I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade the night the story first broke because I felt too close to it as a fan of Isaiah Thomas. In two and a half seasons, he became the most universally popular Celtics player among casual Boston sports fans–more so than Paul Pierce–since Larry Bird. Personally, I wrote about Isaiah in his relatively brief tenure almost as much as I have about David Ortiz, Tom Brady, and Patrice Bergeron, three titans of the City of Champions era that Boston has been enjoying since February of 2002.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade in the week that followed, as the teams first acknowledged the trade on their various social media profiles, but then the trade did not get finalized right away. The Cleveland Cavaliers were skeptical of the integrity of Isaiah Thomas’ injured hip (a concern that admittedly did not get talked about enough once the Celtics’ season ended) and asked for more assets to complete the trade. It was not a one-for-one swap of two star point guards to begin with: the Celtics also gave up Jae Crowder, Ante Žižić, and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 1st round draft pick, the last unrealized asset from the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade to the Nets in 2013. To complete the deal with Cleveland’s concerns about Thomas’ hip, the Celtics also had to add a 2020 2nd round pick from the Miami Heat.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade after the trade was finalized, and after the Celtics held their introductory press conference with Irving and free agent signing Gordon Hayward. While I understood that it was a huge trade, and objectively a good trade that will help the Celtics in the long run, I was not sure I could bring anything else to the table that had not already been said in the week between when the trade reported and when it became official. That said, I do have quite a few thoughts on the matter, and I have been writing about the Celtics in this space since the days of Pierce, Garnett, Doc Rivers, and Rajon Rondo, and if I never write about it, then why am I writing about basketball at all?
Bill Simmons pointed out on various podcasts that trades like this hardly ever happen. Two conference rivals, the two Eastern Conference finalists from 2017 just swapped point guards. The last time contenders of this caliber traded players of this caliber within the same conference was in 1980 when the Phoenix Suns dealt Paul Westphal to the Seattle SuperSonics for Dennis Johnson. But with the looming threat of LeBron James’ free agency next summer, these were desperate times for Cleveland. And with the looming threat of having to sign a guy under six feet in his late 20s with an injury history to a maximum contract, Boston was acting from a point of desperation in its own right.
I wrote in the spring about my worry that Isaiah would get the Malcolm Butler treatment from the Celtics, and in September, Butler is (for now) still a member of the Patriots, and Isaiah has been dealt. My worry was the Boston Sports Media would use any success in the Eastern Conference Finals after Isaiah went down with his hip injury to take him for granted and put the ball in motion towards running him out of town. I was admittedly emotionally attached to Isaiah, but I really did think he could be one of the three stars on a championship team. I did not think the Celtics would be able to get anything in return comparable to Isaiah, considering the asking prices at the deadline for Paul George and Jimmy Butler, and later, given the returns Indiana and Chicago got for George and Butler when they traded them during the summer. Of course, I thought all of that before I knew Kyrie Irving would be available.
In Irving, the Celtics landed another dynamic point guard who can score at will, but while both are injury-prone, Kyrie is taller and younger. Some have argued that the Celtics were not able to land a player who has proven he can be the best player on a championship team, but the only players who fit that description are LeBon, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard that are still in their prime (sorry, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki), but Kyrie is the next best thing. He performed well in the Finals against Golden State, and even though he already has a ring, seems eager and poised to win outside of LeBron’s shadow.
The Celtics turned over their roster a lot for a team that was just in the Eastern Conference Finals. For some context, the Celtics had six players from the very bad 2006-07 team (Pierce, Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Brian Scalabrine, Leon Powe, and Tony Allen) that contributed to the 2007-08 championship team, while they now only have four players (Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown) left from three months ago. For even more context, the Bruins currently have six players (Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, and Tuukka Rask) left form their 2011 Stanley Cup team, and they won the Bruins won the Cup six years ago! Danny Ainge knew the Celtics were still far off from where they wanted to be, and he made the moves he needed to make if they wanted to move forward. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward might not be enough to get past the Warriors, but they have certainly narrowed the gap between them and Cleveland, with Cleveland’s future in jeopardy beyond 2018.
It’s really incredible how quickly Danny Ainge rebuilt the Celtics going out with a whimper against the New York Knicks in 2013. They only went into the lottery once with their own pick, made the two biggest free agent signings in franchise history, and got good returns in trades for Pierce, Garnett, Rondo, and Thomas. While the post-Kobe Lakers continue to toil in the lottery, Ainge reminded everyone that he is one of the best GMs in the game. A decade after bringing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston, the Celtics have reloaded once again. He made a move I could not have made (and that’s one of a hundred reasons I don’t run the Celtics), and improved the team’s championship odds, and expanded their championship window.
