It’s less than 24 hours after the TD Garden debacle against the Senators, and many of us are still wondering what went wrong. Actually, it’s not that hard to figure it out. 8 months ago, TSP concluded the season preview for the team’s defense with this:
“…the Boston defense is not going to be much of a threat offensively, so they’ll have to take care of things in their own end. Without the requisite speed and ability to contain speed to the outside, that’s going to be a challenge.
It’s a game and gritty group- but there are a lot of if’s heading into the new season. That means the goaltending and the forwards are going to have to pick up the slack.”
As mentioned previously, defensive issues aside, it is still hard to square what happened in the last month, given the optimism that followed the several weeks after the trade deadline. The B’s seemed primed to cruise to a playoff spot with one of the Atlantic Division’s second or third-place seeds, only to suffer a complete and utter collapse that left them hoping for a miracle in the form of a Philadelphia Flyers flameout, and this after Detroit handed them the path to victory with their regulation loss to an undermanned NY Rangers squad yesterday.
It isn’t that the Bruins missed the playoffs- many of us expected that to happen after they removed Milan Lucic, Reilly Smith and Dougie Hamilton from last year’s lineup and replaced them with Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes up front and Matt Irwin and Colin Miller on the back end.
It’s how it happened.
As of St. Patrick’s Day, the B’s looked all but assured in silencing critics that predicted a major step backwards this season, but over the past 30 days, they crashed to earth and validated the doubts and questions. It isn’t just a matter of blown opportunities this hockey campaign, either- we saw nearly the same thing a year ago, and going back to the 2013 playoffs when they blew a series lead to the Montreal Canadiens. Heck, go back to 2012 and the monumental collapse in 2010 to the Flyers after building a 3-0 lead. One common denominator has consistently reared its ugly head: when playing at home, and needing a big win, the Boston Bruins not only come up empty, but lose in spectacularly poor fashion. Yesterday was no exception, and if nothing else- that simply has to change.
Boston is a notoriously passionate and tough sports town, so the context is everything when it comes to the Bruins’ second consecutive non-playoffs finish. The cynics are having a field day with this one and rightfully so- Cam Neely and Don Sweeney entered the 2015-16 season with gaping holes that weren’t adequately filled last summer. The vultures will be feasting on the carcass of this fiasco of a season for a good long time. It’s April 10- we’ve got about six months of it coming. If you don’t like being a Boston sports fan in the down times, then you might want to stay off the internet and talk radio, television, avoid the water cooler and anyplace else where the postmortem is sure to be one giant pig-pile.
The thing is- I’m not so sure that the Boston Bruins- from ownership all the way down to the on-ice product and everyone in between- doesn’t deserve the spotlight right now. I mean, how many times do you have to witness the same thing not working before you dispense with the peripheral changes and make sweeping ones?
In order to answer that, we must look at the 2015-16 hockey season and ask ourselves- where did it all go wrong?
1. Talent matters in any sport- hockey is no different
When I was growing up, I wanted to play in the NHL. At 43, I’m writing about it instead and no, I never played the game at any meaningful level. In the end, it all comes down to this in hockey as it is in just about all walks of life: wanting to be a skilled player and actually being talented enough to make the plays consistently to win enough games at the highest level of hockey in the world are two different things. The Bruins have gone out and assembled a roster of gritty, character types that play an effective 200-foot game with the exception of just a couple of skaters.
Unfortunately, they’ve also traded away some of their most talented players for various reasons. Phil Kessel, Tyler Seguin, Hamilton, Lucic, Smith…those are the productive, skilled and tempo-altering players who are no longer on the team. Two of them were acquired for Kessel in 2009, and in 2016 the Bruins have little to show for it. Loui Eriksson will almost assuredly be playing in a new zip code next season unless he has a change of heart and decides to accept Boston’s most recent four-year extension offer.
