(This is a re-worked and updated story done for the New England Hockey Journal in 2011- KL)
If ever there was a year that altered an NHL franchise’s destiny, 2006 was the pivotal one for the Boston Bruins as we look back nearly a decade-and-a-half later.
As the calendar flipped over to January 2006, the post-lockout campaign was a disaster.
Already, the team traded its captain and 1997 first overall pick Joe Thornton. Soon, it would fire GM Mike O’Connell and head coach Mike Sullivan. The B’s finished out of the playoffs with the fifth-worst record. Free agent signings supposed to help put the B’s in contention like Alexei Zhamnov and Dave Scatchard were complete busts, with a grand total of 40 games and five goals in Boston between them.
The franchise had stumbled badly in a decade since the bottoming-out of 1997 that had netted Thornton and Sergei Samsonov. That new era that began with so much promise when the latter took NHL Rookie of the Year honors and the late Pat Burns helped lead the B’s back to the postseason in 1998 was about to be officially done when Samsonov was dealt to Edmonton at the trade deadline in a few weeks. Although few realized it in 2006, a series of critical trades, hires, signings and events paved the way for Boston to become a championship city once again.
Thomas extended- a star is born
O’Connell’s last big act as GM was an important one. On March 18, 2006, the Bruins announced that 31-year-old goalie Tim Thomas, who had given the team a shot in the arm after being recalled from Providence in January, signed a three-year pact. The deal was criticized by some at the time because of Thomas’ age and relative inexperience in the NHL. Five years plus a Stanley Cup victory, two Vezina Trophies and a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP later, nobody’s complaining about the move except for maybe the Vancouver Canucks, who couldn’t solve him in Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 final series.
The person most responsible for Thomas in Boston, according to Scott Bradley, Bruins assistant general manager, was longtime European scout Svenake Svensson, who “discovered” the future NHL First-Team All-Star when he was playing in the top Swedish and Finnish pro leagues.
Harvard Man returns to Boston
It was widely assumed that owner Jeremy and his son Charlie would go with an experienced general manager with name recognition to replace O’Connell. When the smoke cleared, John Muckler’s assistant GM, Peter Chiarelli, was the one given the challenge of restoring relevance and pride to the sagging Bruins brand.
Named to the position on May 26, 2006 (though not assuming duties until July 8) the former Harvard center and captain in 1987 had been a player agent before moving into management with the Senators, but was seen as a dollars and cents guy who would handle the challenges of the NHL’s new salary cap era.
Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning (from 2006 until hired to helm the Vancouver Canucks as GM in 2014) said that by coming from a winning organization in Ottawa, Chiarelli had the background to turn things around.
“As a staff, we have a pretty good idea of what a winning team looks like,” Benning said, citing his own experiences with the Buffalo Sabres. “It took us the first year to sort through what we had, since day one, (Chiarelli) talked about a five-year plan and we were fortunate enough to win it in our fifth year.”
Chiarelli had a rocky start, having to fire his first coach, Dave Lewis, after just one non-playoff season, then going through the crushing disappointments of the way the playoffs ended for the Bruins in 2009 and 2010.
“It doesn’t always go exactly to plan,” Chiarelli told Mike Loftus in an article appearing the Maple Street Press 2011-12 Bruins Annual. “What sets apart the development of certain plans is the ability to stay within the parameters of the plan, but being able to shift direction a bit.”
Chiarelli’s ability to recognize valuable contributors perhaps originally seen as short-term options such as Mark Recchi and Johnny Boychuk, and then get the most out of them as part of the championship formula is what helped his championship blueprint to ultimately bear fruit.
“Peter orchestrated it all,” said Bradley. “Since day one, he had a plan and we all as a group saw it unfold. It’s been fun to be a part of.”
Although the ending came in 2015 after a series of missteps, there is little doubt that had Chiarelli not been named to the B’s GM job, Zdeno Chara probably would not have agreed to terms, becoming the captain and a franchise player in the 14 years he’s been in Boston.
2006 draft grand slam: Lucic, Marchand (and Seguin) + Rask = Cup
When the 2006 NHL Entry Draft occurred in Vancouver, Chiarelli had not yet been released to assume GM duties, and was with Ottawa on the draft floor.
Bradley was in charge of Boston’s amateur scouting staff from 1996-2008 and ran the B’s draft table in ‘06 despite having dealt with a serious illness early in the season (see sidebar). At home in British Columbia recovering, he saw more Vancouver Giants games than he would have given his normal fall travel schedule.
A young winger named Milan Lucic caught his eye and grew on him thanks to multiple viewings. Bradley and close confidant on the scouting staff, Adam Creighton, left the Viking Cup in Dec. to see Lucic play in Calgary. They recognized that the young power forward played with the kind of core values the organization coveted, while possessing untapped potential.