While I have my doubts about how quickly the Celtics will come together early in the season–I would not be surprised if they go through early struggles like the 2010-11 Miami Heat–the long-term future of the team is much brighter and clearer than it was even six months ago. From a local perspective, the NBA season got a lot more interesting.
The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
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.
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.
I wrote a few months ago about the underwhelming to disappointing summer the Boston Bruins were having, just a few years after winning the Stanley Cup, and just one year after adding perennial 30 goal scorer Jarome Iginla to a roster that was 17 seconds away from forcing a Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals. That was before the B’s traded Johnny Boychuk for nothing that could help them this season, and that was before the injuries and excuses began. This Bruins team is bad. It’s the worst I’ve felt as a fan about the team since the 2009-10 season, but even then, a young Tuukka Rask had given us a reason for hope. This team isn’t tough, can’t score, and has deficiencies on defense that make the goaltending look bad. How did it happen this way to a team that won the second President’s Trophy in franchise history last spring? What has to happen for things to get better?
The highlight for the Bruins in the summer of 2013 was the acquisition of Jarome Iginla in free agency, after the B’s had failed to complete a trade with the Calgary Flames during the season. Iginla instead was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom the Bruins swept on their way to their second Stanley Cup Finals appearance in three years. Unfortunately, Iggy’s stay in Boston ended with a second round playoff exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens (who lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New York Rangers, who lost in the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, meaning the B’s didn’t even come close to being beaten by the best team in the tournament). Once again a free agent, Iginla took his talents to Denver to join the Colorado Avalanche in the summer of 2014.
Players come and go. That’s the nature of professional sports, but Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli did not bring in anyone to replace Iginla. Iggy was brought in to replace the production on the top line that Nathan Horton had contributed from 2010 to 2013 (Iginla was more productive than Horton in the regular season, but lacked Horty’s playoff scoring touch that defined his tenure in Boston), and without a player of that caliber drawing coverage and creating space, the production of Milan Lucic and David Krejci has also suffered this season.The Bruins offense is the worst it has been since 2009-10, the year before they traded for Horton (as well as Gregory Campbell, when the Bruins traded Dennis Wideman to Florida), when 4th liner Daniel Paille had to play significant minutes on the top line alongside Krejci and Lucic. The team has restrictions with the salary cap, but they have been doing a lot more subtraction than addition to this once great roster in recent years, and not just with the 1st line right wing position.
The Bruins lost some major pieces of their identity be choosing to move on from defenseman Andrew Ference (now living in hockey hell as captain of the lowly Edmonton Oilers) in 2013 and enforcer Shawn Thornton (now with the Florida Panthers) in 2014. The Bruins team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011 was not the fastest, not the most prolific offense, and not the most talented team in the NHL by any stretch of the imagination. They won with grit, hard work, physicality, and otherworldly performance in net after otherworldly performance in net by Tim Thomas. Guys like Ference and Thornton were quintessential Bruins in that regard. They were the glue guys in the dressing room who brought a physical edge on the ice. Ference was the guy who started the “Starter Jacket” tradition during the 2011 playoffs, awarding a vintage Bruins jacket he found in a thrift shop to the player of the game (and eventually giving it to the retiring Mark Recchi in the banner raising ceremony), and continuing similar rituals during other playoff runs. Thornton added a certain energy to the game, even if he wasn’t dropping the gloves, and adding Thorty to the lineup against the Vancouver Canucks allowed for the Bruins to play with an edge they did not have when he was in the press box.
At least when they let Ference walk in free agency, there was confidence that young defensemen Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton could step up and take on more responsibility on the blue line, but with the departure of Thornton this summer, it was a shift in philosophy as much as a change in personnel, and it has not worked thus far. The Bruins reacted their playoff loss to Montreal by thinking they needed to get faster and more skilled to be able to go toe to toe with Montreal in the future. That may not be wrong. The Habs had a player (who has since retired) very similar to Thornton in the form of Princeton grad George Parros. Parros is another old school tough guy, and has a mustache that never got the memo that the 70s ended, and was teammates with Thornton on the Stanley Cup winning 2007 Anaheim Ducks, but the biggest difference between the two players was that Thornton was playing significant minutes for the Bruins, while Parros sat in the press box during the playoffs for the Canadiens. The Bruins called up from Providence an enforcer named Bobby Robbins, a UMass Lowell grad who had never played in the NHL before this season, but had a little bit of Hanson Brother in his game and brought energy and toughness to every shift. He was sent back down shortly thereafter, and the Bruins are left with a little bit of skill, and not enough toughness on their roster. They did not necessarily need Shawn Thornton, but they do need a tough guy.
