Edmonton Oilers great Dave Semenko passed away last week after a battle with pancreatic and liver cancer. Semenko was not the best player of his era, but he was one of the most memorable. He was the enforcer for the legendary Oilers teams of the 1980s, a team that was before my time but lives on forever on YouTube. He was Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard on the ice, giving The Great One the security he needed to put up offensive numbers that are unfathomable 30 years later. He was such a star as an enforcer, he even had the opportunity to get in the ring and fight Muhammad Ali for charity.
Perhaps the most touching tribute to Semenko came from Gretzky himself at Semenko’s funeral. Wayne got it. He was maybe the most supremely skilled player ever to lace up skates, but the way he talks about his former teammate and dear friend shows that hockey, even at its highest level, is a blue collar sport where the tough guys are just as appreciated as the high-end finesse players. That Oilers team was loaded, and Semenko was their heart and soul.
There was a time when every team had a guy like Dave Semenko on their roster. Fighting was just part of the game, and as hard as it sometimes was to defend the tradition of fighting in hockey to non-hockey fans, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the importance of fighting in the game.
I believe that if hockey had been invented as a new sport in the 2010s, and the leaders of this upstart National Hockey League trying to make their new game as appealing and sustainable as possible, fighting would never in a million years make the cut. That being said, to keep going with this thought experiment, hockey as we know it would have a much better chance of being invented in 2017 than football as we know it. The pace of play and high floor of acceptable skill required for entry into the NHL plays in hockey’s favor.
As long as there has been hockey there have also been great players who were also good to great fighters from Eddie Shore to Maurice Richard to Gordie Howe to Bobby Orr to Larry Robinson to Mark Messier to Scott Stevens to Cam Neely to Jarome Iginla to to mike Richards to Zdeno Chara. Even guys like Semenko or Terry O’Reilly or Shawn Thornton could probably get minutes in a post-fighting NHL. They would not be stars, and their careers would not have been as long, but in their primes, they could play well enough to make the cut even if they could not or did not fight. The players who lose out in the modern NHL are the guys who can only fight, the John Scotts of the world, or late career Shawn Thornton and George Parros.
According to Hockeyfights.com, a great website I do not check nearly as often as I used to for some reason, there were 372 total fights in 2016-17, which is up from 344 the previous season, but probably not enough to reverse the downward trend of fighting in the NHL. There were 734 in 2008-09, the highest since the 2004-05 lockout, but since the 2012-13 lockout, no season has cracked 500 fights, and the 347 fights in the abbreviated 2013 season feels like something from a different era.
Those are just numbers on a chart, but a clearer illustration came in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. My Boston Bruins won the President’s Trophy that season, but had their hands full with their most hated rival, the Montreal Canadiens in the second round. Ultimately, the Bruins fell to the Habs in seven games. Montreal was the faster, more skilled team, while Boston prided itself on strength and toughness. That’s the rivalry in a nutshell. One key difference in the two teams was the use of the enforcer. Boston had Shawn Thornton, and Montreal had George Parros. The two were friends, and won the Stanley Cup together as members of the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. While Parros spent the playoffs in the press box, scratched from the lineup, the Bruins played Thornton. That philosophical difference was not on its own what put the Habs ahead of the Bruins that season, but it showed how much the game had changed.
In 2011, inserting Thornton into the lineup in the Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks after Nathan Horton got hurt gave the Bruins an edge. They pushed the Canucks around after that, and won their first Stanley Cup since 1972. Thornton alone did not put them over the top, but his presence could not be discounted. Three years later, he was a liability in the playoffs for the Bruins.
The decline of the enforcer has been talked about for years. Before Dave Semenko’s passing, it was John Scott’s inclusion in the All-Star Game that caused a mass-reflection on the legacy of the role in hockey. Before that it was the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, Bob Probert, and others. Every time, the same sentiments are expressed: fighting in hockey is hard to defend to non-hockey fans, and the role of fighting means less now than it did even five years ago, but nonetheless, without it, the game is missing something, and the guys who do that dirty work are some of the most appreciated in the dressing room as well as with the most hardcore of hockey fans.