Although Phil Kessel garnered the lion’s share of the attention as the fifth overall selection that year, it was the team’s third and fourth choices in 2006 who went on to play key roles in Boston’s 2011 Stanley Cup victory: Lucic (50th overall) and Brad Marchand (71st). The draft choice the Bruins used to select Lucic was acquired from the Oilers for Samsonov at the trade deadline, and while the B’s fan favorite and eighth overall pick in 1997 helped Edmonton reach the 2006 Stanley Cup final series, Lucic became a Boston mainstay and helped them go the distance five years later.
Of them all, however, Marchand has become the star of that draft for the Bruins. He was instrumental in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, and has gone on to become an NHL superstar since, becoming in 2019 the first B’s forward to score 100 points in a season since Thornton last did it in 2003. He’s become wildly popular and successful, appearing destined to be a Bruin for life.
Last but not least- the acquisition of Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft by interim GM Jeff Gorton on draft day is another major credit to Boston’s amateur scouts, who tracked him closely the previous season. Their input helped finalize the Rask deal and accelerate Boston’s rebuilding process.
Only three scouts remain in the Bruins organization from 2006: Bradley, Svensson and Creighton. All of them have provided valuable contributions over the years to help build Boston’s organizational depth, but even more, they proved themselves to Chiarelli as outstanding talent evaluators.
Chara, Savard choose Boston over other suitors
When the Boston landed two of the biggest fish on the open market that summer in Chara and center Marc Savard on July 1, 2006, it sent a message that the Big, Bad Bruins were back. Now, fans had hope that the team had turned a corner in terms of having a capable core to build around and also a worthy landing spot for prized free agents.
Chara was reportedly courted by the Los Angeles Kings who offered him more cash than the Bruins did, but he instead opted for Boston. At the time, Gorton was still interim GM with Chiarelli’s release from Ottawa still a few weeks away. It was a team effort by all involved, but Chiarelli was the linchpin in Chara choosing Boston over L.A. Had that deal not been closed, then the Thornton trade to San Jose would have been a complete disaster. Instead, with the salary cap deck cleared to make Chara the team’s highest-paid player on the team until Rask and David Krejci signed their extensions in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Once Chara signed on, Savard was on board as well. Although Savard’s multiple concussions in 2010 prevented him from being part of Boston’s championship run on the ice, his more than 250 points in a B’s uniform helped put the team on the road to respectability. Fans can only wonder what might have been if a fully healthy Savard had been available to the Bruins in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Organizational overhaul brings in sharp hockey minds
Chiarelli wasted little time in surrounding himself with some top hockey people when he took charge.
On the operations side of things, he brought back former Bruin and Harvard teammate Don Sweeney to help develop the club’s young talent. Benning came in to be assistant GM, bringing with him a wealth of experience in scouting and building a club from within, learned from his time in Buffalo. Another former Crimson star, John Weisbrod, who was GM for the NBA’s Orlando Magic despite being a hockey guy, joined the Bruins organization and was later named director of collegiate scouting from 2006-11. The Calgary Flames hired Weisbrod as assistant GM under Jay Feaster in 2011, and he was relieved of his duties in 2013. He was hired by Benning to join him in Vancouver in 2014 and was named assistant GM of the Canucks in 2015.
Hiring Claude Julien to coach the Bruins in 2007 and then sticking by him during Boston’s playoff collapse three years later may prove to be Chiarelli’s signature move in a championship legacy. Although both GM and coach took a lot of heat for what happened against Philadelphia and at times during the 2010-11 season, Julien’s style and system proved a perfect antidote to Vancouver’s talented but finesse squad who wore down under Boston’s physicality and relentless pressure.
Having access to the inner circle of Benning, Sweeney, Bradley and Weisbrod was one thing, but trusting in their counsel and acting on many of their recommendations was integral to the transformation from mediocre also-ran to Stanley Cup champion.
Although Julien was relieved of his coaching duties midway through the 2016-17 season (the day after the Patriots staged the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history to defeat the Atlanta Falcons), and replaced by Bruce Cassidy, Julien sits atop the list as Boston’s all-time wins leader for head coaches with 419 career victories in 760 games behind the B’s bench.
Ryan Nadeau, who began his Boston Bruins career in the media relations department, has become a rising star in the team’s hockey operations side, a major contributor to the amateur scouting efforts as a respected talent evaluator and one of Sweeney and Bradley’s most trusted confidants.
Although the front office has changed significantly since 2006, the current core was all there in various capacities and have continued to build the Bruins in the years since.
Just as 2000 was a franchise-altering year for the New England Patriots when they hired Bill Belichick as head coach and drafted Tom Brady in the 6th round at 199th overall, the Bruins and their fans can point to 2006 as their own turning point. The events that happened in 2006 not only secured Boston’s first Stanley Cup victory in 39 years, but built a foundation that has allowed the B’s to remain competitive with two more Stanley Cup final appearances since 2011, coming to within a game of another championship a year ago.