Pending another addition on the blueline (cue hoards of Bruins fans with fingers crossed that one Cody Franson will walk through those TD Garden doors) it seems as good a time as any to take in the Bruins offseason and see just where the needle is pointed for the Black & Gold.
To do this properly, one needs to cast their mind all the way back to the final month of last season: the end of the Peter Chiarelli era. What was left of the modern day Big Bad Bruins “PC” and co. had assembled over almost nine years looked slow, under-motivated, old, and in desperate need of a spark. A spark that never did arrive, costing the Bruins a spot in the playoffs. And, since new team CEO Charlie Jacobs had all but guaranteed heads would roll if the Bruins failed to qualify for the postseason: Peter Chiarelli was removed from his position as GM of the club.
Enter the Don Sweeney era, and an abrupt whirlwind of franchise altering mayhem...sort of. Those amongst the Boston faithful that had been clamouring for change most certainly were gifted, albeit in partially unexpected fashion. Sweeney inherited a mostly slow, plotting roster that due to years of overvaluing size and what seemed to be an unwillingness to allow any member therein to play in a contract year, had an undeniable malaise. Charged with bringing the Bruins up to the speed of the 2015 NHL game, developing young talent, solving the salary cap popsicle headache left by his predecessor, and reenergizing the core, Sweeney rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
First order of business: what about the future of head coach Claude Julien - a man whose fate seemed almost certainly attached to that of Chiarelli’s. After several weeks of deliberation Claude was...retained. Somehow. rnrnNow, make no mistake, Claude is a very good NHL coach. His defensive system and ability to craft a disciplined, three zone club, are arguably tops among bench bosses. In fact, had Claude hit the coaching market this offseason the list of franchises that came knocking on his door would have been many, and they’d all be right to pursue Julien.
However, in the case of the Bruins, sticking with Julien is a bit puzzling to say the least - keeping a defensive minded head coach whose recent track record with young top end talent (see: Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton. Also: Phil Kessel) has been questionable at best. These factors, partnered with the reality of Boston’s listless fizzle at the end of last season and a new GM in place surely mean Claude is on a very short leash entering the 2015-16 season. A scenario that rarely plays out well for the coach or the club.
Sweeney’s next move was also a head scratcher for Bruins fans - Adam McQuaid was resigned for 4 years at $2.75mil / per. It would seem blueliner Kevin Miller was the perfect replacement for a McQuaid type: a stay at home, third pairing physical presence who will drop the gloves when needed, and at $800k / per, the price is perfect for that mold.
It’s obvious the Bruins need bodies on the blueline. But, for a cap strapped team to shell out almost three million a year for a guy who should never, ever see top four minutes (Honestly, if McQuaid spends significant time in the top two pairings, something has gone horribly awry) combined with the injury history of McQuaid, had the all too familiar feel of the Bruins brass placing too much value on their own roster.
Draft day was where Don Sweeney finally separated himself from the previous Bruins regime - his first trade sending RFA Dougie Hamilton to Calgary for a first and second rounder was met with some skepticism and confusion around the league. Ultimately, it seemed as though Dougie didn’t truly want a long term future in Boston and getting more than the offer sheet compensation would have garnered (two second rounders in the 2016 draft) seemed like a prudent move for Sweeney and the Bruins. rnrnSweeney also ended the “what about Milan Lucic” narrative by sending “Looch” to LA for a first rounder and assets. Sweeney later parlayed one of those assets, goalie Martin Jones, into San Jose’s first round pick in 2016. You’d be hard pressed to consider those moves anything but a win given the all too prevalent lack of edge or urgency in Lucic’s game coupled with the $6+ million a year he’s slated to make in free agency after next season.
The quality of the Bruins three first round picks made at this years draft will come to light in a few years time. Personally, I don’t engage in prospect fawning so I’m certainly not the person to discuss in detail which of these young Bruins are about to become studs at the highest level - although by all accounts Jake Zboril seems to have an NHL future, which should help to fill the void left by Hamilton’s departure.
So where are they now:
Enter a solid Matt Irwin signing to bolster the Black & Gold’s blueline depth, as well as the additions of Jimmy Hayes and Matt Beleskey on the wings (and then that Zac Rinaldo thing). Sweeney seems to possess a roster that’s somewhere between contender and tear down. This could mean a scary fate as a middling club with no real compass for the upcoming season.
While Bruins President of Hockey Operations Cam Neely has stated his club “should” compete for a playoff spot, it’s not far fetched to assume that only two seasons removed from a Presidents Trophy, the B’s are less of a sure thing to make the postseason now than in most of the previous nine years. Even with the wheels of change beginning to turn on the roster.
The good: Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg could return to form as top three defensemen and don’t look as slow or run down as this past season. Tuukka Rask plays to his potential consistently and is a Vezina caliber backstop. The B’s offensive group, led by the development of young talent in David Pasternak and Ryan Spooner as well as the return of a healthy David Krecji and ever present Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand combo become once again opportunistic and find the finishing touch that largely eluded Boston's front end most of last season.
The bad: Chara and Seidenberg look their age and continue to fade into the depths of the back 9 of their careers. Rask struggles to find consistency behind a shaky and possibly revolving D-core. And the Bruins lack the high end firepower up front that, throughout the entire Chiarelli era was never too far from the team’s ultimate failings.
The reality: If Beleskey, Hayes and last season’s trade deadline acquisition Brett Connolly end up looking more like bottom six than top six forwards, and the Bruins don’t have answers for what currently looks like a log jam of average ability and question marks on the blue line - this could be a team destined for quagmire in 2015-16.
Even the most optimistic of Bruins fans has to admit that anything but best case scenario across the roster may very well result in mediocrity and a sooner rather than later coaching change. From there it’s anyones guess as to where the club will be headed.
In the coming posts I’ll be looking deeper into the Bruins roster, their place in an improving division, and what types of moves could be next as the B’s look to regain their status among the true Eastern Conference contenders.