The summer of 2011 feels like a million years ago. I was newly 21, I was still working at my beloved summer camp job in New Hampshire, and my Boston Bruins were on top of the hockey world for the first time since 1972. That fall, the Red Sox choked away a chance at the playoffs and got Terry Francona, the best manager in franchise history fired over their lack of performance, effectively ending the most successful era in Red Sox baseball since the Wilson Administration. My baseball team was falling apart while it looked like my hockey team was on the verge of becoming a dynasty. Five years later, the Bruins are in the situation the Red Sox were in 2011, with no clear path forward. The triumphant return of the Big Bad Bruins lasted a few years, but was gone before we knew it. How did we get here? And how do we get out?
This time a year ago, when the Bruins missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007, I thought general manager Peter Chiarelli and head coach Claude Julien had to go. Chiarelli did lose his job, and is now running the Edmonton Oilers, but Claude was left in limbo while Bruins president Cam Neely took his sweet time in an exhaustive search for a new GM which eventually led him to his friend, former teammate, and longtime Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney, and let Sweeney make the decision on Julien’s future in Boston. Sweeney decided to stick with Julien, but he was constantly on the hot seat this season, and it felt like he needed to make the playoffs to keep his job. There were highs and there were lows, but in the end, the 2016 Bruins found themselves in the same place their 2015 version was…out of the playoffs at the hands of teams that just wanted it more (last year, it was the Ottawa Senators, this year, it was the Detroit Red Wings who still have not missed the playoffs in my lifetime). While I feel Claude Julien is not the right coach for the Bruins anymore, everything has a shelf life, and no coach has been in their current job longer than Claude, it is impossible and irresponsible to place all the blame for the Bruins last two disappointing seasons on him. The problem is I’m not sure the Bruins know how to fix the mess they’ve put themselves in.
If you’ve read this blog religiously or you’ve talked to me in person about pop culture at any point in the last five years, you probably know about my affection for the HBO series The Wire, as I find ways to shoehorn it into the conversation almost as much as Community, Star Wars, or well, the Boston Bruins. One of the big picture ideas to take away from David Simon’s masterpiece about Baltimore’s failing institutions in the midst of the War on Drugs is that there is no simple solution. There is no one person to blame. It’s easy to throw it all on Mayor Carcetti (whose existence as a character gave real Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley no chance of making it past Iowa in this presidential election cycle), or Claude Julien, but you’re not looking at the whole picture if that’s what you do.
Claude Julien was the coach that oversaw back to back collapses in the final month of the season, and he’s responsible for motivating the team, but he wasn’t the one who put the roster together. He has relied too heavily on veteran players and prioritized guys like Chris Kelly (when healthy) or Brett Connolly or Kevan Miller over the development of young promising talent like David Pastrnak or Frank Vatrano or Colin Miller, but he was also coaching this season for his job and the immediate success veterans give you in the short term could buy him time more easily than waiting for a return on the investment of youth that may not come until he’s coaching elsewhere. He might not have wanted him on the team, but he didn’t trade Tyler Seguin to Dallas for pennies on the dollar (that was Chiarelli). He didn’t use a 1st round draft pick on a goaltender, Malcolm Subban, when Tuukka Rask was under contract and just entering his prime (that was Chiarelli). He might have given Chris Kelly too much ice time, but he wasn’t the one who signed a third liner to a stupid extension with a no movement clause (that was Chiarelli). He didn’t mismanage the salary cap to the point where the Bruins had to let Jarome Iginla walk in free agency but didn’t sign anyone to replace him on the top line, or trade a top four defenseman in the form of Johnny Boychuk to the Islanders for future draft picks (those were both Chiarelli). He didn’t trade Dougie Hamilton to the Flames for draft picks, leaving captain Zdeno Chara having to shoulder the load of an elite defenseman with little help at the age of 39 (that was Sweeney). He didn’t have three consecutive picks in the 1st round of the 2015 NHL Draft and not take a single player who could contribute to the NHL club in the 2015-16 season (that was Sweeney). He didn’t trade a 3rd round pick for Zac Freaking Rinaldo (that was Sweeney). Claude Julien is not perfect, but he’s a very good coach who is the Bruins’ all time wins leader (passing original coach and GM Art Ross last month), who changed his system on the fly this year in an attempt to manufacture goals in a changing league. He will get another job this summer. He deserves a change of scenery as much as the Bruins need a change behind the bench.
