I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to jump into the mix on the state of the Boston Bruins organization after the season ended two weeks ago, with the team throwing out a complete and total dud at home against the Ottawa Senators in a do-or-die final game.
I was away at Grand Forks, N.D. watching the World Under-18 Hockey Championship (which ends today in a gold medal game that features neither USA nor Canada, winners of the gold medal going all the way back to 2007), so I wasn’t paying strict attention to the pair of season-ending press conferences the Bruins leadership held. The accountability reviews happened Thursday, April 14 with GM Don Sweeney and Claude Julien, and then about a week later with team president Cam Neely and owners Jeremy Jacobs and his son, Charles Jacobs, who is the Jacobs family’s most visible influence on the club as the Chief Executive Officer of the Delaware North company’s Boston holdings (ie- the Bruins, TD Garden and all the various mechanisms related to those entities).
I was holding off because there was no shortage of coverage analyzing the pressers and what was and wasn’t said by the various stakeholders, and I wanted to see what the Providence Bruins would do in the AHL playoffs after a strong season given that club’s bumbling start out of the gate. Alas, the P-Bruins dropped game 3 in double OT last night, swept out of the playoffs unceremoniously by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in three consecutive overtime wins, each time Providence failing to get that fortuitous play that the Penguins managed in all three contests.
So, here we are: the Boston Bruins are done. The Providence Bruins are done. If you’re a B’s fan, the 2015-16 season ended the way it began- with deep pessimism about the team’s direction and ability to achieve the perennial high standards that everyone had come to expect since capturing the 2011 Stanley Cup championship in memorable fashion and then reaching the final series just two seasons later.
The recurring theme I keep going back to is this: it isn’t that the Bruins failed to reach the playoffs two seasons in a row in 2015 and 2016, but it’s how they’ve lost out- with a pair of consecutive spring swoons that just about everyone save the most ardent of optimists could see coming. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying on the team’s part, and the cynics will likely even debate that point, but I think by and large- modern sports fandom and by that, I mean people who cheer for successful teams- has become an entitled lot. They simply come to expect enduring excellence, and why not? Aiming high should be lauded not derided, and when your team summits one of the toughest challenges (if not *the* most difficult) in capturing the Stanley Cup, there is an expectation that follows. Unfortunately, as Boston fans have learned over the past three seasons in the wake of the Bruins coming up short against the NHL’s modern dynasty in the Chicago Blackhawks, savvy management coupled with a long-term vision and sprinkled with some good old fashioned luck, is critical to the kind of sustained success that the Blackhawks are enjoying, with three championships since 2010.
How did we get here? Where did it all go wrong?
Just two years ago, the Bruins were President’s Trophy winners and had just blitzed the Detroit Red Wings in the opening round, preparing to face their historical nemesis- the Montreal Canadiens. Although it was the Habs, spirits were high and Boston fans, some of them, were already making their plans for an Eastern Conference Final matchup. When it all came crashing down, it turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. And so, two non-playoff finishes later, the team is looking at the ruins of a pair of close-but-not-quite regular seasons and an exodus of players either a part of those two Stanley Cup runs (Milan Lucic, Johnny Boychuk, Tyler Seguin) or those who were expected to carry the torch well into the next decade (Dougie Hamilton, Reilly Smith) and there isn’t much to show for it. To add to the concern, the B’s have several higher-dollar contracts invested in aging veterans with injury challenges (Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, David Krejci) and three years after trading Seguin in a blockbuster deal, the Bruins have very little to show for one of the NHL’s biggest stars in 2016.
All of this leads naturally to the sharp knives coming out and in a results-oriented business like pro sports, when you don’t win, the recriminations will follow. That’s just life. But, the Bruins didn’t help themselves, and I’ll attempt to explain why in the coming passages- just bear with me.
The B’s were slow to react to another spring of disappointment, and that added to the friction and frustration in Boston. None of the team’s top brass came out publicly in the wake of the sinking of the S.S. Bruins 2016 as is the tradition when players pack up their things after a season and head home, talking to the media on their way out in addition to their internal exit interviews.
In this case, it was a mistake by whomever made the call- Neely, Sweeney…are we sure who is making those kinds of decisions at 100 Legends Way these days? But whoever decided to go into complete radio silence/blackout mode misjudged the fan angst this time. A statement, even a simple one, such as “As an organization, we thank our fans for their support in what has been a disappointing season for all of us. In the coming days, we intend to talk about what happened, why it happened and what we plan to accomplish not only in 2016-17, but in the years beyond as we strive to give our city a team worthy of the Boston Bruins name,” or something to that effect would have gone a long way. It would not have erased the negativity, but at the same time would have at least demonstrated a modicum of accountability. After all, the top brass knew there would be a day of reckoning with the media and by extension, the fans who felt so let down (go look at the club’s home record this year), so what possible purpose did it serve for the team’s leadership to go completely silent while allowing the negative narrative to fester and become even more toxic for five full days?
