The Bruins return to work Thursday night, the start of their 2013-14 NHL season, with a roster that again places them among the preseason favorites to win the Stanley Cup. It has become the routine, the expected, the moribund franchise of just a few years ago resurrected and reshaped as a perennial championship-contending heavyweight.
The trick to it all?
“It takes time and trust and success — and failure — to be able to come up with the right formula,” Peter Chiarelli said recently, prior to embarking on his eighth season as the club’s general manager. “I am not saying we have the right formula. But we have a good formula.’’
Specifically, it’s a successful concoction mainly of Chiarelli, team president Cam Neely, and coach Claude Julien, a somewhat eclectic bunch brought together in a span of less than 18 months following club owner Jeremy Jacobs’s decision in 2006 to broom out his old management guard. First came Chiarelli in the spring of that year, followed one season later by Julien, and then Neely’s return, initially as vice president and face of the franchise in September 2007.
In simple terms, the trio works this way:
■ Neely is head of concept and vision, charged with identifying, restoring, and helping to maintain the franchise’s image, culture, and ethos on both the playing and business sides of the operation.
■ Chiarelli is the chief hockey integrator, managing both up and down the organization, empowered, he says, with autonomy to make all player moves he and his group deem necessary — including the blockbuster transactions that dealt high-profiled young stars Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin in a span of less than 48 months.
■ Julien’s role is application, the shaping, employment, and maximizing of the player products delivered to his doorstep by Chiarelli and assistant GMs Jim Benning and Don Sweeney, the pair of ex-NHL defensemen who serve as Chiarelli’s trusted player-personnel lieutenants.
That’s how it all looks on a corporate flow chart, with defined hierarchal standing and job duties. But much like the game of hockey is played, there are vagaries and nuances, with roles at times overlapping, shifting, changing on the fly. It is a management team that has grown “organically,’’ said Chiarelli, a word he used repeatedly in a near hour-long interview that focused on the club’s front-office operation and its standing now among the best in the NHL.
There have routinely been differences of opinion throughout the organization, noted Chiarelli, but nothing yet that has impeded a steadily-improved trajectory leading to two visits to the Stanley Cup Final the last three seasons, including a title run in 2011 that delivered the franchise’s first Cup in 39 years.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve [ever] been diametrically opposed, but we disagree on things, and we work through them," said Chiarelli, speaking directly to his working relationship with Neely. "He as president represents ownership, so there are certain parameters [mainly financial] that he has to uphold . . . which I uphold, too. But he realizes you have to let people do their jobs. I also have disagreements with my scouts, with my coaches. And Cam has disagreements with me, with other employees, and we work through them. That’s why I say organically it has grown and we are getting better at it."
Those disagreements have been few and relatively easy to settle, added Neely, in large part because it became clear to him from the outset that he and Chiarelli view players and the game through a very similar lens.
“In all honesty, early on, I got a sense that we both liked the same type of player,’’ said Neely, the Hall-of-Fame right winger whose game was built on power and emotion. “So it didn’t take much time to figure that out. He may like a little different bend of the player than I do, but we both ultimately like the same."
Julien, on his third stand behind an NHL bench, following abrupt dismissals in Montreal and New Jersey, has never enjoyed such success or stability. He is entering his seventh season as the Bruins bench boss, and but for a half-hour in the spring of 2006, he possibly would be entering his eighth season here.
In one of his few missteps since taking over, Chiarelli in his first weeks on the job signed Dave Lewis to a five-year contract as coach, only to ditch Lewis after one non-playoff (35-41-6) season. However, shortly before signing up Lewis in June ’06, the newly-hired Chiarelli placed a call to Julien, a longtime acquaintance from Ottawa, hoping Julien would have an interest in being Boston’s coach.
“It was a half-hour earlier, and I am not exaggerating, that I signed to take the job in New Jersey,’’ recalled Julien. “Probably nobody knows about that, but it’s true. I was [home] in Ottawa at the time. I’d just signed the contract, sent it to Lou [Lamoriello, New Jersey GM] by fax, got in my car and went to a store. A half an hour later, I’m in my car in a parking lot, the phone rings, and it’s Pete, wanting to talk to me about the job here.’’
Too late. Julien was committed to the Devils, though his tenure there was briefer than Lewis’s in Boston. Lamoriello dismissed him with three games to go in the regular season. Lewis, whom Chiarelli initially said would return for the 2007-08 season, was fired in mid-June, roughly a week before Julien was brought in as his replacement.
“Let’s put it this way, when I got fired by New Jersey, Peter called me right away and wanted to know if I was still interested in coming,’’ said Julien, asked if he believes he would have been Chiarelli’s No. 1 choice here in 2006. “So this is how I ended up here.’’
What became abundantly clear in lengthy interviews with Julien and Neely is that Chiarelli, the former Harvard hockey captain and later assistant GM in Ottawa, works through decisions deliberately and methodically. Big moves, such as those that sent Kessel and Seguin packing, are neither impulsive nor unilateral.