As a fan, I was never going to be satisfied with just one Stanley Cup. I wanted a dynasty. I realize how that must sound for Cleveland fans or Buffalo fans, but I really wanted the Bruins to become what the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings became instead this decade. They had a great #1 defenseman in Chara, good goaltending whether it was Tim Thomas or Tuukka Rask between the pipes, and different but dynamic forward talents in Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tyler Seguin, and Brad Marchand. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, they drafted Dougie Hamilton, who was supposed to be the next great Bruins defenseman, scheduled to enter his prime when Chara would be getting up there in age, extending his career by shouldering more responsibility. When the Bruins fought and clawed their way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against Chicago, it looked like a team that would be back again soon.
One of the most frustrating things about Bruins hockey in the nearly 20 years I’ve been following the team has been the incompatibility and organization impatience the team has had with talented players. The argument could be made that it started in the 70s when they traded a transcendent goal scoring talent in Phil Esposito to the Rangers, but that was a different time, the Bruins had gotten the best years out of Espo, and they got another Hall of Famer in defenseman Brad Park from New York in return. By the 2000s, the franchise best known for the likes of Bobby Orr, Espo, Ray Bourque, and Cam Neely was trading away Joe Thornton in his prime and in his eventual Hart Trophy winning season. In the years that followed, they drafted and subsequently traded away elite prospects in Phil Kessel, Seguin, and Hamilton (the latter two were drafted with the picks acquired when the B’s traded Kessel to Toronto). Each of those players had questions about their toughness, about their fight. None of them were prototypical Bruins in the way Orr or Bourque or Neely or Terry O’Reilly were, but how many of those guys really exist anymore? Orr and Bourque are two of the five best defensemen in the NHL’s expansion era, so most blueliners will disappoint next to those expectations, and the idea of fighting being as important a part as goal scoring in a player’s identity is went out of style faster than the idea of TV shows getting canceled before their time in the age of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
When the Bruins won the Cup in 2011, there were 645 fights in the NHL regular season, but that number was down to 343 in the 2015-16 season. For further illustration of how sharp the decline has been, there were 347 fights in the lockout-shortened 2013 season just three years ago, which was also the last year the Bruins made a deep playoff run. This year’s inclusion of John Scott in the All-Star Game was a fun Internet gimmick that exposed how tone deaf a giant corporate institution like the NHL can respond to spontaneity, but it also served as a eulogy of sorts for the role of the Enforcer on a hockey roster in the world of high definition TVs, social media, and concussion lawsuits. The DNA of the Boston Bruins is firmly rooted in a style of play that is becoming less and less relevant by the minute. I realize that, many hockey writers and sports radio pundits realize that, and I think the Bruins front office realizes that, but I am not convinced they know any other way to build a roster. If they did, why would they give up an asset of any kind to acquire a player like Zac Rinaldo?
It’s one thing to value a star defenseman over a star goal scorer who does not fight or play defense when it’s the 70s, but to be the last team stuck in the past is never a place you want to be as a fan. The Red Sox will always hold the distinction of being the last team in Major League Baseball to sign a black player, and the Lakers will go down as the last NBA team to not embrace analytics. I would rather have my team always be good than stubbornly married to a specific style of play. I’m not saying they should be the Oakland A’s of hockey, where even if they’re bad, they’re intriguing, but if you’re an A’s fan, you should never invest in your favorite player’s jersey because he will get traded, but it would be nice to see the Bruins be one of the smart teams that stays ahead of the curve. MIT hosts the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and the other three Boston teams are known in their respective sport for being on the smarter side of average. The Bruins last two general managers are both Harvard educated, but from the outside looking in, both seem to be more about Old Time Hockey and other immeasurable sports cliches than staying ahead of trends in the game. The Bruins are living in the past so much that the biggest highlight of the 2015-16 season was beating the hated Montreal Canadiens in the Winter Classic Alumni Game…not the Winter Classic itself.
Besides the fans, the biggest victims of the last two seasons have been Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. With the rest of the roster crumbling around them, they are as good as ever, and Marchand has transformed from the Little Ball of Hate to a legitimate NHL goal scoring threat. In another universe, if a couple of offseasons go differently (cough Seguin cough cough), Bergeron and Marchand could be the Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane of the Eastern Conference. Neither of them on the level of Toews or Kane, but the Eastern Conference isn’t on the level of the Western Conference, either. My buddy Luke and I were texting back and forth after the Bruins got eliminated, and our biggest fear is a long rebuild. Sure, I want the team to do it right, but I’d like to see them make some noise while Bergeron and Marchand still have their health. They are special players. They were the only scorers in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011 against Vancouver, they led the charge in the Game 7 comeback against Toronto in 2013, and they deserve more cracks at more Cups. I hope it’s in Boston.