Haggerty: Bruins are built to win

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Haggerty: Bruins are built to win

By Joe Haggerty
CSNNE.com

TAMPA Its difficult to ignore the plain fact that the Boston Bruins are two measly wins away from a date in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Black and Gold havent graced the Finals since 1990 when they fell to the Edmonton Oilers and Glen Wesleys missed overtime open net morphed into a symbol of Boston futility on par with Bill Buckners botched grounder and the sight of William The Refrigerator Perry spiking the ball in the Super Bowl.

But things are different now in sports-drunk Boston, and the Bruins hope its different for them this time as they stand perilously near the doorway to hockey greatness.

The room full of Bruins are not stupid men, and theyre not foolhardy enough to think Tampa is going to submit without a struggle.

The Bs certainly are not oblivious to their situation even if Bs enforcer Shawn Thornton refuses to let the word Cup escape his lips in casual conversation.

Better than most, the Bruins understand what its like to count hockey chickens before things are hatched, and treating an opponent as deceased after only a couple of decisive wins.

Youve got to take everything one step at a time, one game at a time and one win at a time, said Lucic. You cant really look too far ahead. Weve always worked best when weve focused on the present and stayed with the task at hand. This is a huge opportunity for us. These chances dont come around very often.

You talk to guys like Zdeno Chara, who is in his 13th year in the league and this is only his second time here. Mark Recchi has been in the league 22 years and its his fifth time. It sounds like a lot, but it really isnt. Youve got to go out there, enjoy it and say with no regrets that you did everything you could to move forward.

Its true the Bruins stunned and overpowered the Tampa Bay Lighting with their layered interior defense in Game Three, and Tim Thomas finally looked like he was again playing with energy, awareness and a healthy level of defiance in his eyes.

Those are the staples of Bruins hockey in their current incarnation, and the biggest reasons why Tampa really has a big uphill climb.

The addition of the defensively adept, indescribably valuable Patrice Bergeron to Bostons lineup for Game Three had to be disheartening for the Bolts as well.

But the Bs know theyll be taking Tampas fiercest punch on Saturday afternoon when Guy Boucher whips his team into a desperate frenzy on their home ice at the St. Pete Times Forum.

There are even whispers in the Lightning room about what happened to the Bruins against the Flyers last season, and the feeling among some in the Tampa room they can pull a similar reversal this season.

Right now Boston was in this position last year and they kind of dropped the ball, said Tampa big body forward Ryan Malone.

The Bolts will be fighting for their lives to keep from falling behind 3-1 in the series with the seven game series returning to TD Garden, and once again the Bruins need only look at their own recent history for inspiration.

The Bs closed out a limping, lame Flyers unit in four games, but its going to be a more challenging proposition to keep Marty St. Louis, Steve Stamkos and Vinny Lecavalier under wraps in two more dominant performances. Team leaders like Chara, Recchi, Bergeron, Lucic, Andrew Ference, Thomas and David Krejci all lived through last years playoff misery, and they understand that awful, empty feeling.

Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli put together this Bruins team with a mix of conscientious, accepting veteran voices that also burn with a fiery compete level. Now is the perfect time where talent, experience, age and motivation are all in alignment for Stanley Cup dreams to come true in Boston, and those veteran Bruins are fully aware of the stakes.

The atmosphere within the room and the atmosphere within the organization over the last run of years that started when Claude Julien came is that its been consistent, said Andrew Ference. That consistency is a huge advantage for any team. You have a core group of players with a certain approach and certain attitude toward the game and you have that year after year after year allows you to build on the good things and learn from the mistakes or series past.

Patrice Bergeron is a solid player and he really fits into exactly that mold of what the coach and the GM are trying to build here: consistency, showing up every night and good, honest hockey. Thats what the Bruins were made up of back in the day when they were successful. Thats what theyve been trying to build up over the last few years.

Recchi and Thornton stand as the only Bruins players that have hoisted the Cup over their heads in their NHL careers prior to arriving in Boston.

For many of the current players on Bostons roster, this season represents the best chance theyll ever have at kissing the Cup.

There is going to be plenty of talk about the hot goaltender, exploiting Tampas weak interior defense and breaking through the Boucher 1-3-1 trap once Game Four begins in earnest Saturday afternoon and there is absolutely a technical side to the Xs and Os of hockey that must be achieved if victory will be awarded o the Bruins.

