As we say farewell to 2015, we’ll take a look back at a turbulent year for the Boston Bruins franchise, one that saw the team miss the postseason for the first time in eight years.
With a solid 20-12-4 record and third place in the Atlantic Division heading into Friday’s Winter Classic against Montreal (just one spot and point above the B’s in the standings) Boston has a chance to start 2016 on a brighter note.
Here are five stories and an honorable mention that highlight the year the was for Boston Bruins hockey:
1. Bruins miss playoffs, fire GM Peter Chiarelli
Just two years prior, the Boston GM’s team nearly captured a second Stanley Cup since 2011 before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks (winners in 2010, 2013 and 2015) in six games. He followed that up a year later with the top team in the 2013-14 regular season before a second-round seven-game flameout to the Montreal Canadiens. However, with his team in a salary cap mess and missing the playoffs to a tie-breaker on the final night of the 2014-15 campaign, team president Cam Neely relieved Chiarelli of his duties.
It’s an indicator of just how fickle and results-driven the professional sports business is, but personalities and power consolidation might have played a bigger role than Neely and ownership want to admit. Regardless, Chiarelli soon resigned his position in the organization and the Edmonton Oilers went all-in on him building another success story in Alberta, naming him president and general manager just a few weeks later. Chiarelli then had the benefit of watching a generational talent in Connor McDavid fall into his lap at the 2015 draft (he inherited Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask at the 2006 draft- technically before he officially assumed GM duties in Boston).
Chiarelli’s Oilers teams won both games against his old organization this year, but it took a shootout and overtime respectively to do it. This sets up a fun East-West grudge rivalry between the two teams for years as he attempts to change the Oilers’ ways from perennial doormats to legitimate hockey power.
2. Boston names Don Sweeney new GM
Neely’s old teammate and close friend was named to step into Chiarelli’s old position on May 20, 2015 after being his assistant for several years and starting out as a player development consultant from day one of the post-Mike O’Connell (and interim GM Jeff Gorton) era. To think that Sweeney got the job solely because of his connection to the team president is wholly unfair to a man who not only played more than 1,000 NHL games on the Boston blue line, but who also spent countless hours in rinks around the world scouting future talent and working to develop B’s prospects into successful pros.
Sweeney has been active and aggressive since taking the helm. His first (and perhaps most astute) move was to keep Claude Julien in the fold. Make no mistake- had Boston dismissed him behind Chiarelli, another team (Edmonton?) would have pounced quickly. Since then, Sweeney made a series of bold moves that so far, most of which, have worked out (see No. 3 below). One longtime (and very respected) NHL director of scouting I ran into Sunday night in Fort Lauderdale told me point blank that Sweeney had “balls” and that you had to give him credit from making what was sure to be (at least initially) two unpopular and risky trades without a whole lot of proven assets coming back in return. “He’s doing what he thinks is right,” the scouting director said outside a local watering hole. “We’ll see if the heat he’s getting is even warranted by the time we’re halfway through next season.”
With a hot take like that, you might be right to look up a list of chief scouts to see if anyone’s last name is Nostradamus.
There’s plenty of hockey left before we get too carried away, but if most were told the B’s would be 8 games over .500 heading into the Winter Classic, they’d have taken it.
3. 2015 draft day trades: Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton go West
“Trader Don” did not waste much time in making several aggressive, even shocking moves to shed salary and re-work the Bruins roster to fit his vision.
Initial reaction to the decision to trade Dougie Hamilton, with news breaking in the early Friday afternoon before the draft’s first round, was not positive. Beyond the shock of finding out that the new GM had just dealt a 22-year-old and the last piece of the Phil Kessel trade return from Toronto was one thing, but that the B’s got three draft picks from Calgary- their first and two (of three) second-rounders all in 2015- was even more stunning. The team had just opened up a sizable hole on its blue line, which had been exposed in the spring when Boston failed to earn a playoff berth, and in return- the team was placing its hopes on future assets, none of whom had a chance to fill the void of Hamilton’s departure.
Before fans could come out of the daze, more rumors swirled, this time less surprising but nevertheless polarizing when it looked like Sweeney was on the verge of trading fan favorite Milan Lucic to Los Angeles. On its face- it made sense. Sweeney was trying to rework Boston’s dire cap situation- created by his former boss- and with Lucic entering the last year of a contract that already paid him $6 million, the writing was on the wall that the B’s couldn’t afford to extend him, nor did many feel his play warranted it. This time, Sweeney landed more immediate assets from the Kings- backup goaltender Martin Jones and prized defense prospect Colin Miller, coming off a 19-goal season in the AHL which culminated in a championship. These two players were topped with LA’s first pick- one spot before Boston’s own 14th overall position, giving them picks 13-15. The rest is, as they say, history.
