It’s awfully dull around here with the Bruins again not in the playoffs.
The Marathon on Monday will provide a lot of us a boost, but April in Boston without Stanley Cup hockey is a biggie-sized cup of lukewarm decaf that even Delaware North couldn’t hawk at its Garden concession stands.
As for what else we have at the moment, please spare me the intricacies and machinations of the Red Sox rotation. Oh, the angst. It’s April. I’ve got miles to go before these distant sons of Jack Lamabe put me to sleep.
And really, the release of the NFL schedule is not only a topic of conversation but something worthy of analytic scrutiny and requisite ESPN cacophony? The schedule, the one that begins, you know, in September and ends in the early days of 2017? It’s so big I can’t imagine the paper it’s printed on could fold neatly into my wallet.
We finally learned on Thursday, five days after the season ended, what Bruins management thinks went wrong in 2015-16. In somber, sometimes funereal tones, general manager Don Sweeney explained how a bad start, a worse finish, and spotty roster talent produced a second consecutive postseason DNQ. When I left the Garden after the news conference, I felt like I needed to sign a book of condolence, shake a grieving spouse’s hand.
Instead, I paid my $28 for 3-4 hours of parking and drove home, somewhat bewildered by it all, much like I felt many nights during the season.
How will Sweeney fix it? He’s not sure. He was key in creating the mess at hand, a rookie GM handed the keys just a year ago, and it stands to reason he doesn’t yet have all the answers. But he needs to find them, and quickly, or this time next year he’ll have to explain the club’s first three straight DNQs in the post-Bobby Orr era, and probably do so while handing the keys to a new GM.
Like the club’s Stand Pat era of not long ago, when Harry Sinden kept standing Pat Burns behind the bench, Sweeney firmly endorsed the return of coach Claude Julien. Sinden appeared certain to fire Burns late in what turned out to be a woeful 24-win season of 1999-2000, amazingly backed off at the last minute, then ultimately ditched Burns only eight games into the following October after a 3-4-1 start.
Then came Mike Keenan, and another DNQ, all of it the start of an era that finally convinced Buffalo-based ownership to cashier Sinden and GM Mike O’Connell as part of a franchise reset in 2006.
So if you think it’s dull around here now, hold on, those days proved it can get much worse. Starting with that Burns team that missed the 2000 playoffs, the franchise won a total of six playoff games over the seven seasons through 2006-07. Six wins, seven seasons. The stretch included four DNQs and three first-round knockouts, two of those against the Canadiens. Dreadful days in the Hub of Hockey.
And a good portion of that stretch was in the NHL’s pre-salary-cap era. Technically, the Bruins could have tried to buy their way out of the misery. A wacky deal given to Martin Lapointe short-circuited any such strategy and a league-wide $39 million salary cap, put in place for 2005-06, ended it for good.
Most mystifying, and troubling, about this year’s team was its frequent absence of pushback. The Jan. 1 Winter Classic game vs. Montreal was a case in point. The Bruins were humiliated on the grand stage of Gillette Stadium and NBC-TV. Far worse was last Saturday, on Garden ice, the Bruins in need of a win against the lowly, non-playoff-bound Senators. The Senators surged in the second period, and the Bruins had nothing in response.
A franchise clinging to its trademark of moxie and snarl displayed no pushback as the Senators rattled off six straight goals, two after Julien yanked his goalie in the third for a six-on-four skating advantage. The saddest footnote to the day, to the season, was that the Senators turned even that into goals, working two men short.
“Inconsistency in that area is certainly something that was a little identifiable with this group,’’ admitted Sweeney, when asked about his club’s lack of pushback this season.
In Sinden’s days, that quote would have read: “I can’t tell you what the hell these guys are thinking. Pushback? I’ve got pushovers!’’
If you believe that winning and losing are solely about skill and roster composition, then pushback probably sounds like a quaint, antiquated term. I don’t buy that. I don’t think most Bruins fans buy that. Pushback was once about fighting, falling behind by two or three goals, and then rolling Terry O’Reilly or Stan Jonathan or even Ken Baumgartner over the boards to provide spark with a fight. Those days are virtually gone, forgotten, for reasons fight fans and pacifists alike can argue deep into the night.
Nowadays, pushback still exists in the form of net drive, targeted checking, skating speed, the courage of a forward (think: Mark Recchi) to stand in front of the net and withstand a beatdown. Much of that speaks far more to will and courage and chutzpah than it does to talent or X’s and O’s. It doesn’t necessarily show up in a Combine report on speed, fitness, and oxygen intake.
Sweeney’s charge now is to add to the team’s talent. If amid that search he overlooks heart, what this year’s team lacked most, he’ll be right back where he was Thursday, ignoring the obvious, or unwilling to say it.