If there were ever an opening for fighting to gain a more prominent role in the NHL again, we may have it with the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights to the league. With a 31st team, there are now more NHL playing jobs than ever before, and the talent pool is even further diluted. Teams may place a greater emphasis on protecting their most skilled players, and there may be more roster spots available for guys who can fight better than they can score. Then again, if the next couple years do not bring fighting back to where it was as recently as 2013, it might be gone for good in 20 years.
I should be excited for Teemu Selanne, the Finnish Flash. I should be excited for Dave Andreychuk, who scored 640 goals and should have gotten in years ago. I should be excited for Paul Kariya, who is the first Hall of Famer from the University of Maine. I should be excited for Mark Recchi, who won three Stanley Cups with three different teams, and who was the old man mentor on my favorite hockey team ever. I should be excited for Danielle Goyette, because I have cousins named Goyette and maybe they’re related, however distantly. Instead, I’m just annoyed that Jeremy Jacobs is going into the Hockey Hall of Fame, in the “builder” category, along with them.
Jeremy Jacobs is the worst owner of any of the Boston teams. Of the four current ownership groups in town, he is now also the only one in a Hall of Fame. Bruins hockey has always been defined by being good, by being tough, but also by not winning as much as fans want or expect. Since buying the team in 1975, Jacobs made a name for himself pinching pennies and valuing fiscal responsibility over on-ice success.
To be fair, when the NHL got a salary cap, the Bruins spent to it, rebuilt in that system, and won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and reached another Final in 2013. But also to be fair, for decades before the cap, Jacobs under-spent, took Ray Bourque and Cam Neely to salary arbitration, and was the among the driving forces in the NHL’s board of governors who locked out the players three times–even cancelling the 2004-05 season–to demand a salary cap.
The rigidity of the NHL salary cap also ended up being the Bruins’ undoing, and mismanaging it is the reason the B’s went from a President’s Trophy winning team in 2014 to out of the playoff picture the next two years. Jacobs put the well being of his fellow millionaire and billionaire owners ahead of the devoted fan base that went to his games and watched his team on TV. A seven year run after the rules changed in the favor of the owners should not undo the thirty years of frustration that led up to that era.
I was just thinking about Jacobs and the frustration he put Bruins fans through this weekend when I was working on my David Ortiz column. I thought a lot about life was like before Ortiz and Tom Brady, before winning in Boston was the norm. The lowest points came from the Celtics and Bruins, the teams with the more recent traditions of winning who had both hit low points in the mid and late 1990s. For the Celtics, Rick Pitino’s “not walking through that door” moment in 2000 was the perfect illustration of how far they had fallen. For the Bruins is was the rally in Boston in the summer of 2001 for Stanley Cup champion and fan favorite Ray Bourque… of the Colorado Avalanche. The rally was attended by thousands, paying respect for the Bruins’ former captain, but also serving as a giant middle finger to the Bruins organization by a disenfranchised region of passionate hockey fans.
In the spring of 2010, I watched the Bruins blow a 3-0 lead in a Game 7, and in doing so blew a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in my friend Mark’s dorm room. For a long time, I was not convinced I would ever have a more joyful professional hockey watching experience than the night Ray Bourque raised the Cup with the Avs, and nights like that were why. The team, for all its endearing on-ice qualities, was run by a cheap old billionaire who was never going to change as long as fans kept going. There was no reason for the team to extend themselves. Hockey fans are loyal to a fault. There are few things better than watching a hockey game in the arena, and nothing better than playoff hockey anywhere. Even when things looked bleakest, Bruins fans knew deep down they could not quit forever.
Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall said “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” He attributed the quote to Groucho Marx and Sigmund Freud, but the sentiment is universal, or at the very least incredibly resonant within my own brain. If I were an NHL player, a Bruin or otherwise, after decades of lockouts and business as usual, I would never want to be in a Hall of Fame that would have someone like Jeremy Jacobs as an inductee. I know it’s hyperbolic, and the Hockey Hall of Fame is obviously a huge honor for any player, but there’s something particularly wrong about spending more time thinking about Jeremy Jacobs on the day of the Hall of Fame announcement than I have been about the great players who were also inducted today.
