When the Bruins begin their season Thursday in Newark against the Devils, they will look a lot like the team that finished No. 1 in the regular-season NHL standings last year. The defense has something to prove, but the forward group looks deeper, and as long as the aging core doesn’t fall into a crater, they could make another run at the Stanley Cup.
Or, they could be late for a rebuild.
These thoughts furrow the brows of team president Cam Neely and his cabinet: How long can the franchise keep leaning on the same star players? Is it time to trade some of the now for some of the future? Or is the core still Cup-worthy?
“We’ve got some guys that have played a lot of good hockey for us, a lot of years for us,” Neely said 10 days after the Lightning, who KO’d the Bruins in the second round, finished off the Stars and lifted the Cup. He was likely referring to the since-departed Zdeno Chara (who turns 44 in March), Patrice Bergeron (35), David Krejci (34), Tuukka Rask (33), and Brad Marchand (32).
“Their careers are somewhat winding down and we have to really take a hard look at where we are as an organization,” Neely said. “Can we compete for a Stanley Cup, and if we can, what do we have to do to our roster to do that?
“We have to be as honest — as brutally honest as possible — about where we think we’re going to be in the next couple years and we have to react accordingly to that.”
While general manager Don Sweeney watched Chara leave rather than accept a reduced role, other moves he has made this offseason — not trading high-mileage veterans in order to get younger, letting Torey Krug walk in hopes of maintaining financial flexibility, cutting ties with Chara, adding productive veteran winger Craig Smith, betting that young players will arrive — indicates the Bruins seem to believe they will remain contenders.
Defining a core
How do you define the core of an NHL team?
“I’d say the handful of players teams keep calling about but are told they’re off-limits,” NHL Network analyst Anson Carter said.
A core has to include a great goalie, a dominant defenseman, and an elite center, according to former NHL league executive Bryant McBride. Dale Tallon expands that definition.
“Your top six forwards, your top three defensemen, your goalie, those guys had better be skilled,” said Tallon, the former Florida and Chicago general manager who constructed the Blackhawks team that won the Cup three times in six years (2010, ’13, ’15). “Then you build the players and personalities around that structure.”
Core players are the productive few incumbents that, if removed from the equation, would hamstring a team’s title hopes. The Blackhawks were deep, as Tallon noted, but if they had a lesser group than Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook leading the way, the 59-year Cup drought they ended in 2010 might today be growing. Instead, they are a three-time championship cautionary tale, a case study of a core’s lifespan in the salary-cap era.
Other teams in the last 20 years that won the Cup multiple times or were perennial contenders largely because of their core players include the Penguins (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang), Kings (Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Jonathan Quick), and Lightning (Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy).
The Penguins won the Cup in 2009, 2016, and 2017; the Kings won in 2012 and 2014; and the Lightning won it all in 2020. The latter was the runner-up in 2015 and won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2019.
The Bruins won in 2011, and reached the Cup Final in 2013 and 2019. If they were to win in 2021, it would exceed the span between the first and most recent championship of the decade for the Penguins, one of the closest comparable teams built around a core group of players.
The clubs that won the Stanley Cup multiple times in the last 15 years — Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh — bottomed out and built around homegrown stars, then tried to find the right mix around them.
Of those, the only GM with a fighting chance of the Cup this year is Pittsburgh’s Jim Rutherford, who has traded his first-round pick six times in the last eight drafts, trying to stay in the playoff mix while Crosby, Malkin, and Letang are still driving forces. Rutherford has shuffled his goalies — Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray, and now Tristan Jarry — while developing pieces of the next core, such as Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.
But the Penguins have won six playoff games since their last Cup title (2017). Meanwhile, the bills for championship celebrations have come due in Chicago and LA.
The constants in Chicago’s three titles were four forwards (Kane, Toews, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa) and three defensemen (Keith, Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson).
All were drafted by the Blackhawks except for Hossa and Sharp. As the key players began earning more, Tallon’s successor, Stan Bowman, had to make tough calls with the next generation. Dustin Byfuglien, one of the standouts of the 2010 run, was shipped out for financial reasons. Ditto Teuvo Teravainen in 2013, traded to offset playoff hero Bryan Bickell’s new deal. Other contributors — Sharp, Brandon Saad, Nick Leddy — had to go, too. Artemi Panarin, now an MVP candidate with the Rangers, was jettisoned in 2017.
