The Chicago Blackhawks had finished the Bruins’ season two days earlier. Patrice Bergeron was at Massachusetts General Hospital, his wrecked body signifying that playoff hockey and car crashes can be one and the same.
A general manager, however, cannot suffer in the present. His stewardship is panoramic and telescopic, and he is forever mindful that a present deviation can send his future entity skidding off the rails.
So it was after a study of his roster, his financial obligations, and the decreasing salary cap that Peter Chiarelli arrived at a conclusion last June 26, the Bruins’ breakup day: A team that came up two wins short of a Stanley Cup could not stay together.
The NHL salary cap would dip to $64.3 million in 2013-14. Tuukka Rask, Milan Lucic, Tyler Seguin, and Brad Marchand were scheduled for raises. Nathan Horton did not consider re-signing with the Bruins a priority. The Bruins were worried about Seguin’s on-ice plateau and off-ice maturity. Between June 26 and the start of the season, the Bruins had to address their right side.
“Horty’s deal was up. The cap was going down significantly,” said Chiarelli, the Bruins GM. “They were two things that required us to act.”
The Bruins had been through a right-side makeover before. In 2010, they lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the playoffs after holding a 3-0 series lead. They needed a major fix to prevent future implosions.
They traded for Horton. They drafted Seguin. They acquired Rich Peverley before the trade deadline. All three right wings played major roles in helping the Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 2011.
This was different. Chiarelli, his colleagues in hockey operations, and the coaching staff liked their team. Had good health been their companion, the Bruins might have beaten Chicago.
But they had no choice. For the second time in four years, the Bruins had to execute a right-wing overhaul to a degree only dreamed about during blue-state fund-raisers. Teams whose fingers nearly curled around the Cup don’t often require such makeovers.
Beginning the rebuild
On June 26, Chiarelli was sure of one thing: Jaromir Jagr would not be back. Jagr, who had replaced Seguin as the No. 2 right wing, helped on the power play. He was a good presence in the room. But Jagr’s one-of-a-kind game — posting up, back to the net, slow and steady on the walls — was the square peg to the Bruins’ round hole.
Chiarelli saw good reason why Peverley couldn’t stay. The right-shot forward did everything. He played on all four lines. He killed penalties with Chris Kelly. He backed up defenses. He took faceoffs. He helped on the power play.
But Peverley made $3.25 million, too much for a third-line forward in a declining-cap situation.
“You can’t have too many of those from an economic point of view,” Chiarelli said. “Rich helped us win a Cup. But he was just a guy that we couldn’t fit in.”
Three days later, Chiarelli received more clarity. He was in pre-draft meetings at a hotel in Jersey City, N.J., when Paul Krepelka, Horton’s agent, called. Krepelka told Chiarelli that his client would not be back. Horton would land a seven-year, $37.1 million blockbuster with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Chiarelli wasn’t shocked. In January, Krepelka had told Chiarelli that his client was not a lock to return.
But Chiarelli and his colleagues weren’t happy. Horton was a playoff gamer. He helped make the first line a sum greater than its parts. If Horton wasn’t replaced properly, opponents could train their shutdown sights on Patrice Bergeron’s line.
So Chiarelli went into action. To restock his right side, the GM made what might sound like a contradictory decision. He would trade his most skilled right wing.
The return for a star
In his fourth NHL season, Seguin exploded.
In 80 games with the Dallas Stars, Seguin had 37 goals and 47 assists. He landed 294 shots on goal, fourth-most in the NHL. He controlled the puck and the pace of play while shrugging off elite competition.
Seguin and Jamie Benn developed into one of the NHL’s most flammable tandems, in line with Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Toronto’s Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. At center, where he could free-wheel and shoot and create, Seguin took off.
None of this might have happened had Seguin remained in Boston. He would not have displaced David Krejci or Bergeron at center. His first priority, like that of his teammates, would have been defense. The repeated slaps on the wrist, be they public benchings or private rebukes, did not throb the way getting shipped out did. Being told you’re not wanted is a powerful motivator.
“Are you asking me if he would have done that with us? I don’t know,” Chiarelli said. “He was our leading scorer. It wasn’t like he wasn’t good for us. We knew what we were giving up.”
Dallas GM Jim Nill, who had scouted Seguin heavily in junior hockey, identified him as a game-changer. Appropriately, Nill acknowledged Chiarelli’s asking price: a two-way veteran in Loui Eriksson and a prospect in Reilly Smith.
There were no secrets about Eriksson’s game. He was a textbook Bruin. Eriksson thought through the game like a computer. He was a good skater. He worked a quick stick in tight areas. He was defensively responsible.