The Boston Red Sox formally closed the door on the David Ortiz Era this weekend by retiring. No Red Sox player will ever again wear #34. Maybe JetBlue overdid it by dedicating Gate 34 at Terminal C of Logan Airport for him, and maybe the City of Boston overdid it by also renaming part of Yawkey Way “David Ortiz Drive,” and maybe they rushed into things by waiting less than a year after Big Papi played his last game before retiring his number–they waited until induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame to honor Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Pedro Martinez in this way–but there is no one like David Ortiz in Red Sox history. The team’s and the city’s reaction was to be expected.
From a numbers standpoint, David Ortiz was not the best player in Red Sox history. For position players, Ted Williams, Wade Boggs, Carl Yastrzemski, and Carlton Fisk all had more career WAR by the Baseball Reference calculation (Ortiz is #231 all time, which is still impressive for a guy who was mostly a designated hitter and could not contribute in the field), and Williams and Yaz racked up all their Major League numbers with the Red Sox. But before David Ortiz, every great Red Sox player post-Babe Ruth was defined, fairly or unfairly, by not getting it done in October. Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters ever, but only made the postseason once in his career. The signature moment of Carlton Fisk’s career was his walk-off home run off Fenway’s left field foul pole in the 1975 World Series… but that was in Game 6, and Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine won Game 7.
David Ortiz was one of many stars on the 2004 team, but it always seemed like he was in the batter’s box when it mattered most. Cast off by the Minnesota Twins, it’s almost as if David Ortiz’ MLB career did not really begin until he joined the Red Sox in 2003, one of the first of many moves that gave Theo Epstein the baseball genius reputation he enjoys today. Ortiz was the only member of the 2004 World Series Champions who was also on the team when they won it all in 2013, and he was the World Series MVP.
Ortiz had too many clutch moments for their to be a singular career defining moment. I keep going back and forth between his walk-off against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and his grand slam that turned the Fenway Park bullpen cop into a folk hero in the 2013 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. Then again, there is also his “This is our f*cking city” moment after the Boston Marathon bombing. On and off the field, no player meant more to Boston than David Ortiz.
Ortiz’ accomplishments in Boston sports this century are matched only by Tom Brady. Like Ortiz, Brady turned the fortunes of a long-downtrodden franchise almost as soon as he arrived. Together, they transformed the Boston teams from ones devoid of titles to ones defined by them. The success of the Red Sox and Patriots was so infectious that even the post-Larry Bird Celtics and Jeremy Jacobs-owned Bruins followed suit.
Like Ortiz, Brady is as good as ever as he enters his 40s. He was already firmly in the Greatest Of All Time discussion before he won two of the last three Super Bowls. The comeback he orchestrated against the Falcons this February is one I still stop and think about in semi-disbelief that it really happened, and may be the best game he’s ever played. Both Ortiz and Brady proved themselves time and again after most had written them off. Obviously–purely based on the impact of an NFL quarterback compared to that of a MLB designated hitter–Brady is the more important player in the overall history of his sport, but given the historical importance of the Red Sox in Boston (their World Series drought predated the Patriots’ inaugural season by 42 years) makes the Ortiz vs. Brady discussion a debate.
As crazy as the David Ortiz farewell tour of 2016 that spilled into 2017 may have been, don’t be surprised if it’s even crazier if Brady ever retires. Then again, Brady’s end might come in another Super Bowl, which was the only thing missing from the end of the Ortiz Era. The 2016 World Series was the Series That Boston Built. It validated so much of what I have believed about baseball for years. If I wanted to build a title contender from scratch, I would want Theo Epstein running my front office. Even though his team lost, Terry Francona out-managed Joe Maddon, and Tito is the guy I would want managing my team. I would want Jon Lester starting the biggest game of the year, and Andrew Miller pitching the innings of highest leverage. The Red Sox had all of those guys on the payroll as recently as 2011. If that wasn’t enough, former Boston World Series champions John Lackey, David Ross, Mike Napoli, and Coco Crisp also played in the World Series.
David Ortiz went into his last postseason with a cast that was not good enough, and got swept in the ALDS Francona’s Cleveland Indians. The only thing missing from the Series That Boston Built was Boston, and by extension, David Ortiz. David Ortiz was Boston baseball. Boston celebrated him the way they did because he was the best we ever had when the games mattered most.