So while Patrice Bergeron and Beleskey led Boston’s character brigade, and Brad Marchand certainly stepped up his play and leadership with a career-best 37-goal campaign, it simply wasn’t enough.They’re an industrious bunch, but the 2016 B’s had known talent gaps when facing the class of the NHL.
The B’s did not have a talented enough roster- top to bottom- and especially on defense- to close the deal and get into the postseason. I can hammer the defense as a group, but you all saw it unfold throughout the course of the year, so at this point- what purpose does that serve? We knew the defense was the elephant in the room coming in, and yet, Boston’s best hope was that the forwards and goaltending, plus the character and experience on the roster would see the B’s through to the postseason.
Those intangibles weren’t sufficient. The gritty, hard-working types are important, but the top-tier NHL clubs all have them plus the even more critical multiple high-end players on the roster, some at each position. The St. Louis Blues immediately come to mind here.
Ironically- the B’s smashed the Blues in their last outing, which fueled the hope that Boston would hold on and get in. After inconceivable losses to New Jersey and Carolina (two teams looking up at them in the Eastern Conference standings) the B’s teased with a decisive win against Detroit only to crash and burn against the Senators. Those same Senators, by the way, who were also looking up at them in the standings and now get to pick ahead of the B’s, too. As Dennis Miller once said- “Talk about not having a date to the prom…”
When it all comes down to it, the 2015-16 Boston Bruins simply weren’t talented enough to be one of the league’s teams in the NHL’s spring 16, so they’re out. Sometimes, it is as simple as that. On many nights, the better team won, and the better squad wasn’t wearing the spoked B.
2. The coach is accountable but also needs an awfully long stick to score or break up offensive rushes from the bench
I understand and respect the criticisms of Claude Julien as the Bruins bench boss. I just don’t think the problems with Julien’s coaching are as simple as him not playing the ‘yutes (or the infamous- “he didn’t develop them!” canard) from start to finish. Experienced players are more trustworthy than inexperienced ones…that may upset some folks, but it’s a fact of life. There isn’t some vast conspiracy- there’s just so many things that happen behind the scenes that we in the media and fans aren’t privy to.
But there’s no denying it- if the players loved playing for him, they didn’t show it. When the rubber met the road, the NHL Bruins simply didn’t perform for him with the season on the line.
Julien (barely) passed Art Ross for the top spot on Boston’s career coaching victories list, but the run to 400 wins stalled out badly at the end. And this much is true: you can’t point to the coach’s effectiveness at getting the guys to play hard for him without acknowledging that even with the lack of aforementioned talent, the 2015-16 Bruins (and 2014-15 squad too) didn’t play hard enough when it mattered most.
Julien is a class act and if the B’s opt to fire him over this, then so be it. He’ll get hired about 5 minutes later and continue to be a coach in this league- if not in Ottawa or Montreal, then somewhere. But Boston’s larger issue is- who will they bring in to replace him and will that person have much more to work with than Julien did? We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it.
I won’t lie- I’ve gotten to know Julien a bit in the nine years he’s been with the team, so it is understandable why players like Patrice Bergeron love him so much. But, hockey is a business- a results-oriented one- and Julien’s teams have imploded down the stretch in consecutive years and even before that. If not for a fateful deflection that went wide and a tip that didn’t in Boston’s Game 7 win over Montreal in 2011, or the roaring comeback over the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013, we likely would have witnessed Julien’s departure long ago.
The critics who say he doesn’t adjust well enough to what other teams do and can stubbornly adhere to what he believes in even when not working have a point. But so do those who say that you can’t give him a set of Crayola crayons and expect him to craft the Mona Lisa. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and in pro sports, being in the middle won’t get you very far.
Getting the Bruins into the playoffs would have validated his excellence as coach given what he had to work with. But his team didn’t get in, and bad things happen to good people all the time. It won’t be surprising if management pulls the plug and makes a change.
3. Decisions in the past and present limited Sweeney’s options
The life of an NHL GM is often fraught with peril.
