FOXBOROUGH — It was only last September when Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs uttered the words that would look a bit curious by the end of the 2014-2015 regular season. He said then-general manager Peter Chiarelli was “the best in the business right now.”
“Right now” ended quickly, and Chiarelli was gone just after the Bruins’ season ended without a playoff berth, off to take over in Edmonton.
“What a difference a year makes, huh?” Jacobs said Wednesday at Gillette Stadium in an event to celebrate the upcoming Winter Classic, when reminded of his earlier comments. “We just found ourselves in a place that we don’t want to be.”
The Bruins underwent a makeover in the offseason, installing Don Sweeney as general manager, shuttling Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton out, and bringing in a little breathing room under the salary cap. And the Bruins might not be done yet.
Even though the team’s brass professes confidence in the team that will take the ice at training camp in September — as currently constituted — there is still some discomfort with a defense that did not replace Hamilton.
“We still have guys that played for us last year that are returning, a number of guys,” Bruins president Cam Neely said. “If we can improve in that area, I know Don would do that in a heartbeat. That’s something that we’ve talked about on a regular basis.
“We’re looking forward to seeing what [Colin] Miller can bring — there’s a lot of good reports on him and his season last year, that he’s ready to make the next step. But, again, we know it’s a tough position to play in the National Hockey League, so if we have an opportunity to improve in that area, we will.”
Cody Franson remains the biggest name on the open market. He would certainly upgrade a group that appears to be missing a top-four defenseman, assuming Adam McQuaid or Torey Krug cannot seize the job. Both, so far, have performed better in third-pairing roles, although Krug on Wednesday reiterated his desire to move up in the lineup this season.
Franson said last week the Bruins are among the teams vying for his services. Boston would likely have to move someone to fit the right-shot defenseman under the salary cap.
So far, even with the weaknesses on the current roster, Jacobs expressed faith in the work being done by Sweeney and Neely in his first comments since Chiarelli was fired. Of course, he also had confidence in Chiarelli through the start of last season.
“I think they’ve been handled very well,” Jacobs said. “I’m a real fan of Donnie’s. I’ve been a fan of his from the day he came to work for us. I can remember when he played with us he was a very bright and strong player.
“I think he’s going to make the tough decisions. They’re not all going to be popular, obviously, but he’s really looking out for the good and I think he’s got a better perspective than anybody else that I’ve seen towards appreciating where you are in this cap environment. You can’t buy your way out of trouble any more in this league. You’ve got to manage it.”
Asked when he knew that the team and the cap weren’t being managed properly by the previous regime, Jacobs said, “When I recognized that he wasn’t prepared to make the changes that needed to be made. But that wasn’t so much my recognition as Cam and Charlie [Jacobs].”
And that recognition by Neely and the younger Jacobs seemed to come earlier than it did for Jeremy Jacobs, who apparently took some convincing that it was time to get rid of that best-in-the-business GM.
In responding to a question about his faith in Neely as president, Jacobs said, “Very high. Cam [has been] a leader for a very long time. He aspires to do that and he’s willing to engage in the tough decisions and that’s what he wanted to do. That’s one of the things that perhaps if anybody’s going to be faulted, I should be faulted for . . . not letting them move as quickly as they wanted to.”
The move eventually happened. The general manager was let go.
And the Bruins are left with a roster that might have a bit more cap room now and in the future, but also one with less talent, especially on defense. From here, barring any more moves, the Bruins can only wait and see what September brings — and what comes after that.
“I’m anxious to see how training camp goes, preseason games,” Neely said. “Coming out of the preseason I know that we still have a lot of guys that have played for us — they know how Claude [Julien] likes them to play — returning to our team and then we have some new bodies obviously that are going to take some time to get to understand what the coaching staff expects.
“But you know I think for me I’m excited about seeing what guys can do during the preseason and training camp — is there anybody that’s going to step up that we may internally think are on the bubble? Are they going to step up for us or not?”