A week after getting fired after nearly a decade as head coach of the Boston Bruins, Claude Julien has landed on his feet, being named today as head coach of Boston oldest and most bitter rival, the Montreal Canadiens, replacing Michel Therrien. To summarize, the Bruins still do not seem to have a plan going forward, and they just gave their biggest rival a coaching upgrade, looking like fools in the process. This is where we are right now.
Bruins fans could see this coming from miles away. It had long been speculated that the Bruins had held off on firing Claude in the past to block division rivals like Montreal or the Ottawa Senators from getting him. Julien has been constantly rumored to be a coaching candidate for the Habs, considering he has been their head coach before, and considering he is one of a handful of bilingual NHL head coaches. In 2011, when Randy Cunneyworth was named interim head coach of the Canadiens, the organization apologized and promised the permanent head coach (it ended up being Therrien) would be able to speak French.
This is a good move for Montreal. They are a playoff team that has struggled as of late, and perhaps a coaching change is what they think they need to kick start to put them over the top. As I mentioned last week, the Claude was fired by the Bruins, it was Michel Therrien who got fired by Pittsburgh in 2009 before they won the Stanley Cup under Dan Bylsma. The Canadiens have a great goaltender in Carey Price, and a great defensive defenseman in Shea Weber who seems like Julien’s kind of player in the tradition of Zdeno Chara, and they think this coach combined with these players could be the mix they need to win their first Stanley Cup since 1993 (the last Cup win by any Canadian team).
For Boston, this is more of what I was talking about last week. The Bruins did not fire Julien sooner because they did not have a better plan and they were afraid to see him coaching a rival. Now, they still do not have a better plan, winning streak that includes a win over Montreal under Bruce Cassidy notwithstanding, and Julien is coaching a rival. While the Bruins are stuck in the middle, Bruins fans are stuck seeing their team’s all time winningest head coach (Julien passed Art Ross, who has an NHL trophy named after him and who named the Boston Bruins, on the franchise win list last season) behind the bench for the Montreal Canadiens of all teams. The thought crossed my mind the other night when the Bruins played the Habs that if the Bruins win, Claude could be Montreal’s new coach, but the reality is just now sinking in, even though I understood this could and probably would happen on an intellectual level for years.
Ultimately, blame for this falls back in Cam Neely and Don Sweeney. They tried to prevent this from happening, and it still happened, and Bruins fans are still stuck with them while Julien is coaching a real contender and Peter Chiarelli is running the loaded with young talent Edmonton Oilers. There have been worse time to be a Bruins fan, but the fact that the people who made the franchise respectable for the first time in decades are gone makes me concerned about how soon things will get better.
It finally happened, and in the most predictably Boston Bruins way possible. The Bruins fired head coach Claude Julien this Tuesday, in his tenth year in Boston, during the Patriots’ Super Bowl championship parade. Of course they were going to try and bury the fact that they were firing the coach who led them to their only Stanley Cup championship in the last 40 years on a day when the region was celebrating the greatest comeback in NFL history and a fifth Super Bowl victory that cemented Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the greatest coach and quarterback in history. Besides illustrating the Bruins’ antiquated public relations strategy that has not at all adapted for the age of social media, it also shows that from a hockey operations standpoint, that they still have no idea what they are doing. Sad.
The thing is, I was not against firing Claude Julien. I thought it was going to happen a year and a half ago when they fired Peter Chiarelli. Claude is a very good coach, but coaching turnover in hockey is higher that the other sports. For some perspective, last week, the St. Louis Blues fired Ken Hitchcock. Having been the head coach in St. Louis since 2011, Hitch was one of the longer tenured head coaches in the NHL, but Claude had been on the hot seat in Boston for years before Hitch even got to St. Louis. Winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 certainly helped Julien, but it felt like the Bruins might have fired him had they lost Game 7 to Tampa in the Conference Final that season.
