It’s not unusual to see Patriots coach Bill Belichick at a Bruins playoff game, waving a towel and cheering from the stands. It seems like Belichick has rubbed off on Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli. When it came to making the hard decisions about the future of the team, Chiarelli made like Belichick winning the coin toss. He deferred.
The Bruins, who begin their 20-game playoff homestretch Thursday at TD Garden against the Calgary Flames, are like a player straddling the boards for a line change. They have one skate dangling in a quixotic 2015 playoff run and another hovering in reloading for a more realistic Stanley Cup pursuit next season.
When the vulcanized rubber met the road at the NHL’s trade deadline on Monday, Chiarelli was caught between going all in to give this version of the Black and Gold the pieces it has lacked all season to be among the Eastern Conference’s haut monde, and making the unpopular but pragmatic decision to take advantage of a seller’s market.
He did just enough, acquiring veteran forward Maxime Talbot from the Colorado Avalanche and 22-year-old forward Brett Connolly from the Tampa Bay Lightning to make a case to both constituencies. But as anyone who has ever gone halfway on a difficult decision knows it usually ends up being ill-fated and unsatisfying. The Bruins should have chosen a clear direction at the trade deadline. Reinforcements or retooling.
You can’t blame Chiarelli for not wanting to pay the exorbitant prices that pedestrian rental players were commanding to augment an injury-riddled, underachieving team that is clinging to the final wild-card slot in the Eastern Conference. (The road for the spoked-Bs didn’t get any easier when Connolly joined defenseman Kevan Miller and center David Krejci as hors de hockey, fracturing his finger on Wednesday.)
But Chiarelli could have used the market to his advantage, auctioning off a high-priced veteran or two that is clogging the Bruins’ salary cap. There were neon lights flashing around third-line right wing Loui Eriksson and his $4.25 million cap hit the next two seasons.
That probably wouldn’t have gone over real well in the room, as they say in pucks parlance, but pleasing his players isn’t Chiarelli’s job. Plus, he already irked them when he dealt defenseman Johnny Boychuk four days before the season.
Given the unimpressive competition for the East’s final playoff spot, moving Eriksson wouldn’t have automatically constituted waving the white flag.
It might have provided both cap breathing room and a wake-up call.
But Chiarelli said on Monday in his trade deadline postmortem news conference he never seriously considered being a seller.
Postponing the tough decisions is why the Bruins had to deal Boychuk. It’s how they’ve ended up tighter against the cap than San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, and his notable cranium.
Yes, the overage from Jarome Iginla’s stint is a huge culprit, too.
But the Bruins are in this predicament because they’re the anti-Patriots. While Belichick is prepared to let any player go if the price isn’t right, Chiarelli and the Bruins get separation anxiety and hand out lucrative contracts to members of the ever-expanding core like samples at a supermarket.
It’s understandable because Chiarelli has constructed good teams during his nine-season tenure. He built a Stanley Cup winner in 2011, another club that advanced to the Cup Final in 2013, and a Presidents’ Trophy winner last season. Who wouldn’t want to keep a contending club intact?
However, in a salary cap league you have to make uncomfortable, unpopular, and difficult decisions, parting with valued players. It’s just the reality of the economics. Chiarelli, who has an economics degree from Harvard, should know this better than anyone.
It feels odd to criticize the Bruins, who had a reputation for being parsimonious prior to Chiarelli, for being too charitable with lucrative contracts. But that’s what they’ve become.
The next litmus test for the Bruins is going to be Milan Lucic. The fitful power forward has one year left on his contract after this season at $6.5 million. He is the embodiment of the blue-collar brand of hockey the Bruins want to play. Chiarelli has called him part of the backbone of the team.
The Bruins have to decide if they can afford to pay Looch the $7-million-per-year compensation they’ve bestowed upon Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, and Krejci.
As for this season, the idea of duplicating what the 2012 Los Angeles Kings accomplished, going from eight-seed to owners of Lord Stanley’s cherished chalice, has been oversold a bit by the Black and Gold.
The Kings rode a goalie who put up Tim Thomas-like numbers, Jonathan Quick, and a retooled offense to the Cup. LA made a February deal for Jeff Carter, who scored eight goals in the playoffs, tying for the postseason team high.
The Bruins are riding Rask into the ground just to make the playoffs. There is no Carter-like acquisition skating to the rescue. Even before Krejci, out 4-6 weeks with a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee, got hurt, the Bruins needed more top-six ammo.
The last time the Bruins made the Cup Final they were the fourth seed in the East and finished with the third-most points in the conference (the top three seeds were division winners).
Going from last team in to last team standing isn’t likely.
But missing the playoffs would put Chiarelli on the Causeway Street hot seat.
To save his job, he saved the real front office heavy lifting for the offseason.
In the process, he let an opportunity to point the Bruins in the right direction go by the boards.
Right now, his team is stuck in the neutral zone.