I was wrong about the Seguin Trade. I’ve admitted it, and I would be more insistent that the Bruins admitted it if it would change the fact that the trade happened and that Tyler Seguin is never coming back (at least not in his prime). I wrote in the summer of 2013 (on the day the trade happened if I remember correctly) that Seguin was a disappointment, and that Loui Eriksson was a better fit for the Bruins, and he has been nothing to write home about until very recently. Reilly Smith has exceeded my expectations, but that was only because I didn’t know who he was before the Bruins acquired him from Dallas. At any rate, the Bruins gave up on Tyler Seguin too early, and Seguin might score 50 goals for the Dallas Stars this year. It could be argued that Taylor Hall would have been a better fit for the Bruins, but he was off the board when they drafter at #2 in 2010. With talent like that, the Bruins should have been more patient, and should have allowed him to flourish in the offensive zone rather than harp on his defensive shortcomings. Seguin is still only 22, and has found a home in Dallas. Meanwhile the Bruins are struggling to score just as badly as the year before they drafted him.
Peter Chiarelli was enough in Boston’s defensive depth at the beginning of the season to trade Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders during the preseason. Boychuk, like Ference and Thornton, was a big part of the Bruins’ physical identity during both Cup runs, and had only gotten better since his first significant ice time during the 2009-10 season. After Dennis Seidenberg went down with a knee injury last season, Boychuk stepped up and established himself as the team’s second best defenseman after captain Zdeno Chara. In return, the Bruins got two second round picks, and a conditional third rounder, which felt like a bad return on a good player who is only 30. The trade looked even worse as Chara, Adam McQuaid, and Torey Krug have all missed significant time with injuries this season while Boychuk is making a great impact for the suddenly competitive Isles.
The Bruins have mismanaged the roster when it comes to the salary cap. I understand wanting to keep a good team together, but the Bruins overpaid players they should not have, and the salary cap has not gone up the way Chiarelli may have thought it would. The Bruins owe Chris Kelly $3 million this season and next season. They owe Loui Eriksson $4.25 million this season and next season. They owe Milan Lucic $6 million this season and next season, and his price is likely to go up if he becomes an unrestricted free agent as scheduled. The Bruins will also have to pay more for impending young free agents Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, Craig Cunningham, Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton (all restricted), Matt Bartkowski, and Carl Soderberg (unrestricted) after this season, not to mention veterans Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, whom the Bruins seem more and more unlikely to bring back, given the circumstances. That’s a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of variables keeping the Bruins where they are. A trade or two needs to be made to make the picture clearer.
If it were up to me (which is it not), almost everyone on the roster would be on the table for trade talks. The only players I would not trade under any circumstances at this point are Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Dougie Hamilton: the Norris Trophy winning captain, Selke Trophy winning alternate captain, and the promising young defenseman. The Bruins sold too low on Seguin, and after the Boychuk trade, my lack of faith in their ability to get a proper return on Hamilton has only been reaffirmed. David Krejci should not be traded under any circumstances, for all intents and purposes, but I left him off the list because of the long shot possibility of packaging him up to get a Jeff Carter, or an Anze Kopitar, or a Jonathan Toews, or a Ryan Getzlaf, but that will never happen. I love Tuukka Rask, but the Bruins drafted goalie prospect Malcolm Subban (P.K.’s brother), and the years the Bruins would spend developing him into a franchise goaltender are years that Tuukka is under contract. Going forward, they will only be able to keep Rask or Subban long term, so both should be on the trade block now. Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly are two players I would trade (for the right return, obviously) without feeling bad about it, and while I like them, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Dennis Seidenberg, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille, Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg, and Torey Krug are all players they could move and teams would be willing to give up substantial assets to acquire if the Bruins become sellers at the trade deadline.
I would be more confident in the Bruins’ ability to build through the draft and the farm system if Chiarelli was any good at drafting. Much like Theo Epstein with the Red Sox, much of his championship roster was put together by his predecessor, with key acquisitions like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tim Thomas being made my former GM Mike O’Connell (now the Director of Pro Development for the LA Kings), and the trade to acquire Rask on Draft Day from Toronto happening while Chiarelli was still under contract with the Ottawa Senators (was it Chiarelli? was it O’Connell’s people? was it Harry Sinden? My guess is Harry, but that’s another column for another day). Chiarelli’s greatest drafting successes came early in his tenure when he selected Phil Kessel (#5), Milan Lucic (#50), and Brad Marchand (#71) in 2006 (in 2009, Kessel was traded to the Maple Leafs for the draft picks that became Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight, and Dougie Hamilton), but he’s gone cold since then. His best recent draft selections were Seguin (#2, 2010) and Hamilton (#9, 2011), but that was because those were picks acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs so high it would be really hard to miss, and even then, they dealt one of those players after three seasons.