Even going deep in the playoffs does not buy you much time in the NHL. Michel Therrien took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, and got fired midway through the next season, only for Pittsburgh to get back to the Cup Final in 2009 and win it that time. Last season, when the Penguins again fired their coach midseason and won the Cup, it reminded people that teams typically get their act together a little bit when that kind of urgency is placed upon them, but I was not in favor of firing Claude for the sake of firing Claude. It’s one thing to fire your coach and win the Cup when you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. That will not be happening with Zdeno Chara turning 40 next month when he turned into a statue on the ice sometime in the last 18 months. Getting rid of Julien turns the page on an era in Bruins history, a successful era that I have eulogized multiple times at this point when I thought he was going to get canned, but it does not change how flawed the roster is, and I am not convinced the people in charge have a plan to fix it.
Team president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney now have one less person to blame besides themselves for the mess the Bruins are in right now. After missing the playoffs in the spring of 2015, Neely pinned the team’s failings on then-GM Peter Chiarelli, and Chiarelli deserved his share of blame for sure, but it never totally made sense why they kept Claude around when they promoted Sweeney to GM, except for the purpose of self preservation on the part of Neely and Sweeney. Why did they not fire Claude in the spring of 2016, when they missed the playoffs for a second straight year in an eerily similar manner? The only reason I can think of as a cynical Bruins fan is that they still did not have a plan, and they decided to put off firing Claude longer to distract from that fact. It’s behavior like that from the team that has bred institutional cynicism from Bruins fans that inspires signs like this alternative fact laden one I saw on Reddit this week from Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks:
I am not sure if this sign, starring White House Press Secretary and Melissa McCarthy character Sean Spicer, says more about the state of America or the state of the Boston Bruins, but either way, I do not feel good about where we are or where we might be going.
Regardless of how they go here, the Bruins are now in the Bruce Cassidy Era, and so far are 2-0, including today’s win over the Vancouver Canucks, and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Maybe replacing Julien with Cassidy, who was the head coach for the Providence Bruins of the AHL before joining Julien’s NHL staff this season, and previously served as head coach of the pre-Ovechkin Washington Capitals, will provide enough of a spark for the Bruins to get into the playoffs this year, but I do not expect them to do anything once they are there. Changing the coach will not change the fact that Zdeno Chara is a million years old, that Tuukka Rask has played more than he should because the backup goaltending situation is not as good as it traditionally has been (Remember when the Bruins had the tandem of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in net for three straight years? That was awesome.), that Patrice Bergeron is not getting any younger, and that Brad Marchand’s goal scoring prime is being wasted on an inferior team that has blown a chance at the playoffs in two straight seasons.
I might not feel as down on the Bruins as I do if the other three teams in Boston were not regarded as “smart teams” in their respective leagues. The Patriots are the smartest team in the NFL, as evidenced by their five Super Bowl wins in an era when that is not supposed to happen, and the Red Sox and Celtics were early to embrace the analytics movements in baseball and basketball. The Bruins? They are trying to win a style of hockey that no longer exists, or they are trying to change with the times, depending on the day and who you ask, but in trying to remain competitive, they are not rebuilding, and I am not convinced they know how even if they are trying to.
Last week, I was quite upset about the way the Boston Bruins’ season ended, and I used this space to eulogize the Claude Julien Era in Boston and wonder out loud whether the Bruins knew what they were doing going forward, and I spoke too soon… sort of. After a few days of waiting around and not announcing anything, Bruins GM Don Sweeney announced that the B’s would, in fact, be retaining Julien for a tenth season. In my opinion, that still doesn’t mean the Bruins know what they’re doing.
Claude Julien is a very good coach. I can’t stress that enough. He helped end a 39 year Stanley Cup drought in Boston, and coached perennial contenders in Montreal and New Jersey before arriving here in 2007. He is now the Bruins’ all time leader in both regular season and playoff wins, more than Art Ross who has an NHL trophy named after him, more than Don Cherry, who in the years since the Too Many Men Game has become Canada’s answer to John Madden on TV, and more than Mike Milbury, who was better known for beating a guy with his own shoe at Madison Square Garden as a player when he was the Bruins coach and is now better known for ruining the New York Islanders and doing a bad Don Cherry impression on NBC telecasts than anything else. If the Bruins were to fire him, he’d have another head coaching job in the NHL next season, and if they’re just hanging on to him so Ottawa or Montreal can’t have him, that’s just petty.