But the bigger question is whether the Bruins have learned enough lessons over the last three years to crunch a worthy Eastern Conference adversary thats been stunned by the Seguin Show and a suffocating defensive effort on its heels.

There has been no shortage of heart and courage in a full regular season for the Bruins, but theyll need equally preposterous levels of both if they hope to get those two more wins that will transport them to the NHLs promised land.

Joe Haggerty can be reached at jhaggerty@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Joe on Twitter at http:twitter.comHackswithHaggs

GAHS Podcast: Felger 'fearful' of where Bruins are headed

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GAHS Podcast: Felger 'fearful' of where Bruins are headed

In an all-CSN edition in the 15th episode of the Great American Hockey Show Podcast as co-hosts Joe Haggerty and Jimmy Murphy welcomed SportsNet Central anchor Mike Giardi to discuss the current B’s situation and conducted a wide-ranging interview with Sports Tonight host and Felger and Mazz co-host Michael Felger about his time covering the Bruins as a beat reporter, where he developed his love for hockey and his pathway toward becoming the most influential figure in the Boston sports media scene.

Perhaps most interesting from Giardi’s segment was his take that “nobody should be untouchable” on the Bruins roster, that includes franchise player and future captain Patrice Bergeron, if the return is good enough. Felger discussed who he’d move between Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask to change up the Bruins roster this summer and how gravely concerned he is about the health and well-being of the franchise coming off two seasons out of the playoffs.

“I’m fearful, of course. I think the passion of the Bruins fan base is still there. We could do four hours on the radio tomorrow talking about the Bruins, and totally bang it out with callers,” said Felger. “So the Bruins are so lucky that the fans are that passionate. But if it’s too long of a drought, we all lived through 2005 and 2006 coming out of the lockout. It was dark, and we have the capacity to go back there.”

For the full Great American Hockey Show podcast check it out below: 

No defense for blue-line shortcomings

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No defense for blue-line shortcomings

This is the fourth in a five-part 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. 

The Bruins had a master plan to upgrade the defense last summer. It quickly morphed into a dumpster fire.

After ultimately deciding they were unwilling to pay Dougie Hamilton an outlandish sum of money -- and coming to the conclusion that the young D-man simply didn’t want to play for Boston anymore -- they dealt him to the Calgary Flames for three draft picks. It was pennies-on-the-dollar value for a young, top-pairing defenseman, and a fear-based move given the threat of offer sheets that possibly loomed if Hamilton made it past July 1 without a new contract extension.

(They also torpedoed a better draft-pick package offer from their ex-general manager, Peter Chiarelli, by demanding Edmonton's young stud D-man Darnell Nurse, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The Bruins made the decision to move Hamilton after he and his camp ignored Boston’s multiple contract overtures. It was also apparent to those running the team that players like Hamilton and Reilly Smith weren’t meshing well with the rest of the Bruins core. 

(There's no second-guessing from this humble hockey writer about the jettisoning of Smith, despite his solid 25-goal season with the Florida Panthers: he was a soft player in that last year with Boston. The part of that move that should be regretted was immediately signing Jimmy Hayes to a three-year contract extension after closing the Smith-for-Hayes deal. But, again, that's neither here nor there.)

The problem for the Bruins after trading Hamilton was in the follow-through.

First they followed Chiarelli's troubling pattern of overpaying mid-level talent by handing Adam McQuaid a four-year, $11 million extension. Then they were unsuccessful in their attempts to move up in the first round of last summer’s draft and take either of the two collegians, Noah Hanifin or Zach Werenski, who projected as eventual No. 1 defensemen. They offered Hamilton and first-round draft choices; they also tried to use Martin Jones as a chip.

But whether new GM Don Sweeney thought he had a deal in place or not, things fell apart at the 11th hour. The Bruins did have three first-round picks, but they were in the middle of the round. In that position, they were unable to get an immediate difference-maker on defense.

The inability to land that young D-man (and potential heir apparent to Zdeno Chara) at last summer’s draft, or at the NHL trade deadline in February, ended up being a fatal blow. There was too much stress on a patchwork defense corps, and it was a major factor in the Bruins missing the playoffs. And even if they'd made it, the B's would have been nothing more than first-round cannon fodder.

The Band-Aid trade for 35-year-old John-Michael Liles was a nominal improvement at the deadline, but it spoke to just how badly they needed puck-moving reinforcements to assist a clearly overworked Torey Krug.