Other Bruins drafts were highlighted by Subban (#24, 2012), a goalie drafted by a team that didn’t need a goalie, Jordan Caron (#25, 2009), Jared Knight (#32, 2010) and Ryan Spooner (#45, 2010), who have not been able to establish themselves at the NHL level, and Zach Hamill (#8, 2007) who was drafted ahead of Logan Couture, Brandon Sutter, Ryan McDonagh, Lars Eller, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Max Paccioretty, all of whom have become productive NHL players while Hamill washed out of the Bruins’ organization, was traded to Washington for Chris Bourque (Ray’s kid), and now plays professional hockey for the hockey club HPK in Finland. There is still hope for 18 year old Czech prospect David Pastrnak (#25, 2014), but he will not be able to help the Bruins turn their fortunes around this season.
Normally, it would be natural to blame the coach for a roster with a history of success to not be as motivated as they used to be, but it’s hard to blame Claude Julien for this. I’ve been critical of Julien before, and I think his system has its flaws, but you can’t put this season all on him. Claude didn’t trade Johnny Boychuk. Claude didn’t let Shawn Thornton take his talents to South Beach. Claude didn’t let Jarome Iginla leave and try to replace his production with minor league talent. Claude may have been frustrated with Seguin’s inconsistency on offense and liability on defense, but he wasn’t the one who thought Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, and Joe Morrow were a satisfactory return for a 21 year old sniper, either. Claude Julien may be on the hot seat in my mind someday, but it will not be this day. The B’s have bigger problems than the coach.
Right now, the Bruins are a mess, and Chiarelli, Julien, and Team President Cam Neely have their work cut out for them. Trades need to be made, and draft picks are not a good enough return. Players who can put the puck in the net should get a higher priority than they have been getting. If they can put more skill around the solid foundation of Chara, Bergeron, Hamilton, and Krejci, good things will happen, and Julien’s system is such that with good defensemen, either Rask or Subban can thrive. They might be able to turn it around this year, but I’m not holding my breath.
Every great team has to move on from the past. Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork are the only players that remain from the last Patriots team to win the Super Bowl. The Celtics just traded away the last remaining player from their championship contending days from 2008 to 2012, and are looking ahead to the future. David Ortiz is the last player remaining from the 2004 Red Sox, and they have been moving on from players from the 2007 and 2013 World Series squads left and right. Peter Chiarelli can fix this. He was captain of the hockey team at some school called Harvard, and is highly though of enough from his peers to be named to the front office of Team Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics, and now he has to use his Ivy League intelligence and hockey IQ to fix the Bruins team he built into a champion once already. The questions that remain are “when?” and “how?”
The Boston Bruins returned to Chicago for the first time since Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals last June, to take on the Blackhawks team that ended their season and raised Lord Stanley’s Cup instead of them. It was a great game and these teams are still two of the best and most entertaining to watch in the NHL. The game was overshadowed in Boston media coverage this weekend with the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Broncos, and Rajon Rondo’s return to the Celtics on Friday night. I’ve written about both of those things already, and now it’s time to give the Bruins the attention they deserve, even in defeat.
The rematch reinforced the notion that last year’s Stanley Cup Finals was the closes series ever to end in six games. These teams went to overtime after overtime, the Bruins matched the Blackhawks blow for blow, but eventually came up short. The same was true in their return to The Madhouse on Madison on Sunday. Brad Marchand scored two goals to match Chicago’s two goals from Marian Hossa and Brandon Bollig. Marchand also scored the Bruins only shootout goal, but it was not enough as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane put shootout attempts past Tuukka Rask for the Hawks. They were in it all the way, but could not finish. Both goalies were excellent in this game, after Rask and Corey Crawford were both rewarded this summer with contract extensions. They reminded us that they both belonged in the last games of the 2013 season.
