Could there be seismic change coming for the Bruins roster?
Team president Cam Neely didn’t say that precisely in his end-of-year Zoom press conference Thursday, but the 55-year-old ex-power forward hinted at significant change when he noted the need to be “brutally honest” about where the franchise is headed in the next couple of years.
“And we have to react accordingly to that,” he said.
The question remains: What will be that reaction after the Bruins were summarily dismissed again by a heavier, stouter Tampa Bay squad in Round 2 of the playoffs less than two weeks ago?
After leading the regular-season standings with 44 wins and 100 points, the Bruins ended up easy postseason prey for the Lightning. A large part of the issue, as Neely pointed out a number of times, was the club’s repeated failure to get “inside the dots” in the offensive zone and land quality shots on goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Bruins were vastly outscored, 15-5, at even strength, and were ushered to the offseason in five games. It was nearly identical to two years earlier when Tampa Bay ended Boston’s season in five games in Round 2, that area down low closed off to the Bruins’ lighter, less aggressive forwards. In both cases, they came up short on personnel.
Unlike 2018, the Bruins this time were without their No. 1 goalie, Tuukka Rask, who abruptly departed the Toronto bubble after only two games against the Hurricanes in Round 1. General manager Don Sweeney on Wednesday was firm about his continued support of Rask and his willingness to plan for another season with him in the Boston net.
Rask has one year left on his deal, leading to potential unrestricted free agency following the 2020-21 season.
Neely sounded understanding of Rask’s leaving the bubble. But again, he spoke of the club’s need to react.
“Everybody has issues away from their job,” said Neely, "and Tuukka’s no different than most of us, so … it’s just a matter of how feels he has to handle it. And we’re going to have to react accordingly.
“Tuukka’s been a fantastic goaltender for us for a number of years; he still has a lot of goaltending left in him. It’s just unfortunate, the timing of it, but there’s not much we could have done about that.”
The Rangers, Neely was reminded, made a “brutally honest” review of their roster not long ago and then went public with their plans to tear it down as the centerpiece of a franchise reset. It was a rare, dramatic move for a club to be so public about the intention, which included GM Jeff Gorton writing an open letter to fans to explain his reasoning. The Rangers, he felt, were able to compete but not excel.
In the weeks following the remarks by Gorton, formerly the assistant GM in Boston, the Rangers shipped power forward Rick Nash to Boston as part of the rebuild.
The Bruins are in a very different place than the Rangers were then, midway through the 2017-18 season. They reached Game 7 of the Cup Final last June against the Blues. They were consistent winners throughout 2019-20, right up to the March 12 pandemic-related shutdown.
If not for the five-month pause between meaningful games, the Bruins likely would have entered the postseason in April as favorites to return to the Final. But they showed up rusty and deficient in Toronto, their game never on track, and that large tub of lukewarm water began to drain when Rask pulled the plug.
The extended stay in the bubble, noted Neely, allowed time to ruminate over where the franchise is headed.
The question to Neely: Are the Bruins at an assessment level, in terms of that brutal honesty, that they would consider some seismic changes this offseason?
“Well, yeah, we’ve certainly had a lot of conversations in the bubble … a lot of time to have hockey talk, for sure,” he said. "And then … we have to be careful, too, because the regular season we had, prior to the pause, was so far different than how we played in the postseason.
“But we also have to recognize the team that beat us and see where we stack up against those elite teams in the league. I felt we were one of those elite teams this year, but you know, if we are going to start [a new season] in December or January, then we’re talking another four or five months off. How are we going to play? How are we going to react to that? What does that season look like?”
Lots of questions. Few answers. At least few Neely was willing to disclose.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a hard look at our roster and our organization and see where we should be going for this next year or two,” added Neely. “That’s kind of what my message has been: Let’s really take a look and see where we are going to be; can we compete for the Stanley Cup?
"And if everybody feels we can compete for the Stanley Cup, what do we have to do to get back to that final twosome and have a legitimate shot to win?”
Neely then was asked if he is personally struggling with that question — whether his team can compete.
“Well, I think it’s one of those things,” he mused, “that I have to weigh, and I think we all have to weigh, what our regular season was prior to the pause, and what happened at [July] training camp — missing our top two right wingers and not being able to work on our power play because of that, or couldn’t work on it effectively because of that.”
Right wingers David Pastrnak and Ondrej Kase each violated quarantine protocols following their return from their native Czechia. Both were forced to sit out the club’s two-week return-to-play camp in Brighton, then had to play catch-up upon arriving in Toronto.
“Some guys were not 100 percent during the playoffs, so you have to look at that as well,” said Neely. "We lost Tuukka, so that’s a factor. I think losing your No. 1 goaltender in the playoffs is probably the toughest position to lose. Not taking anything away from Jaro [Halak], but that’s just a fact.
“So I think we have to look at all of those things and really assess properly, and not be reactionary to what happened the last series. But we have to keep in mind, and be open and honest, about what we looked like against Tampa.”
The oddest offseason in NHL history has begun. The Bruins left the bubble with an aging core of veterans now nine years removed from the 2011 Cup.
Neely, Sweeney, et al are now assessing whether there’s enough left in that group, surrounded by current younger and developing talent, to make another serious run or two. If they decide it’s not reasonable to expect that, being “brutally honest” could turn into substantive change.