Fill disclosure: I work in public relations, so regardless of who my boss is, I would never advise that kind of course of action. This story wasn’t going away, and the B’s front office added to their problems by going silent when public scrutiny on them was at its most intense. They might have had some very good reasons for it, but now it doesn’t matter. Why? Because it simply reinforced the growing narrative that the current regime doesn’t know what it is doing. Right, wrong…who cares? In life, we tell ourselves to focus on what we can control. In this case, the B’s had some control over the narrative and how the media presented their side of things.
By going MIA when the wound was at its most critical, they surrendered an essential opportunity to win some confidence by those fair-minded but concerned supporters in the middle. A statement would not have done much to affect the extremes- those who want the entire front office and Julien fired, nor those who are staunch in their support and believe that the team’s leadership deserves more time to get things right no matter what. Those groups are loud and vocal…but they are also a minority. The larger element of the Bruins fanbase tries to take a more logical, less emotional and reactionary stance- they call things like they see them. And when the B’s leadership sent the players out but were nowhere to be seen, it didn’t matter what reasons they had for doing so- they lost more supporters than they gained.
Sweeney and Julien came out to face the music first…five days after the Saturday afternoon massacre at the TD Garden when the B’s not only blew a lead (again!) in what was essentially win or go home scenario but also utterly collapsed in the process with a nightmarish second period with $7M goalie Tuukka Rask ill and unable to even try to be a difference-maker. Of course, it wouldn’t have made a difference, but again- it isn’t that we arrived to this boiling point in Boston- it’s the HOW it all happened.
As Steve Conroy wrote in the Boston Herald, if folks wanted to see someone’s head on a pike over what happened this year, they were not appeased. Here was the defining quote from Sweeney, and one that will continue to be brought up during his tenure as GM of the Bruins going forward if progress is not made:
“I don’t believe we need a major overhaul. I believe we need to continue to forge depth in the organization,” said Sweeney. “You have to have a plan that allows players to develop at the right time that they’re supposed to, rather than force a player.
“At times when you don’t have the depth overall, you do (force); you can expose a younger player and we’d like to have the patience in that regard.”
Sweeney knows there is work to be done. He’s certainly not resting on his laurels, because the day after that presser, he was out in North Dakota watching those Under-18 championships. Say what you will about Sweeney, but I saw firsthand that he was working with his scouts and trusted personnel men to try and identify the kind of longer-term solutions that might help the B’s return to legitimate contention down the road. Nobody that the Bruins scouted over the past 10 days is going to ride into town next October and reverse the direction of the franchise, but no one can accuse Sweeney of leaving the details to others, either. He’s clearly invested in the way ahead and was present at the last major tournament of the season to see for himself the players his guys want the Bruins to put their faith in at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Unfortunately for Sweeney, he has become fair game for those who question his managerial acumen, and as he said in the presser, there is much work to do. His most pressing needs remain in addressing a woeful defense that was a question mark going into the season and came undone at the absolute worst possible time. Not to beat a dead horse, but we all knew for certain that the Boston defense was an issue after the very first three games of the season, but Sweeney made no moves to address it until very late in the year when he acquired John-Michael Liles at the deadline. The Boston D cost the B’s critical points throughout the season, but it was the offense and at times, the goaltending that covered up for them and kept the team winning. That is, until the very end- when all facets of the roster began sputtering and ultimately dropped out of the playoff race in spectacularly frustrating fashion.
Had the B’s been in and out of the playoffs all season long and ridden more protracted valleys from December to March, then there’s a good chance the backlash would not have been as severe. Sure, there is always anger and sharp criticism when a team fails to reach the postseason, but most fans in Boston feel like simply making the playoffs should not be a goal in itself. They’d rather see a burn-the-boats and build-it-from-the-waterline-up approach to cut out the rot and start anew than a strategy that swaps out a few pieces but leaves the larger holes and vulnerabilities (the defense) unaddressed.