But years spent toasting titles and drafting low in the first round have left Chicago with a farm system that’s just now beginning to bear fruit.
Chicago still has Kane, Toews (out indefinitely for health issues), Keith, and Seabrook on the payroll. They are between 32 and 37, and command 41 percent of the $81.5 million flat salary cap. They are a core that has aged out of prime effectiveness.
The Kings are deep into their rebuild and have only made the playoffs twice since winning in 2014, hoping that 2020 second overall pick Quinton Byfield and other younger players learn from the veterans from the 2012 and 2014 championship teams. The prospect pool is as deep as any in the league, and GM Dean Lombardi has gone young and cheap around graying mainstays whose combined annual contract value ($37.94 million) takes up 46.6 percent of the cap.
“The top guys have to be top guys for a long while,” Tallon said. “Drafting, developing, and mentoring are the things you have to be really good at. You have to look at it as a five-year, six-year window. Maybe seven at the most. You have to have the pieces available to come in when you’re limited with cap space.”
By Tallon’s criteria, the Blackhawks maximized their championship window. Since first making the conference finals in 2009 with their current core, the Blackhawks had a run of seven top-10 finishes in a nine-year period, and those three Cup titles. They missed the postseason in 2017 and 2018 before a surprise first-round berth last year.
The Kings had a similar, albeit less-distinguished run. From 2010-18, they won twice and finished in the top 12 of the league seven times in nine years.
Where Boston fits
The Bruins have had the same two forwards — Krejci and Bergeron — playing the heaviest minutes since 2011. Marchand became a top-three forward on the team by 2013, when Rask emerged as the starting goalie. Chara was the top-used defenseman from 2006-18.
Since 2005-06 — a year before Chara arrived as captain — the Bruins can boast the fourth-highest average finish in the league.
If you assign points using a modified NHL draft order — the No. 1 team in a season is the Stanley Cup champion, No. 2 is runner-up, teams 3-16 are slotted by how far they went in the playoffs (breaking ties by regular-season points) and the non-playoff teams fall in line by points — the Bruins’ average is 10.87.
Only Pittsburgh (9.13), San Jose (9.87), and Washington (10.27) have gone on more deep playoff runs in the salary-cap era. Anaheim (11.27) and Chicago (12.27) are right behind.
At the bottom: Arizona (20.4), Florida (20.73), and Edmonton (22.80), all seemingly forever in some state of do-over. The Bruins, whose last sub-.500 finish was in 2006-07, haven’t posted “Under Construction” signage since they were finishing the Big Dig.
The Bruins were fortunate to lock up Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, and Rask to contracts that rank 55th (Krejci, $7.25 million); 60th (Rask, $7 million); 70th (Bergeron, $6.875 million), and 97th (Marchand, $6.186 million) among NHLers in average annual value. The cap hits for Chicago’s Kane and Toews, and LA’s Doughty and Kopitar, rank in the top 12 of the entire league. They are well-earned deals, but they put pressure on a GM elsewhere.
The Bruins hope to be a rarity in an age of parity. Because the core remains productive and reasonably compensated, and David Pastrnak (25th overall, 2014) and Charlie McAvoy (14th, 2016) were home run draft picks, they have not had to rush Jack Studnicka, Trent Frederic, Jakub Zboril, or any goaltending prospect. They could use at least one newcomer to help on the left side of the defense (Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon, or a veteran from outside the organization), and Studnicka will undoubtedly earn valuable reps.
Greater change will come soon. At the start of 2023-24, Pastrnak and McAvoy will be playing on richer contracts, and Bergeron, Krejci, and Rask’s current deals will have expired. The latter two are up after this season. Bergeron’s contract ends in 2022.
It could look a lot different around TD Garden by then.
Winning smooths the roughest edges. An intentional rebuild buys many GMs time. Sweeney, on the clock since 2015, earned one GM of the Year award (2019) for steering the Bruins back to the playoffs, and to the Cup Final.
How he handles the aging of his key players, how he restocks around them, could earn him another or it could eventually cost him his job.