When Don Sweeney was named to the post after Peter Chiarelli’s dismissal, he had a Herculean task ahead to create cap flexibility and keep the Bruins on track to get back into contention. He tried to do both and it didn’t work.
He ultimately stuck with Claude Julien, and then made two big draft-day moves- each alternately blasted and praised as myriad analysts dissected each. Hamilton to Calgary for three picks- not one NHL roster player in return- was a shocker and the court of public opinion came down swiftly against the fledgling GM, even if it was later revealed that Hamilton and his representation didn’t exactly give Sweeney much to go on in negotiating a second contract with Boston. Lucic to the Kings was, conversely, almost universally praised for its return- a 1st (Jakub Zboril) a capable, on-the-verge-of-being-a-starter in Martin Jones and an on-the-verge-of-being-an-NHL-defenseman in Colin Miller.
Sweeney and the Bruins were widely mocked (What is Boston doing?! were the breathless headlines Friday night and Saturday) for drafting Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn after the first round given some other bigger names on the board, and so- given the seasons Kyle Connor, Mathew Barzal, Colin White and even Thomas Chabot had, those knives are going to come out again. Ultimately, the Bruins didn’t do what the pundits said they should have, but in fairness- the aforementioned players made a case that they should have been chosen over at least two if not all three players Boston took ahead of them. We’re still waiting on the jury and might be for quite some time. (Disclaimer- I have no issue with any of the three Boston took when they did. It’s possible that everyone is right in taking who they did where, at least as things stand right now.)
Ultimately, though- last summer was about freeing up cap dollars, so Reilly Smith was sent packing for a reduced cap hit in Jimmy Hayes. Unfortunately for Boston, Hayes not only failed to take the anticipated next step, but his lack of foot speed and physicality, made him the target of fan angst and derision pretty early on. If he wasn’t getting the goals and points, it looked like he was “coasting” and therefore became an easy scapegoat, especially when Smith returned to scoring form in Florida. Hayes doesn’t deserve a lot of the pure disdain he’s gotten, but the results weren’t where they needed to be.
Sweeney committed a blunder in acquiring Zac Rinaldo for a 2017 third-round pick but at least Sweeney recognized it by cutting bait in February rather than riding it out with a spare part for an entire season. In the end, it’s not the pick that hurts (though it is a wasted asset)- it’s the questionable judgment that Rinaldo could have been an impact player in Boston enough to give up a third in the first place. We could see this coming, and how the B’s pro scouts couldn’t or didn’t is what stokes the fires of discontent in April.
Aside from Matt Irwin, Sweeney did little to address his defense and that was the biggest criticism, as once the season began, it was increasingly tougher to make a deal for a capable, stabilizing force with so much parity in the NHL and teams not interested in giving up valuable young and promising blue line talent for what Boston had to offer. John-Michael Liles was too little, too late; Lee Stempniak made an impact, but Sweeney decided to stick with Eriksson to help get the Bruins into the postseason and now that the team couldn’t even do that, not moving the impending UFA at the deadline will be a major talking point from now until they either surrender his rights for a middling pick or he goes elsewhere on July 1.
If anything- Sweeney’s actions last June proved he’s capable of bold action, but some of Chiarelli’s past mistakes and some poor decisions in the offseason drew up the blueprint that we’re left with today.
4. The B’s core is not hardcore enough
The Bruins have roughly $28 million invested in four players: Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask. Notice who is missing- Brad Marchand. He’s entering his last year of a bargain $4.5M cap hit and the B’s are going to have to open the vault to keep him. If Krejci is making $7.25M for the next five years, what is Marchand worth? David Pastrnak will also be due a new contract entering the 2017-18 season, and depending on how he plays next year, what are his reps going to be asking for? Torey Krug’s future with the Bruins will be decided in the here and now.
But all of this gets back to one central question: how good is Boston’s core? After what we’ve witnessed the past two regular seasons and going back to the 2013 playoffs, not good enough.