The real issues of organizational direction and accountability fall in the lap of Cam Neely. Neely is a Boston sports icon, and he’s gotten a lot of benefit of the doubt over the last nine years or so as a result, but at some point you need to wonder what’s going on. Neely was hired by the team in the 2007-08 season, the same year as Julien, and at the time, I thought it was a PR move as much as anything. In a year when the Red Sox won the World Series, the Celtics won their first title since 1986, and the Patriots were flirting with immortality when they held the record of 18-0 heading into the Super Bowl, the Bruins were as irrelevant as they have ever been in New England. This was the third season after the one the Jeremy Jacobs-led NHL owners cancelled, the second season after the B’s traded Jumbo Joe Thornton to San Jose during his Hart Trophy season and set up the Sharks as a perennial contender in the Western Conference, and the first season after the Dave Lewis debacle, a season so bad that Patrice Bergeron, the quintessential two-way NHL center, was a -28 player, the only negative +/- season of his career.The Bruins needed Cam Neely because they had lost the faith of the fanbase in an era when the other three teams in town were the industry leaders in their sports.
Neely was hired a year after Peter Chiarelli, but was promoted to a level that made him Chiarelli’s boss before the 2010-11 season, which conveniently enough, was the year the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. It has seemed that Neely has wanted us to believe that everything that has gone wrong for the Bruins (poor drafts, mismanagement of the salary cap, trading away talented young players for diminishing returns) was Chiarelli’s doing, but Neely himself is responsible for the team’s successes. In Don Sweeney, the Bruins have a GM who played on the Bruins with Neely, and he’s Neely’s guy, but it’s still not clear what Neely’s vision for the team is.
It shouldn’t be a complete surprise that Neely and Sweeney are struggling. They are not the only former star players from the 90s that have taken a turn running an NHL team, and they’re not the only ones having trouble. Wayne Gretzky is the greatest offensive player by the numbers the game of hockey has ever seen, and is a four time Stanley Cup Champion, but his tenure as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes is a footnote I’m sure he wished wasn’t there. Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic won two Stanley Cups together as the goalie and the captain, respectively, of the Colorado Avalanche, but they’re not exactly lighting the world on fire as head coach and general manager, respectively, of the Avs today. This is the comparison to the Bruins that scares me the most. Roy and Sakic are Avs royalty. Of course they got that job. Sakic played his entire career for the Nordiques/Avs, and it really wouldn’t make sense for him to work in any other front office, given his relative lack of experience before he took this job. Roy does not seem like a very good head coach, but if he fails in Colorado, he could go back to Montreal. They like coaches that speak French, which he does, and it would be his glorious return after the way his playing days ended with the Habs.
Neely and Sweeney are in the same boat in Boston. They are Bruins. When Peter Chiarelli or Claude Julien get fired, every team with a coaching or front office vacancy is calling and asking for their services because they’ve proven their ability in multiple organizations, and did not just get the job because they were a 50 goal scorer or their number hangs in the rafters of TD Garden. If Neely fails (more than Sweeney, because at least Don took his time and learned the ropes as an assistant GM and overseeing the farm system for years before becoming general manager) in Boston, that’s it as a front office leader. The Vancouver Canucks won’t be calling him for a glorious return because all they are to him was the team he played for before he became Cam Neely when he was traded to the Bruins. I think when it’s all said and done, the most successful 90s-star-player-turned-executives will be Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that they left the shadow of their playing careers to run their respective teams. Yzerman and Shanahan won Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, but Stevie Y has build a really good team down in Tampa, and while Shanahan inherited a garbage hockey team in the Toronto Maple Leafs, I trust the infrastructure he has put in place, hiring former Wings coach Mike Babcock, longtime New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamiorello (age 73) to be the mentor GM to assistant GM Kyle Dubas (age 29). They are building something special in Toronto because they were not married to the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs (which, let’s be serious, has been pretty miserable since expansion began in the late 1960s), and Shanahan is smart enough to bring in smart people who aren’t just going to agree with him on everything. It would be nice to root for a hockey team that was known for being smart. Maybe the other three Boston teams have spoiled me.
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.