The Bruins and Celtics both experienced a rarity for Boston sports this season: They finished without championships, yet their fanbases were mostly satisfied.
Neither the B’s nor the C’s entered the season expected to win titles. For the Bruins, it was to make the playoffs. For the Celtics, it was to be a conference finalist. Both benchmarks were met, even if the seasons ultimately ended with a banged-up Bruins blue line limping to a first-round exit and the C’s getting eliminated by the Cavs in five games.
All that either fanbase could have expected was growth, and that’s what each team displayed. So which one grows into a champion first?
Working for them: Promising young players, good drafting, multiple 30-goal scorers in their primes, they play in a conference so underwhelming that that freaking Senators came a bounce in overtime away from reaching the Cup Final.
Working against them: Aging core, questionable roster management, lack of cap space
The Bruins threw a lot of picks at the problem, but to already have already brought along two top-four defensemen in Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo is huge. Don Sweeney needs more of his picks like Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril and Jake DeBrusk to be hits, but so far, so good on the development front.
Yet for as promising as the long-term outlook may be, it’s a shame the B’s aren’t better right now. The Eastern Conference did not have its most impressive season; hell, they would have eliminated the eventual conference finalist Senators if they were healthy on the back end.
Will they have that easy of a potential road going forward? The Lightning, Leafs and Islanders should be better next season, but the Capitals can’t afford to keep their roster together.
So the Bruins should remain playoff contenders as they implement younger players, but Patrice Bergeron is 32 and Zdeno Chara is 40. If the B’s don’t win in the next couple of years -- and the team doesn’t get better at signing free agents -- their next chance might not come for a while.
Working for them: Excellent draft capital, cap space, already among the Eastern Conference’s best teams
Working against them: Stuck behind the Cavaliers for as long as LeBron James is dominant and healthy
If the Celtics wanted, they could trade the first overall pick for a star player and sign Gordon Hayward to give them a relatively loaded lineup. The key word there is “relatively,” as it is loaded relative to contenders of years past. It would not be loaded relative to the Cavaliers and Warriors, who both present insurmountable road blocks.
As such, the other method is to wait out the end of the aforementioned super teams and position themselves to make their run after that. Though Boston is coming off a season in which they were the No. 1 seed in the East, they can still take that path given that they possess the top pick in the coming draft and what will likely be another very high pick in next year’s draft from Brooklyn.
LeBron is 32. Steph and Durant are 29; Draymond Green is signed for three more seasons after this. If the C’s continue to get lucky and make the right picks, they could have a core built around two superstars who are three, four, five years into their careers by the time the powerhouses are weakened. The risk there is that such a plan hinges on some other super team not being assembled in the meantime.
This really comes down to whether you think the Bruins are going to win the Cup with Bergeron (and perhaps Chara) in the next two, three, four years. There’s certainly a chance the B’s will remain a competitive team thanks to drafting and developing, but as of now the window of the Bruins’ current veteran core will close at around the same time as that of the Celtics’ top competition. In other words, the Celtics’ path to a championship could very well get easier as the Bruins’ gets harder.
So the convoluted answer: The Bruins actually have the better chance of reaching the Final in the next few years thanks to their conference, but the Celtics have the better chance of building a true championship-caliber team. So, gun to my head? Celtics, but not for a while.