Chara is 39 and can no longer carry the defense. He’s been the captain for a decade and has become an easy target in a “what have you done for me lately?” world. Chara needed help this season and simply didn’t get it. It was painful to watch most nights, and I remain convinced that his right knee is a major culprit in the falloff of his play. He’ll never be the player he once was, but in the right role, he can still be effective for the remaining two years of his deal when expected retirement follows. The B’s weren’t able to put him in position to succeed, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t finish out his career in Boston if he so desires- just as long as it isn’t expected that he gave them what he did in his prime.
Bergeron will be 31 in May…he’s the team’s heart, soul and most productive player. But he’s not above criticism either- where was he yesterday? Nobody (least of all TSP) is blaming Bergeron for what happened, but if we want to have an honest discussion about what went wrong in Boston, we can’t completely fence off certain players while pointing the finger at others who are more convenient targets. Bergeron could have led by example and even in a loss, created some signature moments. He, like the rest of his mates, did not, so nobody is off-limits in the discussion of the team’s issues.
Having said that Bergeron isn’t going anywhere, and he’s the absolute least of the team’s worries. But, shouldn’t management be figuring out how to surround St. Patrice and Marchand with better talent? He’s on the wrong side of 30 now- the window is closing. Bergeron is proof that when playing around the margins and half-measures to address the roster, he’s not powerful enough to carry the team on his shoulders to victory. Even though, for the most part, he’s tried to do just that. He had a remarkable year, but when it all came down to the wire, Bergeron wasn’t able to will his team to a win.
That leads us to Krejci and Rask.
Krejci had a tremendous start and looked like that $7.25M player early on, but as has been the case in recent seasons, he got hit with injuries and as the grind of the season went on, was less and less effective. What good is having the franchise’s highest active scorer in the playoffs if you can’t make it into the dance?
It’s a bad contract, period- the biggest albatross Chiarelli saddled the Bruins with in his final year as GM. He makes more than Bergeron and delivers less. He’s a good player but doesn’t have the elite skill to be a great one. He turns 30 next month, and the B’s are in real danger of being stuck with a center who is capable enough when fully healthy, but isn’t capable of making it through an entire season in peak condition. You can’t put that kind of guy on the third line, so where does that leave the ability to build versatile and productive scoring units across the board?
The simple fact is- the Bruins needed more than they got from Krejci this season and the final game of the regular season was a microcosm of all that is of concern with him in the present and future. Like Bergeron yesterday, he was unable to be a difference-maker, so we witnessed three goals from pluggers like Chris Neil and Zack Smith instead. They alone gave the Sens a 2-1 win even if you throw out Smith’s late-game empty-netter and the tallies by Mika Zibanejad, Matt Puempel and P.G. Pageau to make it a complete embarrassment of a 6-1 final score.
There is no denying that Krejci is a high-end passer and driven guy who truly cares about his team and winning. On paper, Krejci makes complete sense where he resides in the team’s salary structure, but he isn’t doing enough in the real world to validate what he does best. The questions about return on investment will only loom larger and larger if he maintains his current trajectory.
Trading Krejci is no easy fix, either. His contract is even more problematic- he has a full no-move clause until 2019 followed by a no-trade in 2019-20. Assuming Sweeney could find a taker (and make no mistake- the B’s would be getting a low return and likely retaining money in the process), Krejci would have to bless off on it. Not impossible, but not easily done. There are teams out there capable of adding his term and cap hit, but not very many. For the time being, Krejci is worth more to the Bruins than he is to some other team, but if this is the “new normal” for him, then the B’s can’t afford to keep the status quo as is. They’ll have to look elsewhere on the roster for cap relief.
