in the first round . . .which was the fate of the Red Wings and Flyers, the teams they were battling for one of the final two postseason spots in the East.
And that raises a deeper question: Is this current plan of action in the best long-term interest of the Bruins?
The front office's failings at the trade deadline are a prime example. Rather than face reality -- that even if they'd made the playoffs, they weren't going beyond one round -- the Bruins instead:
a) Shipped out future draft picks for marginal veteran upgrades in Lee Stempniak and John-Michael Liles.
b) Held onto unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Loui Eriksson, who was having his best season in a Boston uniform and might have fetched valuable long-term assets in a trade. That option no longer exists with Eriksson now on his way out the door.
Neely and Sweeney might argue that it’s pure media-driven hindsight to criticize those trade-deadline moves, which now look especially bad since the team failed to qualify for the postseason, but it's their jobs to shape the team’s future. It should have been very clear to both that the Bruins didn’t have the right stuff to make any kind of a playoff run. Playing and developing their promising young players down the stretch should have been the priority, but, frankly, that never felt like the case after Sweeney's band-aid trades for veteran rentals.
This was never more evident than when the Bruins flew Frank Vatrano cross-country on emergency recall at the start of the season-changing California road trip in late March, sat him for the loss to the San Jose Sharks, and then flew him back to Providence without having played a game. The emergency recall made little sense, especially considering how they could have used Vatrano’s scoring touch.
That simple fact was hammered home when the Bruins did come to their senses shortly afterward and recalled Vatrano, along with fellow prospect Colin Miller, for the final few pivotal games of the season. Both of those talented players should have been gaining that playoff-stretch experience in Boston all along. And who knows? They might have even provided the one extra point that ultimately cost them the playoff spot they so coveted.
Cultivating the next generation of Bruins talent is what will once again get them closer to their stated goal of Stanely Cup contention. (They’ll also need to get lucky with a top-pairing defenseman, or two, dropping into their lap along the way, of course.) But they'll be doomed to repeat the uninspired work of the last two seasons if they keep sailing the same course.
The Bruins need clarity in direction at the top of the organizational food chain. They need to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing.
The question is whether the Bruins want a nice, little playoff team or a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and whether they have the temerity and the discipline to make certain it’s the latter rather than the former. Bruins management needs to start making hard, unpopular choices if it doesn't want the listless history of the last two years to continue repeating itself.