The Bruins have some fixin’ to do if they’re going to be bona fide Stanley Cup contenders next season and over the next few years, though general manager Don Sweeney didn’t sound Tuesday morning as if he stands poised to make seismic changes.
Sweeney, in his end-of-year Zoom presser, was a mix of status quo and status whoa — the latter being his regret, a reasonable one, that his defensemen (13 total) sustained eight concussions in a season that lasted a mere five months. That’s a bad spin rate.
Team president Cam Neely followed with a Zoomer of his own, per standard practice, then clearly stated the obvious: Something needs to change.
“I don’t think we can look at the roster now, when you lose in the second round, and say you can compete for a Stanley Cup,” Neely said, quickly adding, “I think we have to look at improving our roster to improve our chances to win a Cup.”
Here are the hard facts: Beyond the electrifying Cup Final run of 2019, which ended 60 minutes shy of a championship, the Bruins have not won more than a single playoff round in five of their last six postseasons. In 2015-16, Sweeney’s first as clerk of the works, they missed the postseason entirely, then fell to Ottawa in Round 1 the next season.
Not good enough. Not here in Titletown USA, where a quiet Duck Boat is a dead Duck Boat. It’s certainly not sufficient to satisfy a faithful Black-and-Gold fandom whose eyes, since the Orr-backed ’72 Cup, now have seen the glory of the coming of only the ’11 Cup these last 49 years.
While that’s not exactly a half-century of misery (search: “Maple Leafs, Toronto” for unbearable pain), the Hub has become a familiar field of Bruins postseason lamentations.
The latest version of “Keeping Up With What Went Wrong With the Bruins” included a bunch of dinged-up defensemen, three lines that played roughly 99 cents short of a buck in Round 2, and a veteran goalie, Tuukka Rask, who hobbled through 11 postseason starts and ultimately looked as spent as Lines 2, 3, and 4 when the knockout came last Wednesday night on Long Island.
Some bad luck there, for sure, but another season falling short can’t all be fully explained away today as some bad breaks, a bunch of injuries, dumb officiating, and capricious bounces of the puck.
Both Sweeney and Neely need to do better. They need to shore up a roster, now with fewer than 90 days to go before training camp, with a back end better able to withstand the rigors of physical play, and with a front end that won’t shuffle off into the woods in slippers when faced with big, stout defensemen and relentless, punishing forecheckers.
The GM and Prez also need to figure out whether they want to re-sign Rask, who is about to undergo hip surgery, and/or move ahead with youngsters Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar.
All of that is critical summer homework, with management also having to factor in that No. 1 center Patrice Bergeron will be 36 next month and No. 1A pivot David Krejci is 35 and yet to indicate whether he wants to continue his NHL career. Heavy miles on both.
“I don’t think you can expect to bring the band back together,” said Sweeney, asked if he believed his team, as constructed around its veteran core, can return and win, “if it wasn’t able to compete and accomplish the ultimate goal in the last couple of years.”
The modus operandi here since Sweeney’s arrival in the spring of ’15 has been to augment around the aging veterans from the ’11 Cup, optimize the window of opportunity. From here, that window looks about as closed as the betting cages at Suffolk Downs.
But, wait, it may be the focus again.
“I can tell you this,” Neely said. “I know that March [Brad Marchand] and Bergy, understandably, would like us to take another run. If we get the pieces signed that we’d like to, I think it’s worth one more shot at it here.”
Sweeney, though, sounded as if he recognized the reality of time and inevitable depreciation of assets — a calculation the Bruins made late last year in telling Zdeno Chara he was a spare part in their plans.
“Can they continue to do it?” said Sweeney, noting the remaining proud vets. “The tread life of the tires … you don’t get to swap that out. So, it’s going to drop off. The performance level of several of the guys we’ve discussed has been pretty proficient over the years and we’ve been fortunate in that regard.”
They’d like to find a pathway (read: money) to keep left winger Taylor Hall and perhaps defenseman Mike Reilly. Coach Bruce Cassidy on Monday placed a priority on adding a veteran presence to ride with Brandon Carlo (two of the eight concussions) on the No. 2 pairing.
“Every coach is going to ask for the best players they can possibly have,” Sweeney mused. “Bruce would be no different in that regard. It’d be like Christmas every day. If we could find a new present under the tree, we’d be happy to unwrap it.”
But gifts are few in pro sports, especially so in the salary-capped NHL. Sweeney did a fine job clipping the smooth-skating Reilly off the Senators roster at the deadline. He’s not perfect, but at the right price, he might be the best option.
Some 450 miles away in Buffalo, what must Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs make of all this? Neely is the conduit. He said ownership was excited about the deadline acquisitions in April, then disappointed by the truncated playoff run.
“They’ve certainly wanted us to do better than we’ve done,” the Hall of Famer said. “And this year, I think the expectations were certainly a team that could get out of the second round, at the very least. So, some disappointment there, there’s no question.”
Keep in mind, the Bruins won the ’11 Cup under GM Peter Chiarelli, and made the Cup Final in ’13. Following a second-round dismissal by Montreal in 2014, Chiarelli was shown the door after the club did not make the playoffs the following season.
So we can be a fickle bunch, fans and media, but history shows that’s also true of Bruins ownership. Jacobs et al know what we know: Something has to change, and for the better. Thankfully, that’s just the way it is here in Titletown.