For Cam Neely, emotion was once as important as air.
As a Hall of Fame right wing, Neely was at his wrecking-ball best when flames ripped from his nostrils. He was the scoring, fighting, and hitting bear come alive.
In his position as Bruins president, emotion does Neely no good. The suit he wears instead of his No. 8 jersey defines Neely as a level-headed executive of one of hockey’s most successful franchises. It would not be in Neely’s best interest to swing a hammer in anger at his roster as he once did to opponents.
As a clear thinker and observer, Neely knows this is no time to enact swift, sweeping changes.
“We did have a great regular season,” Neely said Tuesday at TD Garden. “We fell short in the second round, which disappoints everybody. So we want to reevaluate where we think we could improve upon and look at that as opposed to major overhauls.
“When we had the regular season we had, especially the stretch from March into April, that wasn’t luck. We were a good team. We still feel we have a good team, and maybe need a few tweaks.”
This is not a fun time for Neely or his colleagues in hockey operations. They thought winter would still be rolling. They believed they had a team armed to chase another Stanley Cup.
Ownership thought the same thing. The bosses planned for the Garden cash registers to sing for at least four more games.
Instead, they’re watching the hated Habs, who turned the Bruins’ chain of small deficiencies into a second-round upset, just about being dismissed by the Rangers. It’s not easy viewing.
“This year is probably especially disappointing because of the regular season we had and how we felt we could be more successful in the playoffs,” Neely said. “We’ll get together shortly and meet as a group to talk about what we think we need to do to improve.”
The Bruins have a good thing going. They’ve made the playoffs in all seven of Claude Julien’s seasons behind the bench. Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, and Patrice Bergeron could return from Las Vegas next month with trophies in salute of their stature as the best at their respective positions: all-around defenseman, goalie, and defensive forward.
They have three strong, skilled centers in Bergeron, David Krejci, and Carl Soderberg. Dougie Hamilton is growing into a shutdown presence on defense who can rush the puck and pass it crisply out of the zone. The Bruins have been built exquisitely.
Their opponents know this. It’s why assistant general manager Jim Benning will claim the big job in Vancouver, according to TSN. CBC reported that Don Sweeney, the other assistant GM, interviewed with Washington. If one or both of GM Peter Chiarelli’s assistants leave, it will be a significant loss of institutional knowledge and player personnel acumen.
On June 16, 2010, the Bruins named Neely president. Since then, Colorado (Joe Sakic), Vancouver (Trevor Linden), Toronto (Brendan Shanahan), and Buffalo (Pat LaFontaine, until he left the organization) have implemented similar management structures: legendary former player in the big chair, right above the GM.
“I think that speaks to what’s now become sort of the Boston model,” said owner Jeremy Jacobs. “People do want to copy what you’re doing because of the success we have seen.
“We didn’t win this year. We got to the finals the year before. These are enviable positions to be in.”
This is a time to be rational, not emotional. Yes, the Bruins wasted a precious year of their window. There’s no telling how many high-performance seasons remain in Chara’s legs. If Jarome Iginla accepts a one-year extension, he’ll be 37 at the start of 2014-15. Bergeron, Rask, Krejci, and Milan Lucic may be at the crest of their careers.
But the Bruins remain one of the NHL’s premier teams. They lost to Montreal because of a chain reaction of events. They didn’t finish. They had bad luck. Carey Price was incredible. Dennis Seidenberg, Chris Kelly, and Adam McQuaid were unavailable. All these things added up.
The Bruins need upgrades on the fourth line and defense. Throughout the playoffs, Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, and Shawn Thornton chased the game. They rarely controlled it. The Bruins can’t afford to have their foot soldiers douse any momentum their three other lines generate. The line needs to be faster, more skilled, and more puck-hungry.
On defense, the Bruins require touch and mobility. Common sense dictates that the less time you spend in the defensive zone, the better off you’ll be. The Bruins’ breakout was methodical and predictable against Montreal. The Canadiens overwhelmed them. If they can retrieve pucks rapidly and get them to the forwards with speed, they’ll limit opponents’ zone time while generating scoring chances the other way.
The Bruins are in good shape once they gain the offensive zone with speed and numbers. It’s easier said than done.
“At times, we were trying to make plays at the blue line where maybe we turned the puck over and were going in as they were coming out,” Neely said. “We weren’t getting the puck in smart.
“Carey Price handles the puck really well. So smarter dumps probably would have been better where we could have been on top of them a little bit more as opposed to getting the puck around behind the net where Carey could come out and play it.”
Swift breakouts and neutral-zone speed lead to clean entries. Those lead to chances. Those lead to goals.
The Bruins have the manpower to score goals as well as prevent them. That’s good. Next year, they’d like to improve in both areas. That would be even better.