There aren’t seven million reasons for trading a particular player, but it was a major disappointment that Tuukka Rask got sick and wasn’t there when his team needed him. Sure, with the way the Bruins played it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Rask was in net or it was the ghost of Tiny Thompson- Boston wasn’t winning that game. He certainly didn’t mean to get sick and life happens- especially when you have a toddler (read: germ factory) at home, but is this what $7M buys you these days? The do-or-die game of the season after other mediocre showings sprinkled throughout the year in the worst statistical performance of his career, and Rask wasn’t even there to attempt to be the difference maker. He still has his hardcore believers, but that number is shrinking.
The Bruins were rumored to be discussing moving Rask on draft day last summer, and with hindsight being 20/20, they probably should have and given the reins to the then still (but not now) unproven Martin Jones. The Hamilton trade furor and fan backlash is likely what stopped Sweeney in his tracks on moving Rask (assuming the rumor is true), but after this season of up-and-down play and a less-than-team first attitude to boot, while the goaltender doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the blame, he nevertheless played a key part in the collapse.
For me, it’s simple- while I admire the hell out of Rask’s natural talent, I’m not sure I’d want him in a foxhole next to me. Right, wrong, indifferent- he’s the one core piece the Bruins could move to try and get out from under the situation they’re in. He’s not yet 30, will no doubt appeal to a multitude of teams that could see him as a critical piece to get them over the hump, and hey- he’s a talented player. Boston’s problem is that the teams with the most to gain from Rask and the most to offer (young, up-and-coming D) are all pretty well set between the pipes. Nobody ever said the life of a GM was easy…
Trading him certainly means there’s a good chance the B’s will take an even bigger step backwards next season if Rask is dealt, but maybe not. And what’s the real upside to keeping him for what looks to be another bridge/re-tool year even if the B’s can land one higher-end defender and maybe another capable player via free agency? We’ve already seen in two seasons that Rask was unable to elevate his play enough to negate the dearth of skill at other positions. So, depending on the return and how much cap space is allocated to other talent at other positions, it just might get Boston on the right track to sustained success sooner than many might think.
In the end, I just don’t feel that Rask is the right player for this team. His body language and at times perceived indifference doesn’t seem suited for the clear growing pains such a porous defense and inconsistent forward group is going to bring to the ice on any given night in Boston. It doesn’t make Rask a bad person, and he’s done some good things for the B’s in his tenure. Before the legion of Rask fans descend on this space to blast me for saying it- I truly believe a change of scenery would be best for him too. I have little doubt that with the right destination, he’d waive his own NMC to do so. Unfortunately, it also means Sweeney and Co. are selling low, but sometimes you have to swallow hard, cut your losses and do what you think is right for the club over the long haul.
The core needs a makeover. Whether it’s Rask or someone else, we’ll have to see what comes next. But we’ve seen that that playing along the margins (trading Ryan Spooner for example) or half measures won’t cut it. The core isn’t the identity of the Boston Bruins anymore- they were at one time, but in the 2016 season’s final moments, not one of them was able (or even available) to make a difference. That’s a fact that wasn’t lost on management.
So- there it is.
I intended this to be a shorter post, but you got a book instead. I will follow up with a podcast and spend more time on that medium identifying what steps the B’s might take to right the ship.
I will say this- no single offseason is going to get it done. While the farm has some nice players, there aren’t a lot of the high-end types who are not only projected to be eventual stars NHL but who are ready to make the jump to the big time starting in 2016-17. That doesn’t mean that more won’t emerge in the coming months and years the way Frank Vatrano did this year and David Pastrnak the season before, but it’s not going to be a simple matter of plugging in prospects and young players and expecting better results than the ones we got this time around.
It’s going to be a rocky offseason, with every move and non-move sure to be dissected and flayed with relish on both sides. But this is why we love and follow the game.
I want to thank everyone who has read the blog since it began last July. The first NHL regular season is now in the books and while the disappointment won’t subside for a while, I am grateful for the candor, the feedback and the support.
Attending the World Under-18 Championship next week will allow me to turn the focus of the blog to what comes next and begin preparing for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
I hope you’ll keep reading…
– Kirk Luedeke
“The End”- the Doors from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now