“I can tell you [Sweeney] worked extremely hard to try to move up (in the first round)," said Bruins president Cam Neely at his end-of-the-season press conference. "The scouting staff did a good job of identifying [players], and obviously, if you look back at the draft . . . you kind of had to be (in one of the top spots) to get one of those [defensemen] that were highly coveted. [Sweeney] just couldn’t do it last offseason. [He also] tried throughout the year to make something happen and he’s maybe laid some groundwork (for a future trade) . . . Hopefully [he'll] be able to get something done in the offseason.

"But like I said earlier, we know it’s an area that we need to improve upon . . . [We] know what our back end is all about. We need to . . . really improve that area of our team . . . [It's] something that I know [Sweeney's] going to be very focused on.”

Fast-forward to the present day. The Bruins finished the season with the aging, declining Chara, now 39, as their No. 1 defenseman, and the 5-foot-8 Krug as their No. 2 while posting a career-high 21:37 of ice time per game. The diminutive Krug perhaps paid the price for that wear and tear with right shoulder surgery last month that could sideline him until late October, which raises red flags about whether he should again play those kinds of heavy-duty minutes given his offensive value.

Beyond those two, the Bruins’ defensive prospects aren’t bright. The body of 35-year-old Dennis Seidenberg is breaking down, and the B's would love to be out from under the final two years (at $4 million per) of his contract. Both McQuaid and Kevan Miller are limited, stay-at-home defensemen better cast as bottom-pair guys. Youngsters Colin Miller, Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow weren’t able to lock down roles last season for a multitude of reasons. Miller is the only one who appears to have potential to develop into a top-four NHL defenseman; Trotman and Morrow seem poised to be passed by other young D-men (Brandon Carlo, Robbie O’Gara, Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon) in the organizational ranks sooner rather than later.

Botton line: It simply doesn’t feel like the Bruins have the answer to their defense woes, at least in the short term, within their system.

They need a No. 1 defenseman in the prime of his career, or being groomed into that prime, who can ideally allow the Bruins coaching staff to start easing up on Chara's ice time. Chara is a No. 1 in name only these days, and would be much better served as a middle-pairing D-man playing closer to 20 minutes a night and removed from the power play, where he no longer features his booming slap shot very much.

It’s an fact that nearly every team that’s won the Stanley Cup since the 2004-05 lockout has had a prime No. 1 defenseman in the 25-33 age range, with the exceptions of the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins. Names like Chara, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Nik Lidstrom, Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty figured prominently in those championships, playing 30 minutes a night during the brutal two-month run to the Cup.

The Bruins don’t have that type of guy right now, and they aren’t anywhere close to competing for a Cup until they get one.

So how do you get one?

Sweeney and his management team are already deeply involved in that process, and that’s where names like Jacob Trouba, Sami Vatanen and Matthew Dumba will figure prominently in trade discussions this summer. But those types of players are costly, both in terms what will be needed to be surrendered to acquire them -- trade partners will undoubtedly ask for such talent as David Pastrnak, Frank Vatrano and Ryan Spooner -- and in what they'll be seeking in new contracts, since those demands are what's pushing them into the trade market to begin with.

Ultimately, there’s no guarantee that Sweeney and Co. will close the deal for any of these defensemen, given how hard it is to acquire young talent in trades in the NHL. There's also no guarantee the Bruins will target the right guy in a blockbuster trade, seeing how their scouting staff has whiffed on players like Hayes, Zac Rinaldo and Brett Connolly in recent years.  

The Bruins can hope their amateur scouting and development group can unearth a gem. After all, the Blackhawks probably didn’t know they had a future Conn Smythe winner in Keith when they selected him 54th overall in the 2002 draft. The Penguins got a diamond in Kris Letang with the 62nd overall pick in 2005 NHL. The Bruins, too, struck gold when they acquired Johnny Boychuk from the Colorado Avalanche in a deal for energy forward Matt Hendricks. Within a few years, Boychuk developed into a top-pairing stud on a Stanley Cup championship team. 

So perhaps one of the young prospects currently in the Bruins system is the ultimate answer as an eventual replacement for Chara.

But that’s something tough to count on, especially since -- even if it happens -- it's unlikely to happen in time to provide help next season. Sweeney and Neely need to pull off something in the epic-acquisition category this summer, whether it’s a deal for Kevin Shattenkirk and/or something worked out with a team like Winnipeg for a stud like Trouba.

Both their jobs, and the immediate health and well-being of a Bruins organization currently in distress, may very well depend on it.