Sweeney is a smart guy and he/his team works hard. One team source told me that the organization was “devastated” after what happened and I believe him. Even though it is easy to sit back and point fingers and say, “I told you so” after the fact, the reality is- the Bruins played over the heads so much that by March 18, many of us wanted to believe…no, we believed they were going to make the postseason. Few had many illusions of how far the B’s might get, but taking steps forward after the 2015 offseason and the questions surrounding the team going into the year would have been a moral victory for the organization and its players. These guys don’t go through the grind of an entire NHL campaign and all that comes with it just to tank and lose on purpose. As simple as we sometimes might think it is to just sell off pieces and swirl down the drain, the players had sent a message that making the push was worth a try. It’s easy to say now that it wasn’t worth it, but most of us, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, that is- know in our heart of hearts that we were pleasantly surprised at what the Bruins had accomplished, especially in those critical days after the trade deadline when they went on their best winning streak of the season only to match it with an even more horrific downward spiral.
That opens the door for a debate that there is more good on this team than bad, but the Bruins are now at a critical crossroads and if any goodwill existed before, it will take a lot of work by Sweeney and Neely, the two faces of the team’s management, to earn it back.
Cameron Michael Neely is a far more complex figure in this drama.
It is pretty disconcerting that in the several years since the B’s faltered against Montreal in the 2014 playoffs up to now, he has gone from being one of the most beloved figures in team lore to one of the major villains of the current chapter in the eyes of some.
As a player, he was the premier power forward of the late 1980s and through the early-to-mid 90’s until chronic hip and knee injuries forced his retirement from the game at just 31 years of age. He was everything fans loved about their Bruins- tough and rugged, but able to come through with the workmanlike goals when the team needed them. He parlayed those heroics into a place in the Hall of Fame in 2005, even though he never won a Stanley Cup as a player. Other more accomplished skaters are still awaiting entry, but Neely’s tenure on the Bruins transcended the stats and individual accomplishments. His emotion and iron will often took the team places it had no business being, and that’s what made him a hero in Boston sports lore. When you look up into the rafters at TD Garden, Neely’s No. 8 hangs proudly there, as a testament to his legacy as a player who was the club’s heart and soul and who often wore his emotions on his sleeve. He didn’t go out on his own terms in 1996, and that fact, more than any other, might be feeding into the perilous waters his legend has navigated into of late.
Because now, as an executive, that same emotion threatens his standing as one of the city’s icons. As more questions emerge as to how much involvement, no- power– he has within the B’s hierarchy, his stewardship and the direction the team has gone in since reaching a zenith in 2011 and appearing to be on the cusp of being the Blackhawks of the East with a return to the Stanley Cup final in 2013, is under fire.
Steve Harris quoted Neely in the Boston Herald after his (and ownership’s) presser this past week:
“We know where our better players are in their careers,” said Neely. “We have an idea on how many good years they have left to be at the top of their game. It’s very important for us to add pieces around them to compete for a Cup. That has to happen sooner rather than later.
“I hate to lose more than I love to win. I don’t like missing the playoffs. And I want everybody else to feel the same way.”
That’s some good copy and on its face makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t play well to the skeptics who don’t want the focus to be on missing the playoffs. Just making the postseason is not the goal…and their point that it shouldn’t be the emphasis on where the Bruins went wrong this year is a valid one. The flip side of that argument is that exposing the team’s younger players to the intensity and pace of playoff hockey was a bigger reward than going home in mid-April. We can see both sides of the argument, but one of them opens the door to the old mistrust and negative outlook fans had for the Jacobs family and the perceived profit-over-winning mentality that dogged the Bruins during the pre-2004 lockout era of escalating salaries from about 1996 and on.
For their part, Jeremy and his son Charles Jacobs have reinforced their support for management and insisted that there was no “make the playoffs or else” ultimatum which drove the half-in, half-out perception that has dogged Sweeney and the team since the deadline with the decision to not move UFA-to-be Loui Eriksson and instead acquire a pair of marginal veterans in Liles and Lee Stempniak, who certainly had their moments, but were ultimately unable to make a difference when the team needed it the most. We have no choice but to take them at their word.
It does beg the question, though- if former longtime Bruins GM and President Harry Sinden is somewhere in the mix dispensing advice and serving as a consultant (his position is “senior advisor”, what exactly is he doing? Exactly what kind of role does he have? What form is his potential influence manifesting on not one but two of his player proteges- Neely and Sweeney? Hmmm…that’s more than just one question, isn’t it?
But I won’t stop there: how much are Sweeney’s hands tied as a GM who doesn’t hold the dual title of President and GM? Meaning, he does not wield the complete autonomy that other people like Stan Bowman in Chicago, for example, do. And, that, as the Bard once said- is the rub. Who’s the one with the vision? And who truly is the one who is behind the decisions that have moved this team backwards since looking like a perennial power as recently as 2014? Plenty of questions, not a lot of definitive answers after a couple of press conferences to be honest.
