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.
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?”
Last summer was a lot more exciting for Bruins fans than this one. Last year, the B’s had come 17 seconds away from a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final, but fell short against the Chicago Blackhawks. In July of 2013, the traded away former #2 overall draft pick Tyler Seguin along with Rich Peverley to the Dallas Stars for a package of talent that included Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, and Matt Fraser, and signed veteran free agent goal scorer and future inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame Jarome Iginla. While the decision to move on from Seguin so early into his career, and just before the six year contract extension the Bruins had given him in 2012 was about to kick in, could be second guessed and criticized, it was a bold move by a contending team to retool and improve on the fly. The Bruins got guys that were better fits for their system than Seguin, and for a time, it worked.
The B’s were the NHL’s best team in the regular season, earning their first President’s Trophy since 1990, but they ran into a difficult opponent in their hated rival Montreal Canadiens. A second round exit from the playoffs was disappointing for sure, but what happened this summer, unlike the last, gives us very little, if anything, to be excited about.
Last year, the Bruins were adding Jarome Iginla to a team that played in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. This year, with Iginla signing with the Colorado Avalanche, the B’s are subtracting a perennial 30 goal scorer from a roster that had trouble scoring in the playoffs, and have brought no one in to replace his production. It’s finally caught up to them. Peter Chiarelli gave out contract extensions like candy around the time the B’s won the Cup in 2011, but with the hard salary cap that Jeremy Jacobs spent two lockouts fighting for and restricting, they now lack the flexibility to bring in impact free agents without trading away key members of the roster. It’s a tough position to be in, and it really looks like the general managers approach to building the team does not match well with the beliefs of his influential owner, who would rather see an entire season get cancelled than see the NHLPA win in the labor negotiations.
As for Iginla, I’m really sad that he didn’t get to win the Stanley Cup with the Bruins. When I was a kid, the Bruins’ best player was Raymond Bourque, and he played for the B’s for over 20 years, but never won the Cup with Boston. When I was in 4th grade, the Bruins traded him to Colorado so that he would have a chance to win it all before retiring, and a year and a half later, he did. Bourque had one of the great endings to a career in the history of professional sports, and I really wanted to see Iggy get that in Boston after years being the face of the franchise for the Calgary Flames, but alas, it seem that if Iggy wants a Bourque ending to his illustrious career, it will be in Denver just like it was for Ray. As a Bruins fan, I’ve always liked the Avs because of what they did for Bourque, so it won’t be hard to wish Iginla and the Avs well in the West next season.
With the departures of Iginla and Shawn Thornton, the Bruins will have to fill the holes with young talent. Chiarelli and his hockey operations team have not been particularly good at drafting in recent years, and many of the young prospects haven’t panned out, but people haven’t noticed because the earlier batch of players to come through the system were competing for the Stanley Cup. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci were drafted by the Bruins before Chiarelli was general manager, and while he had been hired by the Bruins, Chiarelli was still working as an assistant GM for the Ottawa Senators on the day of the Draft in 2006 when the B’s traded Andrew Raycroft to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a Finnish goalie draft selection named Tuukka Rask, so it’s unclear how much credit he can take for that one. The best draft selections in the Chiarelli Era were on picks they got from Toronto in the Phil Kessel trade, where they were so high up he couldn’t miss, in Tyler Seguin (#2, 2010) and Dougie Hamilton (#9, 2011), and even Seguin got traded three years later because they were sick of him. The jury is still out on former 1st round pick Malcolm Subban (#24, 2012) because goalies take longer to develop and the Bruins already have a young Vezina Trophy and Bronze Medal winning goaltender under contract for years to come. This is the year for Jordan Caron to step it up if he’s going to make it in the NHL. Drafted in 2009, Caron has numerous chances to establish himself with the Bruins, but has never shown more than the occasional flash of skill. This year is an important one for Matt Bartkowski, Ryan Spooner, Justin Florek, and Matt Fraser as well. A lot of veterans from the Stanley Cup team aren’t in Boston anymore and now is their time to shine.
