The Bruins of 2015-16 could have been more, probably should have been more, and had enough talent to make it to the playoffs, in the opinion of team president Cam Neely.
Nearly two weeks after seeing his club fail to qualify for the postseason for a second straight year, Neely on Wednesday shared his thoughts publicly and still sounded uncertain about what went wrong with his team and what it will take to fix it.
“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about since our season ended,’’ said Neely, who was joined by Jeremy Jacobs and Charlie Jacobs, representing ownership, at their end-of-season press conference at TD Garden.
“It’s hard for me to understand how we got to where we were with 13 games remaining and not being able to close it out. So for me, it’s a combination of maybe some of the will — the will to win, the will to compete. Maybe it’s some of the things we could’ve done differently, tactically.
“I think it might be a combination of those things. I wish it was as easy as saying, ‘This was the exact problem.’ ’’
For the better part of 30 minutes, Neely and the Jacobses sifted through the detritus of another season that fell far short of a Stanley Cup. All standard stuff for the most part, albeit with all three decidedly placing part of the blame at the feet of former general manager Peter Chiarelli, be it for onerous salary cap restrictions created during his tenure or the failure of myriad draft picks to crack the roster.
“I think for a period of time we stopped being in an invest mode, running with the [players] we had,’’ said the senior Jacobs, who never specifically named Chiarelli as the reason for the club’s arrested development, “and you pay a price in this game if you’re not constantly investing in the next generation.’’
Asked to add some context to that statement, Jacobs said, “As you saw, we had [Milan] Lucic and [Dougie] Hamilton and others that were actually cap issues that we don’t have this year going forward. [Payroll] space has been cleared.
“Now . . . how it’s used is going to be up to Don [Sweeney] and Cam and the group. They have coalesced together, have come to a plan.’’
The junior Jacobs was quick to clarify the point on investing in the team.
“It’s something that we continually do,’’ he said. “We had leveraged our future to the point where something had to change last summer. We made the change, [dismissed Chiarelli], and we’re righting the ledger, if you will, by stocking our team back up with prospects with the ability of cap flexibility to make the proper moves going forward. We will always invest in this team.’’
Later, after the formal portion of the press conference ended, Neely identified three aspects of the roster that must be upgraded for next season: 1. The defensive corps; 2. Right wing; 3. Backup goaltender.
The back line fell apart in the late going, in large part because Sweeney failed to restock NHL-caliber talent back there in the wake of dealing Hamilton to Calgary. With aging veterans Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg wearing down, there wasn’t sufficient support to fill out a bona fide blue line.
Right wing, where the Bruins could lose Loui Eriksson to free agency come July 1, also was challenged throughout the season. Brett Connolly and Jimmy Hayes were profound underperformers and young prospect David Pastrnak, despite showing flashes of offensive brilliance, was soft and mistake-prone. Sweeney last week noted that Pastrnak led the league in giveaways, averaged over 60 minutes.
“I’d like us to get a little bit heavier on the right side,’’ said Neely, who made it to the Hall of Fame as a power forward on the right side. “I think we need that element on the forward group. We have some skill, we need a little more of the gritty piece.’’
As for backup goaltending, it sounds as if Jonas Gustavsson will not return as the guy who spells No. 1 tender Tuukka Rask.
“With Subban’s injury this year,’’ said Neely, referring to the late-season throat injury suffered by Malcolm Subban, the club’s top netminding prospect at Providence, “that kind of threw a wrinkle in . . . maybe that development there, so we have to look at that.’’
Neely said Sweeney recently spoke with Eriksson’s agent, again in hopes of signing the unrestricted free agent to a contract extension. He also said that none of the players headed to surgery had yet undergone the knife, including David Krejci (hip) and Torey Krug (shoulder). It was still uncertain, added Neely, whether winger Matt Beleskey would require hand surgery.
The decision to bring back Claude Julien as coach, announced last week by Sweeney, was made, in part, because the club was convinced the veteran coach had not lost control of the room.
“Ultimately, that’s Don’s decision,’’ said Neely. “If he comes to me and says, ‘Listen, I think we need to make a change here,’ I have to go with his recommendation because he’s the one that deals with the coach on a daily basis.’’