So this brings us back to the present.
The seat has gotten hotter at the top, and we saw some of the frustration boil over this week in Neely’s most recent radio spot with 98.5’s Michael Felger and Tony ‘Mazz’ Massarotti. I briefly spoke to Sweeney in Grand Forks, but out of respect to him and our relationship, I won’t discuss it here other than to say that he understands where the fans are coming from. In a perfect world, he could snap his fingers and simply fix what ails his hockey club. Alas, we don’t live in that world, so he faces major challenges in trying to work trades and transactions in a league where 29 other general managers know what he needs and will try and squeeze every last asset out of Boston to make something happen.
There are reasons for optimism in the youth movement (and I didn’t even get to the notion that Julien and the B’s “failed” to develop the younger players this season- that’s a whole different can of worms and not one I wish to open today). The Bruins have some promising rising forwards such as Frank Vatrano, Danton Heinen and Austin Czarnik, all of whom saw action in the pro ranks this year, with Vatrano’s 36 goals in 36 regular season games leading the way. None of them are first-round picks, but a couple who are- Zach Senyshyn and Jake DeBrusk– showed progress in different areas this season after going 14 and 15 overall last June. By virtue of Senyshyn’s 45 goals, DeBrusk will likely become the lightning rod for criticism given that the B’s passed on several higher-profile players to take them, but what’s done is done- none of Boston’s drafted forwards performed poorly this season, and guys like Jesse Gabrielle, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Ryan Fitzgerald, Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato all had very good years for their respective teams.
On defense, as tough as it may be for some to admit it, Colin Miller was not the key difference-making player fans were clamoring for. He’s got fine offensive tools to be sure, but his defense left a great deal to be desired and we saw that in the final NHL games and AHL postseason. He’s got some NHL potential yet as a complementary piece, and by no means am I advocating the scrapheap for him, but there was a reason the Kings were willing to part with him, Martin Jones AND a 1st-round pick for Milan Lucic. If they saw him as a stud future No. 1, Dean Lombardi never agrees to include Miller in that trade. “Chiller” has his place on this team going forward, but he didn’t do enough to earn the coach’s trust to play more and that is as much on him as it is anyone else. We can argue all day over whether he would have been a better option than Kevan Miller or if the B’s were better off just throwing him out there in the wake of committing defensive mistake after defensive mistake in the name of seeing him “grow” but that didn’t happen. What we see from him next is what matters most.
Brandon Carlo, Rob O’Gara and Matt Grzelcyk could bring some more immediate help, but with no NHL experience between them, it is probably too much to expect a major impact and move in the right direction at defense without some proven NHL talent coming to Boston this summer by trade and free agency. 2015 1st-rounder Jakub Zboril didn’t have a great season, but he’s been playing much better in the QMJHL playoffs, and the B’s appear to have dodged a major bullet when Jeremy Lauzon’s throat was cut by a skate blade, but it just missed doing crippling damage. There’s some hope in the stable of prospects for some positive contributions, but the Bruins are lacking one true, young thoroughbred on the blue line, so the solid types like these guys tend to get lost in the shuffle a bit.
Assuming the Bruins keep the 14th overall selection with the NHL’s draft lottery to happen on April 30 (don’t hold your breath for a magical top-3 scenario for the club), they still stand to get a very good player, as the non-playoff clubs are all in position to benefit from the first-round before the talent drops off. They also own San Jose’s pick, currently at 19th overall, but the Sharks upset the favored Los Angeles Kings in round one, and if they win the next round, that pick will slide lower in the round. There’s no telling if Boston will trade one of their firsts as part of a package deal for a legitimate NHL d-man before the draft, but fans need to prepare for that scenario. You have to give to get.
Ultimately, where we are with the Bruins is largely of management’s making. Former GM Peter Chiarelli limited the team’s flexibility and options, but they aren’t where they are solely because of him, either. Management has got to start talking in one voice and it wouldn’t hurt to lose some of the platitudes and speaking more plainly about accountability and a vision for the club’s future. The fans will fill the building when the team wins, but they have to believe in what the organization is doing.
Right now, we’re not sure if the ship is rudderless in a roiling sea or the man at the helm has quietly been making a more dangerous-looking course correction that will in time take us into calmer waters.
What we do know is that change must happen. This team as currently constructed is an also-ran, middle-of-the-pack at best. Sweeney showed us last June that he is capable of bold, decisive action.
What we don’t yet know is if he has the vision, evaluation ability and power to get the Boston Bruins back to the level that the fans have come to expect.
As the great Canadian band Rush sang in 1989- “Show don’t tell”