Typically, said Chiarelli, though refusing to speak directly to either the Kessel or Seguin deals, what he defines as big “organizational trades’’ are vetted through the organization for six months or more. All levels of the franchise, from owner and president down to the coaching staff, are included in the assessment process.
“You make a major organizational decision like that, you have to talk to your owner and talk with your president, and let them know what you are doing and why you are doing it,’’ said Chiarelli. "So that’s a decision, while I have the autonomy to recommend and make that decision, it would be negligent of me and anyone else sitting in my chair not to apprise and get counsel from everyone, whether it’s a board, a board and owner, a president.
“I am always thinking of ways to improve the team — whether there are signings or trades — those are always going through my mind. I put them to paper, or I put them to our group when I think it may be something we should consider at some point down the line. Time period? That could be six months. Now, I am not going to get too much in depth on the Tyler thing. We’ve talked about it enough. But generally speaking, I would say six months. It’s me first saying, ‘Hey, guys, we have to think about this, keep it in your heads — here are the ways, the routes it could go, but I want it in your heads, and I want to talk about it.’ ’’
For a club that fell only two wins short of winning another Cup in June, the Boston roster has changed dramatically, in part because of the decision to sever ties with Seguin, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft. Nathan Horton, the club’s top-line right winger, bolted to Columbus as a free agent. Veteran defenseman Andrew Ference signed a four-year free agent deal in Edmonton, making him a third significant piece culled from the club’s core.
Seguin, fast and skilled, was dealt for a variety of reasons, best depicted perhaps as lack of maturity, both in his game and his off-ice behavior. Chiarelli said again he would have preferred to retain Horton, had an offer on the table to keep him here, but “personal reasons’’ led the sturdy winger to seek employment in slower-paced Columbus. Ference landed a $13 million deal in Edmonton, days after the Bruins decided his price would not fit their pay structure or needs — not with a rich pipeline of young, talented, and less expensive defensemen at the ready.
“We just couldn’t keep him with the money that he would get,’’ said Chiarelli, “and that he deserves.’’
Julien’s ability to work with whatever players are sent his way, said Chiarelli, is in large part why he recently labeled the veteran coach his most significant hire in Boston. Julien and his staff are “malleable,” said Chiarelli, able to groom all players, for the most part, to deliver in a defensive-oriented system that is the shared vision of both coach and GM.
“One thing I am not is hard-headed,’’ said Julien. “As I often say to Peter, my role as coach is always the same, to get the most out of players I have in my possession. If I do that, and it’s not good enough, then it’s up to Peter to make those changes. If I don’t do my job, and don’t get the most out of a player, it’s hard for him to know if that player should go or stay. That’s how you have to work together on that kind of stuff.’’
Julien worked hard with Kessel, was encouraged how he delivered in his third season here (36-24—60), says he would have eagerly worked more with him, only to see Kessel force his trade to Toronto. For the most part, Julien feels the same way about Seguin, who was flipped to Dallas in July, along with Rich Peverley, for a package that included Loui Eriksson and Reilly Smith, both of whom will be in Thursday night’s opening lineup.
“Tyler was not a bad kid when it came to coaching,” noted Julien. “He would come in and listen. Now, whether he would do it or not . . . that’s something else. He was very coachable. When I say that, he didn’t ignore that stuff. Some games he would do what you asked, some games less . . . or it might last a couple of games.’’
In December 2011, Seguin’s second season, Julien tried to get his attention, capture his focus as a professional, by scratching him a game in Winnipeg after the star missed a morning meeting at the hotel.
“I don’t babysit, I coach,’’ said Julien, his frustration with Seguin still clear when recalling that incident. “If I was coaching junior, it would be a different thing. Kids 20 and under, you are doing some babysitting, but not at this level here.’’
Neely’s main input on the player side is the least hands-on of the group, though he has through the years worked one on one on the ice with some players, including Kessel. At home games especially, he is a frequent visitor to the dressing room after games, passing on words of encouragement to players, giving bits of advice. He kiddingly says of Horton’s departure, “I must have pissed him off.”
For the most part, Neely watches the games and offers his views and opinions to Chiarelli, which, he said, can be player-specific in nature or as general as critiquing the club’s power play or penalty kill. He knows how he wants his team to play, and truth is, it’s not unlike how he played — with force, focus, and determination.
“His vision of the franchise is so important,’’ said Chiarelli. “It reinforces a lot of things we do. He is involved in player meetings. From his presidential perch, he runs the Bruins. But I have autonomy on these decisions and I think it’s a good relationship.’’
However modeled or defined, it works and works well. Prior to Chiarelli’s arrival, the Bruins missed the playoffs in three of six seasons and the season-ticket base had collapsed to around 5,000. Now TD Garden is sold out for every game, there is a waiting list for season tickets, and the club hasn’t missed the playoffs since Julien and Neely took roost only weeks apart in 2007.
“This organization went through so much turmoil at times,” said Julien, reflecting on a time that now seems long ago for the Bruins and their fans. “I think people got used to it being blown up. But to me, I don’t worry about it. Not with Cam, Peter, Don, and Jimmy. This is a solid group here.’’