However- there are reports that the Bruins acquired the many assets as currency to move up in the draft to the top-five in order to grab Boston College star and Norwood, Mass. native Noah Hanifin. It didn’t work out, but if in fact that was Sweeney’s vision, the decision to trade Hamilton for what he received in return makes perfect sense. In dealing Hamilton but drafting Hanifin (say that three times- real fast), Sweeney could have spun moving his young defender to the Flames as an eventual upgrade with a marketable asset like Hanifin, viewed by most scouts (including this one) as a future franchise cornerstone and legitimate 2-way defenseman. Hamilton has proven he can generate offense, but his defensive zone play has always been and continues to be an adventure with his new team. Hanifin, who is already in the NHL at 18 with Carolina, is breaking in slowly, but you can see that he’s growing and maturing. It won’t be long until he and Justin Faulk are forming as formidable a 1-2 punch at the position as any in the league.
Sweeney didn’t just stop wheeling and dealing at the draft, though.
He then traded Jones, who was unsigned and not going to be happy sitting behind Tuukka Rask after previously backing up Jonathan Quick, to San Jose for their first-rounder in 2016 plus defensive center prospect Sean Kuraly, captain of the Miami University RedHawks (a 2011 fifth-round pick of the Sharks).
Sweeney added Zac Rinaldo from Philly for a 2017 third-rounder, then made another move by sending Reilly Smith and Marc Savard’s contract to South Florida for Jimmy Hayes.
Those transactions didn’t match the surprise or impact that dealing Hamilton and Lucic did, but so far, they haven’t blown up in Sweeney’s face, either.
Signing veteran farmhand D Matt Irwin was a poor move, but picking up Landon Ferraro off of waivers from Detroit was another solid add for Sweeney and his pro scouts. When you add pieces like Frank Vatrano and Austin Czarnik, signed as undrafted college free agents under the Chiarelli regime, there is hope for the future.
The question that dogs Sweeney now is- how can he find a way to add that heir apparent and future No. 1 to replace Zdeno Chara? When at first you don’t succeed as was the case with Hanifin, then try, try again. It’s much easier said than done, however, and might take a bit of luck.
4. Claude Julien enters ninth season behind B’s bench, in range of coaching record
Boston’s longest-tenured coach since Art Ross stands to break the hockey icon’s franchise record, which has stood since the end of World War II. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun has an excellent article on Julien and the idea (I agree with it) that he’s a legitimate Jack Adams Award candidate because of what he’s doing with Boston’s roster amidst all the off-season turmoil and expectations. Go here and read it. It’s a detailed piece replete with sources and I think it effectively captures the essence of Julien’s legacy in Boston and why an active movement to oust him without a clear solution in place borders on the absurd. Here’s an excerpt from LeBrun’s article:
The Bruins’ season ended in April, Don Sweeney was named general manager on May 20, and Julien had to wait until June 5 for an announcement that he would return as coach.
Bruins star Patrice Bergeron remembers chatting with Sweeney last summer, but the head coach wasn’t a topic of conversation.
“I think he knew what I thought of Claude anyway, that I love playing for him and I’ve learned so much from him,” Bergeron said Tuesday night. “So he didn’t need to ask me the question. I think he just needed time to figure out things is all.”
Julien is the best Bruins coach in my lifetime, and although doesn’t have the longevity of Ross because the NHL played far fewer games when he coached as opposed to now, will deserve his spot on top of the franchise’s coaching list. Not convinced? More from Bergeron:
“He always finds a way to get the best out of each player, it’s really his strong suit to recognize if the team lacks confidence, or has too much confidence, up and down, he has a good pulse for the feeling out of the dressing room,” said Bergeron. “And he’s really fair. It’s easy to play for a coach like that. You want to give him all you’ve got.”
Julien gets criticism for his personnel decisions, and no amount of success is going to bring everyone completely on board because of that. In the minds of some- even if he wins with certain veterans, the fact that he’s not icing a more skilled group will keep the critics supplied with fresh gripes. Having said that, he’s 17 career wins from passing Ross and has managed to keep his players loyal and playing hard for him. With a club that had major questions surrounding it entering the season, you’d need a pretty enticing option in place to supplant Julien for such a move to make sense.
5. Bruins host 2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium vs. Canadiens
In 2010, the B’s needed overtime to beat the Philadelphia Flyers at frozen Fenway Park in a memorable first foray in the NHL’s annual New Year’s Day outdoor game tradition. This time, they host their hated rival from the north- the Montreal Canadiens- and go south to Foxboro and the home of the New England Patriots to do it.
There’s plenty of information out there on the game, which has become quite the spectacle since the NHL introduced it more than a decade ago, so I won’t rehash it all here. Three of my friends and colleagues- ESPN’s Joe McDonald, DJ Bean of WEEI and Joe Haggerty of CSNNE are a trio to follow for fine coverage. Be sure to hook on with Brian “Rear Admiral” McGonagle of Barstool Sports, too- he’s a good egg with a large following who blends hockey and pop culture like no one else I know. Finally, the writers at the Boston dailies are all fine people who will give you the ins and outs, starting with the alumni and women’s pro hockey games tomorrow.
HM: 10 picks re-stock the organizational cupboard
The team entered draft weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with two picks in the first two rounds, and by the time Sweeney & Co. walked into the BB&T Center for Friday’s primetime event, those selections had swelled to six in exchange for Lucic and Hamilton.