The 2013 Stanley Cup Finals could be the start of a beautiful rivalry, between two Original Six teams who play the game the right way, and have been transforming themselves for the future as they continue to contend in the present. Neither team rested on their laurels last summer. The Bruins traded Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley to Dallas on the 4th of July, after the Hawks traded Dave Bolland, who scored the game winning goal in Game 6, on the day of their championship parade. Boston’s Peter Chiarelli and Chicago’s Stan Bowman are two of the best GMs in the NHL today. Boston’s Claude Julien and Chicago’s Joel Quenneville have each taken their teams to the Stanley Cup Finals twice, and have as good a chance as anyone to do so again if their teams stay healthy. The natural rivalry between Boston and Chicago is not as strong as Boston’s rivalries with New York, LA, Philly, Montreal, Detroit, Miami, Baltimore, or Buffalo, and the 2013 Finals was just the third time in history that a Boston team faced a Chicago team with a championship on the line (The Bears beat the Pats in Super Bowl XX and the Red Sox beat the Cubs in the 1918 World Series), but that can change in the coming years.
There is another clash of champions today in Boston as the 2011 champion Bruins face the 2012 champion Los Angeles Kings. The B’s barely play the Kings, but these teams are contenders every year, so the regular season benchmark games mean a lot more than they used to.
Last night, on a whim, I went to my first Bruins game in years with one of my best friends to see the B’s play the hated Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a grind of a game that ended in dramatic fashion with a game tying goal from David Krejci with a minute and a half to play, and a game winning goal from captain Zdeno Chara with 13 seconds in regulation. Tuukka Rask had a great game in net, even if the second goal he allowed was on the soft side, but he saw a lot more shots from the Penguins than the Bruins put on Marc-Andre Fleury. It was certainly a demoralizing loss for the Pens, but does that really make it a feel-good win for the B’s?
These are two teams that don’t like each other, and it showed from the beginning. On the very first shift of the game, Pittsburgh defenseman and Boston College alum Brooks Orpik knocked down Bruins forward Loui Eriksson on and Loui was slow to get up. Concussion. His second concussion since being traded to Boston over the summer in the deal that sent Tyler Seguin to Dallas. Things didn’t end there. Later in the first period, Penguins forward James Neal hit a sprawling Brad Marchand in the head with his knee and skated off for a line change hit-and-run style. Luckily, Marchy was okay and played the rest of the game, but that’s the type of thing that can end careers.
James Neal wasn’t the only one to cross the line last night, though. In the moments following Neal’s kneeing of Marchand, there was a scrum bring broken up by the officials that included Brooks Orpik. Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton, who had been trying to get Orpik to drop the gloves and answer for his hit on Eriksson jumped in, sucker punched Orpik and took him down. The game was halted for about ten minutes (but felt much longer than that in the arena as no replays or explanations were being given for what had unfolded) as the Bruins’ medical team came out to take Orpik out on a stretcher. Neal received two minutes for kneeing Marchand while Thornton received a match penalty for his attack of Orpik.
While Thornton’s actions were dirty and irresponsible, I can see where he was coming from. As the team’s enforcer, he is tasked with being the tough guy who stands up for his teammates. He’s usually all about adhering to the “code” that NHL fighters abide by, but he crossed the line last night. He saw Johnny Boychuk carted off the ice on a stretcher after a borderline hit by Max Pacioretty in Montreal on Thursday night, and earlier in that period he saw skilled forwards Loui Eriksson and Brad Marchand knocked around. His job is to protect his teammates, and the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins had been taking liberties with his teammates left and right. I can understand his frustration in the situation where the guy who just put Marchand’s career in jeopardy skated off right away, and the guy who hit Loui is refusing to answer for his actions in a fight. He should have waited to challenge Orpik in a more logical point in the flow of the game, but when you’re angry and frustrated in the heat of the moment as Thornton was, logic gets thrown out the window. Thornton seemed genuinely remorseful and broken up about the incident after the game when he spoke to the media. He’s a good guy and a good Bruin, but he really messed up last night, and he knows it.
The events of the first period really put a dark cloud over an otherwise exciting game. This game provided ammunition for the anti-fighting faction of hockey fans, and paints the Bruins in a bad light, even though both teams were involved in foul play. I don’t envy Brendan Shanahan for having to be the one to sort this mess out at the league office. With Thornton likely to be suspended, and Adam McQuaid, Johnny Boychuk, Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly (who fractured his right fibula in the second period of last night’s game) all injured, we’re going to see a lot of young players get called up from Providence to fill in with the big club. A win is a win, and it was a thrilling one at that, but there is a tough road ahead for the Bruins. For me it was great to be back in the TD Garden, and a great day where I got to catch up with a lot of great people, but the game itself is bittersweet despite the amazing finish. I love the Bruins and I love hockey, but I wish things went a little differently last night.