If there’s one thing to get excited about for the Bruins it’s newly drafted forward David Pastrnak. The Czech-born 18 year old was taken by the B’s with the 25th pick in this year’s draft, and has a chance to make the team this fall. I always get worried about rushing young players along too quickly. The ones with high expectations like Joe Thornton (#1, 1997), while obviously talented, tend to get rushed into a major role too early. Jumbo Joe probably never should have been the captain of the Boston Bruins, or a least not at that time, and his teams never made it past the 1st round of the playoffs. He’s a great player, and he will be in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday, but he’s continued his history of postseason underachievement as the captain of the San Jose Sharks. On the other hand, Patrice Bergeron (#45, 2003) was a second round pick who didn’t come in with a whole lot of hype or fanfare, but made the Boston Bruins’ roster as an 18 year old rookie because of his work ethic and for doing all the little things right. Bergeron wasn’t rushed. He was ready at that age, and he’s the kind of guy every team in the NHL would love to build their team around. Pastrnak could be really good, and he could have an impact on the Bruins this season, but I’m not ready to say that he’s the answer or that he can replace Jarome Iginla’s production.
The Bruins are sending mixed messages again. The hockey decisions make it look like a transition year, but the raise in ticket prices (my friend’s season tickets were $40 per seat, per game in 2013-14, but they’re up to $50 in 2014-15) make it seem like they’re supposed to be that much better this year. Ownership is getting greedy, and it’s making the hockey people look bad. Having a bridge year is one thing, and raising ticket prices is another, but doing both at the same time is the kind of thing that turned fans off of the Bruins for a long time. Jeremy Jacobs is all about the bottom line. That’s why the NHL has a salary cap, and that’s why Ray Bourque and Cam Neely didn’t get their names on the Stanley Cup in Boston as players. It’s moments like this that make it tough to be a Bruins fan. We had a good run from 2008 to 2014, but this is the first time in a while that I’ve been more excited in the middle of the summer about the Patriots than I am about the Bruins. That being said, I know I’m going to get reeled back in as soon as the puck drops for the first time this fall. Jeremy Jacobs knows this, and that’s how he can get away with doing what he’s been doing to Bruins fans since 1975. Excellent.
If I were to quantify how much I hate the New York Yankees, and multiply it by how much I hate the Los Angeles Lakers, it would still not be as much as the hate I have for the Montreal Canadiens. The Boston Bruin find themselves down two games to one to their bitter rivals heading into Game 4 tonight at the Bell Centre. It’s a tough position to be in as a fan, and I can only imagine what it’s like as a player. Whenever these two teams face off against one another, history rears its ugly head.
To give credit where credit is due, Carey Price and P.K. Subban have been unbelievable in this series. Price is starting to look like a young Ken Dryden, who shut down the regular season record setting 1971 Bruins in the first significant playing time of his Hall of Fame career. The B’s won the Stanley Cup in 1970, and again in 1972, but Ken Dryden prevented them from three straight and being a dynasty. Subban is good enough to play with the Habs teams of the 70s as well. His slap shot is filthy, and if he were a Bruin, he’s be a fan favorite in Boston. The Bruins have had their chances, but the Habs have been the team making them pay for their mistakes. The series is far from over, but it’s hard to feel good about all the chances the Bruins have missed.
The Bruins need to get better scoring opportunities. I feel whenever I watch the Bruins that I’m shouting “shoot the puck!” more than anything else. They try to get cute, and everyone tries to make the extra pass rather than just burying it. It’s refreshing to see defensemen like Johnny Boychuk, Torey Krug, and Dougie Hamilton ripping shotts from the blue line. It’s not a high percentage play, but it gives them a chance, and it created rebound and redirect chances in front of the net as well. The Habs have not had as much of a sustained attack, but are ahead in the series because they’ve put the puck in the direction of Tuukka Rask with more regularity. Carey Price is a good goalie, and he was a big part of Canada winning the Gold in Sochi earlier this year, but he’s not Ken Dryden, and he’s not even Tuukka Rask for that matter. Subban has picked his spots, but he’s made Rask pay so far in this series. At some point, the Bruins need to break through and start scoring, but that needs to happen before it’s too late.
If the Bruins lose this series, blame will fall back on the trade deadline. Boston GM Peter Chiarelli did not do as much as he could have at the deadline, while Montreal added Thomas Vanek (who has killed the Bruins his entire career and the Bruins should have pursued) and Dale Weise, who have made significant contributions to the Habs in this series. Instead the Bruins acquired a couple of depth defensemen in the form of Andrej Meszaros and Corey Potter. Meszaros played the last two games ahead of Matt Bartkowski, but that’s a move that makes it easy for fans to second guess Claude Julien. Neither of those guys would get a sniff of the ice if Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid were healthy, but that’s out of our control. The B’s could have done more at the deadline, but did not, and it’s come back to bite them this round against the Habs, who were anticipating a showdown with Boston.