Boston was high on Czech defender Jakub Zboril, so when their reported attempts to move up for top-rated D Hanifin proved unsuccessful, he was in that second tier of defenders and made sense at 13th overall. On the plus side, Zboril has size and is highly talented with skating, passing and shooting skills galore. He’s also got some real nasty to his game and he plays with a physical edge. He is inconsistent with his effort and intensity, however- that is something the Bruins will watch closely.
Jake DeBrusk was the team’s second pick at 14th overall and began to raise eyebrows when the B’s did not opt for either of smallish but uber-skilled and fast playmaking center Mathew Barzal or USHL leading scorer Kyle Connor. DeBrusk, who scored 42 goals for the Swift Current Broncos a year ago and was just traded to the Red Deer Rebels as they gear up for the 2016 Memorial Cup, has a natural nose for the net and can score goals by the bushel. The left wing is not a dynamic game-breaker like Barzal, but the B’s wanted a finisher and they got one. The son of former NHL enforcer Louie DeBrusk is a completely different player than his dad was, but is a keeper.
The sharp criticism Boston drew in taking Soo Greyhounds right wing Zach Senyshyn has been much more muted this season, as he has scored 22 goals in his first 33 games of the OHL season. With his impressive NHL tools- a 6-2 frame, fast wheels, superb puck skills and finishing ability, there is much to like about this fledgling power forward. He’s still raw and addressing consistency in his game (more on that in a future blog post), but after getting ridiculed in trading Hamilton for the pick that became Senyshyn, you’re not hearing that as much in pundit circles these days, especially with how shaky Hamilton’s start in Calgary was. This is a trade that in time analysts will say both teams won, but the Flames are getting the more immediate returns.
Big shutdown defender Brandon Carlo came next at 37, acquired with Philadelphia’s pick (obtained from the Islanders in the much-criticized Johnny Boychuk deal on the eve of the 2014-15 campaign). At 6-5, he’s massive, but his long arms give him an even bigger reach than other guys his size. He’s a fluid, mobile skater for one so big, and we’ve seen it in the WJC, as he pretty much shuts down players who try to get to the net on his side of the ice either by using his long stick and strength to block a straight net drive or his quickness to deny opponents room on the outside. He’s as good a shutdown player as you will find in the prospect ranks, but his offensive potential at the NHL level is a question mark at this stage. He scored his first goal of the tourney today against Switzerland in USA’s 10-1 drubbing, so there’s much to like about this player.
Swedish center Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, acquired with the second of three Flames picks for Hamilton at 45 overall (the same draft spot that the B’s got Bergeron at in 2003, btw) is surging up the prospect rankings with a superb freshman season at Boston University. ‘JFK’ is smooth, poised and intelligent- he doesn’t push the pace a lot, but is creative and slick- he uses his vision and deft stick to set up quality scoring chances and can find the back of the net, too. He’s very good at the faceoff dot and has surprised many with his poise and maturity for one so young. He’s playing well for Sweden at the WJC.
The B’s also grabbed Quebec defender Jeremy Lauzon with the last of Calgary’s picks at 52nd overall in the second round. The big, rugged and skilled two-way guy was one of Canada’s last WJC cuts and has impressed with a career offensive season while logging upwards of about 30 minutes for Rouyn-Noranda.He doesn’t quite have the flash and polish of higher-regarded blue line prospects, nor does he possess the early draft pedigree of others, but he’s a perfect blend between the offensive skill of Zboril and defensive prowess Carlo.
With six picks in the books, the B’s could have called it a successful two days, but they landed two more particularly intriguing players with some boom potential down the road.
Huge Czech goalie Daniel Vladar went off the board to them in the mid-third round. At 6-5, he has outstanding size and quickness, and looks like someone who could one day evolve into a legitimate NHL goalie. On the downside, he’s raw and seems to guess at where shots are coming from rather than effectively tracking the puck or reading the unfolding play. There’s no pressure on him to succeed right away, so like Zane McIntyre, the B’s can afford to put him on the long track and take their time.
WHL agitator Jesse Gabrielle looks like fantastic value in the fourth round. A Bruins fan growing up in his native Saskatchewan, he played some Minnesota high school hockey before major junior and likens his playing style to idol Brad Marchand. He’s not quite as blazing fast, but is plenty quick enough. Gabrielle is bigger, stronger and perhaps meaner than Marchand is. He’s well on pace to shattering his previous career bests with his third Dub team- Prince George- after Regina traded him over the summer. He needs to stay focused and make sure the hockey comes first, but this is certainly a player with legitimate NHL potential if he keeps maturing and growing.
Boston rounded out the draft (after trading their 5th-round selection to Minnesota for the Wild’s 5th in 2016) with Wisconsin center Cameron Hughes- a smallish but offensively talented pivot who toils on a struggling club. They took raw but developing Minnesota forward Jack Becker with their final pick in the seventh round.
While none of the ten picks immediately jump out on paper as having elite high-end potential, the initial returns look promising with more than a few who have a chance to one day make the Boston roster and contribute. There’s much work left, but in a deep draft, the B’s appear to have added some quality depth with a few players like Senyshyn, Lauzon, JFK and Gabrielle in particular- who might one day far exceed their draft positions and perform better than players drafted ahead of them.
Only time will tell.