The book on Smith wasn’t as complete. He had only one pro season, split between Dallas and the Stars’ AHL affiliate. But the Bruins liked his smarts and skill.
Eriksson and Smith thought the game the right way. They had quick, strong sticks. They were slippery in high-traffic areas.
On July 4, Seguin and Peverley were out, joining Jagr and Horton as ex-Bruins. Eriksson and Smith were in. Chiarelli wasn’t finished.
Old but good
The Bruins wanted Daniel Alfredsson. Chiarelli knew Alfredsson from their time in Ottawa. Alfredsson, a shoot-first right wing, had the skating ability and shot to make him a smaller but smarter Horton facsimile.
Alfredsson’s other asset was age.
Even after trading Seguin ($5.75 million average annual value) and Peverley ($3.25 million), the Bruins were tight against the ceiling. By targeting players 35 and older, Chiarelli could negotiate a rarely used corner of the collective bargaining agreement. Such players, if signed to a one-year deal, could make the bulk of their cash via bonuses and carry minimal cap hits. Alfredsson was 40 years old last July.
But just as talks ramped up with Alfredsson, Jarome Iginla told agent Don Meehan to express his interest in the Bruins. Chiarelli was surprised. Considering the way Iginla had said no to the Bruins last year, the GM assumed the ex-Flame would not revisit the possibility.
On July 5, Alfredsson signed a one-year contract with Detroit. The same day, the Bruins signed Iginla to a one-year deal. The 36-year-old Iginla accepted a $1.8 million base salary and $4.2 million in possible bonuses. Had Iginla declined such a structure, the Bruins would have had to look elsewhere.
The Bruins will carry an approximate $4.5 million overage penalty in 2014-15, mostly because of Iginla’s bonuses.
“I figured I wouldn’t get a player for a cheap number,” Chiarelli said. “He was willing to push some of it forward. At least you have that flexibility with the player if he wanted to go that route.
“I wasn’t ready to commit to multiple years. We didn’t have enough space this year to get to that number. I thought he gave us a real good opportunity to win again.”
Shawn Thornton’s duties on the right side have become habits. Thornton knows to backcheck hard, stay wide in the neutral zone, and go up the ice together with his linemates.
Seven seasons of repetitions drilled these tenets into Thornton’s skates. Iginla, Smith, and Eriksson didn’t have that preparation.
“I’m sure at the start of the year, if you play in a system that’s an overload,” said Thornton, the lone returning right wing, of adjustment challenges. “When I first got here, it was new to me. In Anaheim, we overloaded all the time. It probably takes a little adjusting.”
After an excellent training camp, Smith locked down the No. 3 right wing spot, alongside Kelly and Carl Soderberg. Iginla had no goals in his first eight games. But Eriksson was the biggest concern.
The lifelong Star rarely fell into rhythm with Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Instead of staying wide in the neutral zone, Eriksson strayed toward the middle, upsetting the preferred attack formation.
On Oct. 23, Buffalo’s John Scott rattled Eriksson with a hit to his head. Just over a month later, Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik gave Eriksson a second concussion.
Eriksson’s injuries and inconsistency landed him on the No. 3 line. Smith took over second-line duties. Smith had 20 goals and 31 assists in 82 games. He was one of three Bruins to play in every game.
The Bruins averaged 3.15 goals per game this season, third-most in the NHL. They allowed 2.08, second-fewest after Los Angeles. In 2012-13, Seguin’s last season in Boston, the Bruins scored 2.65 goals per game while allowing 2.21.
But as Eriksson rediscovered his touch around the Olympics, Smith lost his. Smith scored two goals in the last 30 games. His competitiveness waned. He lost his confidence.
The Bruins wondered whether Smith would continue to shrink in the playoffs against Detroit. If Smith fought it against the Wings, the Bruins would have to flip the ex-Stars again.
Instead, Smith emerged.
Smith had a goal and an assist in the first round. He battled. He had a quick stick. He skated briskly. Because of Smith’s play, the Bruins kept Eriksson on the third line. In turn, the No. 3 line chewed up Detroit’s third pairing of Brian Lashoff and Jakub Kindl.
“He made those good little plays that he always makes, and he was skating a lot better,” Chiarelli said. “He’s a mentally strong kid. He was able to get past the hurdle we all saw in the last little bit in the regular season. So it was good to see.”
The Bruins enter the second round against Montreal with their three first-year right wings rolling. Iginla is a Horton clone. Smith excelled in his first playoff experience. Eriksson controls the puck instead of chasing it.
The last time the Bruins retooled the right side, they won the Stanley Cup. It is a history worth repeating.