Cam Neely scored 395 goals in his NHL career. The right wing affected a game’s outcome by wreaking havoc like an act of God. He tied a ribbon on his 726-game career with a plaque and a speech at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Being great at hockey came naturally to Neely. He cannot help but view the game now, as Bruins president, through the lens of an ex-superstar, and wonder why the likes of Jimmy Hayes and Zach Trotman and Jonas Gustavsson couldn’t help pull the team out of a 3-8-1 death spiral that ended the season.
“We still know we need to make improvements,” Neely said Wednesday at TD Garden. “I’m not sitting up here saying we’re a Stanley Cup-contending team. But I’m saying we should have been in the playoffs.”
In some ways, Neely understands why an organization that won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2013-14 has gone golfing early the last two seasons. Draft picks that should have produced core players were wasted on Zach Hamill, Maxime Sauve, Jordan Caron, and Jared Knight. Returns from the trades of Tyler Seguin, Johnny Boychuk, Dougie Hamilton, Milan Lucic, and Reilly Smith currently qualify for two buckets: bust and let’s see.
Not even a 117-point team like the 2013-14 version can absorb such wallops and not hit the mat.
“We look at some of the better teams that are playing right now, you can count their drafts, and it’s upwards of 10 or 12 players, 13 players in their lineup that they’ve drafted and developed,” said Neely, firing a slap shot at the face of former Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli.
But Neely is practicing curious forms of optimism or foolishness if he believed the 2015-16 Bruins were good enough to get into the playoffs. They had craters on defense, at right wing, and at backup goalie. No amount of talent elsewhere was enough to overcome such deficiencies.
Perhaps it’s because, as a player, Neely had no trouble yanking his team into situations in which it had no business competing. It’s hard for him to understand why, years later, some of the players he’s helped to identify as NHLers can’t do the same.
“We had hoped some of them would improve a little bit more than they did,” said Neely, when asked if he had higher expectations of the blue line. “You never really know. It’s a tough position, as you all know.
“You see them develop and you hope they will continue to develop and make an impact on your team. I think we would have liked to have seen a little more of that, yes.”
What the Bruins suffered in those last 11 games was an ill-timed slump, not a choke or collapse or revelation of poor character. Contrary to Neely’s insistence, the Bruins didn’t deserve to make the playoffs.
In retrospect, they didn’t have the back-end personnel to prevent the slump. They forgot how to play defense in losses to Ottawa and Chicago and in a 6-5 win over St. Louis. When you have defensemen on their third organization like Joe Morrow, the last pick in the draft like Trotman, or a crowd of third-pairing guys such as Dennis Seidenberg, Kevan Miller, Adam McQuaid, and John-Michael Liles, the defense is vulnerable to hitting troughs at really bad times.
Presidents and general managers are paid for their foresight, not hindsight. Neely and Don Sweeney either didn’t forecast the defense to chase the game the way it did, or believed the rest of the roster was robust enough to paper over its blemishes. Neither scenario speaks highly of their ability to judge talent, which is the essence of their jobs.
Neely acknowledged that upgrading the defense is the organization’s first priority. It won’t be easy. The Bruins will have to send out some of their younger collateral, whether it’s Ryan Spooner, Frank Vatrano, or their picks and prospects. Every other GM knows the Boston defense isn’t fit for playoff contention. They will have no problem squeezing Sweeney into making a bad deal. Desperation makes teams overpay. The Bruins are desperate. Their CEO said so.
“Now that we’re back on the right side of the ledger, we have an opportunity in front of us to move forward,” Charlie Jacobs said. “We are a cap team. There should be an expectation, in an Original Six market, that we continue to be a playoff contender. And, frankly, a Stanley Cup contender, given the mix of talent we have currently on the roster and the youth that’s coming in.
“Cam’s aware of these expectations, as is Donny.”
Neely is Jacobs’s right-hand man. He is the bridge between Jacobs’s business niche and Sweeney’s hockey operations. It’s tricky to serve both.
The Bruins’ customers are angry. They have been paying big prices to watch a snoozing product for the last two seasons. Diving ratings on NESN show they are changing the channel. The business side expects a spike soon.
Meanwhile, Sweeney’s team has to complement the lead dogs with supplementary talent via drafting and developing and trades. But these steps take time.
Neely is in the middle — a businessman and a hockey operations executive in one. While he played like two men, it’s another thing to fulfill two jobs that can have conflicting missions of immediate results and long-term building.
Cam Neely is president because he’s Cam Neely: a singular legend who defined the position of power forward. But in his last two years, Neely’s reign in the corner office has not delivered the same results as his command on the ice. His bosses have taken notice.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.