This is the third 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.
First things first: The leadership and general vibe around the Bruins dressing room was actually a little better last year than it was during a particularly listless 2014-15 season.
But the sometimes-motivational, sometimes-calming and sometimes-stern voices inside the room still couldn’t have been anywhere close to optimal levels as the Bruins went 3-8-1 in their final 12 games to once again finish a single point out of the playoffs. Even if the Bruin players haven’t technically quit on long-time coach Claude Julien, two straight late-season collapses make everybody wonder if the proper message and motivations are getting from the coaches to the leadership group and then on to the rank-and-file.
To lose so many games in regulation that late in the season is an indictment of the team's mental toughness. As is the disturbing tendency to shrink from the biggest challenges: The first three games of the season (an 0-3 record with a 7-16 goal differential). The Winter Classic (a 5-1 loss to the Canadiens). Milan Lucic's return to Boston (a 9-2 thrashing at the hands of Lucic's Kings). And that final, must-win game against Ottawa (a stunning 6-1 beatdown).
For whatever reason, it's seemed a lot more joyless around the Bruins on a daily basis in the last few years than it was back in their contending days, when big, bright personalities like Shawn Thornton, Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference were around. It's not something easily manufactured, or replaced once you’ve lost it. Bringing in a veteran glue guy like Max Talbot obviously wasn’t enough.
It also something captain Zdeno Chara was still smarting about during Bruins break-up day a couple of weeks ago.
“Obviously if you don’t have the effort, you won’t have results," he said. "I can’t really tell you that the whole season’s been a disappointment. We’ve shown some positive stretches and things that we’ve done well, and we improved. But when times were [there] to fold up or respond, we always kind of find ourselves taking steps backwards. That was one of the things that was disappointing, and frustrating.
“I think that we are close, but close is not close enough. We’ve seen the last two years that we missed the playoffs by a point, two points. It’s just, I mean, we’re there, but obviously the commitment has got to be on a higher level. The execution has to be on a higher level, and that’s like I said, every individual has to be better in that area. Like we’re always saying, Game 1 and Game 82, they shouldn’t be different. Every game counts. Every point counts.”
Those disturbing trends had Julien looking inward for answers.
“What I did was a self-evaluation . . . " he said. "Do I still have the ear of the dressing room? Are they still hearing?"
And in the end, Julien -- who could easily have found another job (like with the Senators) had he left Boston -- feels he's up for the challenge.
"I don’t want to be that guy that bails just because all of a sudden you hit a bump in the road," he said. "I want to be that guys that perseveres. It’s okay to be remembered right now as the winningest coach in Bruins history" -- a plateau he reached during the season -- "but I’d rather be remembered for a guy who had enough character to go back to the trenches, dig his heels in and help turn this organization around.”
Those sentiments certainly send the right kind of stubborn, determined and positive message the Bruins need to hear. But it’s also going to take something different from the players.
Chara and Patrice Bergeron have led by example with feverish work ethics, and a daily approach that doesn’t leave any room for compromise from those with a different agenda. But neither is a rah-rah, emotional-touchstone player, someone who can easily break the tension when things start going south . . . as they did in the final month in each of the last two seasons. This is where a Thornton, a Boychuk or a Ference would have known the proper way to challenge a wayward teammate, to stand up and bear the brunt of a withering critical jab from Julien, or simply pick just the right time to crack a joke that would ease the tension. Or to know when it was vital to stand up for a teammate on the ice, and show the kind of backbone and feistiness that the Bruins have sorely lacked in the last two years.
These are little things to be sure, but they can turn into very big things if neglected. While the Bruins were choking on fumes in their dressing room in the season’s final 12 games, Thornton was in Florida with his Panthers teammates enjoying the “Kevin Spacey in Space” hooded sweatshirt phenomenon that people around the team say Thornton came up with midway through the season.
Those kinds of little touches go a long way in building a winner, and making sure the weight of expectation never gets too heavy.
It simply feels like those expectations, combined with the serious erosion of talent/depth, have sucked some of the fun out of being a Bruin, and that really comes across at critical times during the season. It also feels like some players are simply straying from the system more than before, and not being pulled into the collective group as they might have been in the past.
Chris Kelly is the kind of player who can be instrumental in those areas, and certainly has the experience -- along with the respect of his teammates, and the willingness to say what needs to be said -- to be that kind of leader. There’s a reason Kelly was re-introduced as an important voice late in the season as he rehabbed from his broken leg, even though he wasn’t all that close to a return to the lineup.
Needless to say, Kelly’s presence is missed when he’s injured and away from the group for an extended period, like last season. That will be a consideration as the 35-year-old approaches free agency on July 1; he may have greater value to the Bruins than he would anywhere else around the NHL.
“From a . . . [team] glue standpoint, obviously . . . there was a void with Chris not being part of our locker room. Claude and I had a lot of talks about that," said general manager Don Sweeney. While admitting "Chris’ health is what we have to evaluate, first and foremost, as to when he can contribute on the ice to us", Sweeney hinted there may be more to the decision than that.
"Sometimes, those guys, it’s not necessarily the stat line always, but there’s some glue there that you do miss when he’s not [around]," said Sweeney. "[Kelly is] a little under-appreciated in that regard.”
Still, the Bruins need more than Kelly and the lead-by-example authority of Chara and Bergeron. Talent is always the most important deciding factor in the ultimate fate of a hockey club, but the simple fact is that the B's underachieved in each of the last two seasons with teams that should have made the playoffs.
That’s the ultimate warning sign that things aren’t as good as they could be, or should be, and need to be changed.