Haggerty: The Bruins are ready for the Boston spotlight

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Haggerty: The Bruins are ready for the Boston spotlight

The contrast was too plain and easy to ignore.

As the New England Patriots dig their way out from under unfulfilled expectations and the ghosts of Super Bowls past, the Boston Bruins are the citys best hope for another championship in the foreseeable future.

The Celtics still have remnants of their NBA title past in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but theyre too old, too small and too not-the-Miami-Heat to have any chance of winning this spring. The Red Sox are running their baseball operations like theyre the Minnesota Twins these days, and their summer will end with the same kind of small market disappointment as they do in the Twin Cities.

But the Bruins have the talent, the experience, the star power and the nucleus of a Stanley Cup worthy team thats still in their prime, and have shown just how motivated they are by jumping out with a pair of solid wins at home. That's why they are the best, last hope to live up to the mantle of high expectations that's part of the DNA for every sports team within the city of Boston.

Where the entire region was at the depths of disappointment on Sunday night with the sobering realization an era might be slowly crawling to an end for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the melancholy was wiped away on Monday afternoon with one filthy Tyler Seguin scoring move in the shootout.

It's a responsibility the Bruins organization is keenly aware of from Cam Neely on down, and it's one they're looking to uphold.

Were a gritty team, we like to think were a hardworking team, and you know our guys are pretty focused on making sure we give the fans what they want and give the city what they deserve. Thats helped us a lot, said Claude Julien. Were all big fans Sunday afternoon I sat in front of that television all afternoon watching football, and I was a big fan like everybody else and just as disappointed.

But you turn around and say, Okay now its our chance here to try and do something for this city. Were fortunate to have some good sports teams here in Boston. No doubt the fans get spoiled, but theyre such good fans. They fill every building up, so they deserve it.

The lament for a potentially lost NHL season during the lockout was strong in Boston because folks could see what else was on the pro sports horizon aside from the Black and Gold.

And it wasnt pretty.

A spring filled with Red Sox spring training camp and the mercurial point guard stylings of Rajon Rondo werent going to get the job done by themselves. No NHL would have left a gaping hole that couldn't be filled by the hollow activities of the four-month lockout: emptying out the contents of your DVR, or renting the entire run of "The Wire" on Netflix.

Now the Bruins are back, and theyve restored their swaggering hunger after getting far too drunk and much too satisfied on their own Stanley Cup success.

Milan Lucic went from lockout question mark to snarling beast who has amassed an NHL-best 14 registered hits in Bostons first two games, and is back to being the big-bodied wrecking ball striking fear into all opponents. Tuukka Rask is 2-0-0 with a 0.96 goals against average and a .958 save percentage in Bostons first two games, and is doing it with the economical movements and quiet technique in direct contrast to the hyper crease theatrics of Tim Thomas.

Tyler Seguin provided the electric offense in regulation that Boston needed, and then set the playmaking tone in the shootout as hes so often done over the last few years. Thats helped the Bruins to a 10-3 record in shootouts over the last two seasons, and will keep them piling up the points in this short regular season campaign.

Zdeno Chara completely shut down New York Rangers wonder boy Rick Nash in the season opener, and rag-dolled old friend Blake Wheeler all over the ice on Monday afternoon like it was the good old days at the Bruins practice rink. That he did it in defense of his young understudy, Dougie Hamilton, simply made it all the better.

The Bruins defense has allowed just 47 shots and two goals in the first two games, and has done that while breaking 19-year-old Dougie Hamilton into the regular rotation of blueliners.

For a team that had focused on a strong start as one of the big keys to success in a 48-game shortened schedule, the Bruins are right on time. Even better theyre getting it done at home and creating an air of expectation that people will see something special on the TD Garden now that the Boys are Back.

We want to create a good atmosphere here and a good feeling right on through the whole organization and to the fans, said Andrew Ference. We just want to get those positive vibes going early in the season because they count for a lot. People say it was the Stanley Cup thing last year, but I dont think that was it because we turned it on pretty good for a couple of months.

It was just mentally not being as prepared as we should have been. Now I think everybody has put a lot of onus on themselves to play their game. I know the guys that didnt play in Europe put a lot of pressure on themselves to make sure they were prepared and that they werent dead weight to the team. So its just a matter of guys taking pride in getting the first few under our belt.

The Bruins have accomplished their first mission of taking the initial two home games on TD Garden ice, and now comes an opportunity to really step on the Rangers throats Wednesday night. The Blueshirts are reeling after a pair of season-opening defeats including a tough loss to the Penguins that saw Henrik Lundqvist pulled from net for the first time in well over a year.

There is still four months worth of regular season followed by two months of playoffs for the Bruins before another Stanley Cup title could be a reality.

But the Black and Gold are now on the clock after last weekend.

The Bs represent the next-best chance for a Boston team to bring home a title to the City of Champions after the Patriots faltered, and they look like theyre ready for their hockey close-up.

Are they on a crash course?

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Are they on a crash course?

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.

 

May 2, 2016: Martin Jones standing tall in Sharks net

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May 2, 2016: Martin Jones standing tall in Sharks net

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while giving everybody a 24-hour reprieve from any Game of Thrones spoilers.

 

*Good to see FOH (Friend of Haggs) Nick Cotsonika back with a byline covering the NHL: here he writes about Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop with some thoughts from Martin Brodeur.

 

*David Backes got the ultimate birthday present when he snapped home a game-winning overtime goal for the Blues.

 

*Boston boy Rick DiPietro is working without a net as an analyst for the New York Islanders now that his goaltending career has come to a close.

 

*Jaromir Jagr was named a finalist for the Masterton Trophy for his decades’ long dedication to the game of hockey.

 

*Brooks Orpik is suspended three games for his head shot on Olli Maatta, and it’s a bit ironic it happens against the Pittsburgh Penguins team he spent plenty of years throwing predator hits for prior to joining Washington.

 

*Damien Cox has a mock NHL Draft now that the top 14 lottery picks have been set in stone following last weekend.

 

*Martin Jones is standing tall for the San Jose Sharks, and proving to be a difference-maker in his first season for them between the pipes.

 

*For something completely different: as the father of a newborn baby girl, I read about this Zika virus and find it absolutely terrifying and tragic.

May 1, 2016: With NHL draft order set, time to deal?

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May 1, 2016: With NHL draft order set, time to deal?

Here are the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading after thinking Barack Obama gave Jeffrey Ross a run for his money as the Roast-master In Chief at last night’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner.

*The man behind the music at American Airlines Arena for the Dallas Stars’ games comes into the spotlight for a story.

 

*Don Cherry sings the praises of Joel Ward, wears a Toronto Marlies suit and said “it was time to go” for Bruce Boudreau in Anaheim.

 

*PHT writer Cam Tucker has Penguins coach Mike Sullivan taking major issue with the head shot Brooks Orpik laid on Olli Maatta.

 

*The Maple Leafs secure the No. 1 overall pick in last night’s NHL Draft lottery, which will no doubt lead them to Auston Matthews.

 

*Now that the Edmonton Oilers have the No. 4 pick, Peter Chiarelli is open to trade options for those teams wanting to move up.

 

*Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is once again thriving in Ontario just a year after a major health scare.

 

*Good piece by FOH (Friend of Haggs) Kevin Kurz on the unique journey for Brent Burns that culminated in his Norris Trophy finalist honor this week.

 

*Spector has the roundup of rumors including plenty of speculation on Kevin Shattenkirk once the Blues are done in the playoffs.

 

*For something completely different: a couple of reporters actually got into an actual fight at the White House Correspondent’s after-party. It sounds like they both kind of deserved a punch in the face, to be honest.