TAMPA — Before this season, the darkest stretch for the current regime happened in 2010, after the Bruins dropped four straight to Philadelphia in the second round of the playoffs.
A rational, measured, and calculated approach led to illumination. General manager Peter Chiarelli and his colleagues in hockey operations identified their deficiencies and addressed them. One year later, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.
Things are darker now. The Bruins are out of the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season. Confusion was the immediate emotion following Saturday night’s 3-2 shootout loss to Tampa Bay.
“It’s the last thing I was thinking about,” center Patrice Bergeron said of not making the playoffs. “I never thought we’d be in this situation. It’s hard to get my head around it right now.”
Anger will come next. This is dangerous. Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien could pay the price. If so, it will confirm that irrationality does not produce good decisions. Pittsburgh fired GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma last year. The Penguins just squeezed into the playoffs on Saturday by beating Buffalo.
Chiarelli and Julien have history on their sides. After a throat-clearing in 2006-07, his first season, Chiarelli built rosters that qualified for the playoffs every following year. Chiarelli made his smartest move by firing Dave Lewis in 2007 and hiring Julien, who led the Bruins to the playoffs in his first seven seasons.
The Bruins have class-leading players in Bergeron and goalie Tuukka Rask. Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, and David Krejci should be better next year at full health. Young forwards Brett Connolly, David Pastrnak, and Ryan Spooner will improve.
None of this matters when anger is part of the equation. Cam Neely is angry, like he was as a player.
On the ice, Neely was a berserker. He changed games with the ferocity of his play: scoring a goal, checking someone into next week, or punching out an opponent’s teeth.
Neely needed only one shift and a flex of his muscles to do his work. As president, Neely cannot effect change as rapidly. A draft pick takes years to develop into an NHLer. Trades don’t always work. A kick to the rear may scare a player to death instead of motivating him to perform.
By sacking Chiarelli and Julien, it would be Neely’s quickest method of accelerating the required improvement. Assistant GM Don Sweeney, Neely’s former teammate, could step into Chiarelli’s position. Sweeney would handle the position’s heavy lifting of negotiating contracts, overseeing the scouting departments, and initiating calls with other GMs. Neely does not currently have final say on personnel. He could push for that if Chiarelli is out.
This won’t be Neely’s decision alone. Charlie Jacobs will have final say.
In 2010, Neely was vice president. Jacobs’s title was principal. They have since received promotions. Neely and Jacobs have more power now. They’re ready to use it.
Jacobs, now the organization’s CEO, has the opportunity to remake the Bruins according to his vision. Neely can assume command of guiding the direction of teambuilding and the philosophy of on-ice play.
Behind the bench, Julien has the security of a multi-year extension, which activates in 2015-16. Firing Julien would require the Bruins to pay his salary, believed to be among the highest in the league, until another team hires him as coach. Even then, if Julien receives a lesser salary elsewhere, the Bruins would be responsible for paying the difference.
Retaining Julien, however, would mean the continuation of the Bruins’ defense-first style. It’s not Neely’s preference. Defense can be taught. Offense requires skill, speed, and a mentality of being on the attack.
The Bruins fell short because they failed in all areas, including the corner office and behind the bench. Chiarelli traded defenseman Johnny Boychuk the weekend before the regular-season opener, which sucked the air out of the dressing room. He couldn’t find a replacement for forward Jarome Iginla until the trade deadline. Connolly, his replacement, broke his right index finger two days after being acquired. Chiarelli didn’t stock enough defensive depth. Rask played too many games because of Niklas Svedberg’s untrustworthy play.
Julien had fewer options than before. Chara and Krejci, two of Julien’s most important players, suffered major injuries. Julien couldn’t squeeze results out of his limited resources. By the end, amid perpetual line juggling, Julien lost faith in more than half of his forwards.
The Bruins will initiate the post-mortem process to target their shortcomings and determine how to improve. Rational thinking may yet prevail. That would be a good thing. It led to the best kind of results five years ago.
Following their second-round exit in 2010, in which the Bruins had a 3-0 series lead, Chiarelli rolled up his sleeves. He acquired Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell from Florida. He re-signed Bergeron, Chara, Boychuk, Mark Recchi, and Shawn Thornton. He drafted Tyler Seguin.
Before the 2011 trade deadline, Chiarelli acquired Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley, and Tomas Kaberle. The Bruins lifted the Cup that June.
The Bruins have similar restructuring to do this summer. Dougie Hamilton needs an extension. The conversation will start at $4 million annually. Spooner and Connolly will be re-signed. The Bruins could move Milan Lucic, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2015-16 season. They have depth at right wing, which makes Reilly Smith or Loui Eriksson trade possibilities.
There will be openings. It’s possible that Campbell, Svedberg, Daniel Paille, Carl Soderberg, Adam McQuaid, and Matt Bartkowski, all unrestricted free agents, could walk. The Bruins need to fill their vacancies with speed, quickness, and skill. Tampa Bay and Ottawa are not getting slower. Montreal and Detroit always play with pace. Florida is improving.
Chiarelli has executed makeovers before. Julien has coached those retooled rosters deep into the playoffs. They may not be asked back to complete their unfinished business.
“I consider it a failure,” Chiarelli said Friday. “It’s a failure on everybody’s part. But being a failure doesn’t mean there has to be a complete overhaul of everything. Guys fail. Teams fail. They get back on their horse. I consider it a failure. But you don’t always succeed in this business. You don’t always hit the ball out of the park all the time. You’ve got to get back and do your job, and we’ve shown we can do that. But right now, it’s pretty disappointing.”
This is a vulnerable time for the Bruins. Rash decisions take place under duress. This is no time to blow things up.