If the B’s have any hope of rallying back, they need David Krejci to play the way he usually does in the playoffs. Through eight playoff games, Krejci has yet to record a goal. Krejci, more than Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara, is the guy that needs to be at the top of his game for the Bruins to win this time of year. Bergeron and Chara give you the same honest effort every time they are out on the ice, but Krejci is the guy who usually leads the team in scoring in the playoffs. When the Bruins collapsed against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, it was directly correlated with Krejci going down with a season-ending wrist injury. When they reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 and 2013, Krejci was leading the way on offense. If Krejci can get going, so will Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla. If they pepper the net, maybe Price will look human again. It all starts with David Krejci.
This series is not over by any stretch of the imagination, but the Bruins have their work cut out for them. It might not be Dryden in net for Montreal, or Ray Bourque lacing up for Boston, but it always feels that way. As long as hockey is played the philosophical debate between skill and toughness, between Black and Gold, and Bleu, Blanc et Rouge will rage on. It’s tense, and it’s aggravating, but it’s as good as it gets.
The San Jose Sharks jumped to a 3-0 series lead against their California rival Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but are now up 3-2. Last night, the Sharks were shut out on their home ice. That’s the San Jose Sharks’ last ten years in a nutshell. They always have a great regular season, but it’s only a matter of time before they choke it away in the playoffs. Fairly or unfairly, much of the blame falls on captain and superstar Joe Thornton.
Jumbo Joe was the #1 overall pick in the 1997 NHL Draft, selected by the Boston Bruins. He was a good player, or even a great player, but he had a leadership role thrust upon him too early in his career, in my opinion. He handled stardom in Boston a lot better than Tyler Seguin did, then again, while he was in Boston, the B’s spent most of their time as the fourth most relevant team in town while the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years and the Patriots won three Super Bowls of their own. The B’s drafted Thornton in a time when they were out of the playoff picture looking in for the first times since the 60s. After a few more years, it was sadly apparent that if longtime captain Ray Bourque wanted to win the Stanley Cup, it wouldn’t be in Boston. The Bruins traded #77 to the Colorado Avalanche and the rest is history, but the Bruins got back into the playoffs again soon.
The Bruins post-Bourque teams of the early 2000s were pretty good, headlined by Thornton, Sergei Samsonov (who was traded in 2006 for the draft pick that became Milan Lucic), Bill Guerin, and Glen Murray, but they never got out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In 2002, the Bruins lost a tight series to the Montreal Canadiens, that is best remembered in my mind for Kyle McLaren’s high hit on Richard Zednik. After Jason Allison’s short stint as Bruins captain, Jumbo Joe got the ‘C’ before the 2002-03 season, although in hindsight, someone like Guerin, who had more year in the league and was a more natural leader, might have been a better choice.The Bruins weren’t winning in the playoffs, and the other teams in town were. Further proof of how irrelevant they were is how hard it is to find quality pictures that I can use for this blog in Google Images of the Bruins compared to the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics at the time.
In 2003-04, the B’s had a great regular season. They had Jumbo Joe, Samsonov, Brian Rolston, Glen Murray, Mike Knuble, P.J. Axelsson, and got strong contributions from Calder Trophy winning goalie Andrew Raycroft (who was later traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for an 18 year old goalie prospect named Tuukka Rask) and an 18 year old rookie named Patrice Bergeron. At the trade deadline, they acquired veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar, and they appeared to be in prime position for a deep playoff run. As usual, they were bounced in the first round by Montreal in a series they should have won. The following season was cancelled because Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs led the charge in the NHL owners’ hard line stance in the 2005 lockout. The Bruins did not pursue any of their free agents and the team fell apart. The Bruins did end up re-signing Thornton to a three year $20 million deal in the summer of 2005, after Jacobs got the hard salary cap that he wanted, but Thornton’s days in Boston were numbered.
When the B’s got off to a slow start in the 2005-06 campaign, GM Mike O’Connell traded Thornton to the Sharks for Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau, and Marco Sturm. O’Connell questioned Thornton’s leadership and made the decision to rebuild the Bruins around Patrice Bergeron. While the trade ultimately cost O’Connell his job, and the trade did get a little better with age (Sturm led the team in scoring a few times and the B’s were able to trade Stuart and Primeau to the Calgary Flames for Andrew Ference and Chuck Kobasew), they got pennies on the dollar for one of the premier players in the National Hockey League.
With a core of Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau (who was taken by San Jose with the pick after Thornton in 1997), and Logan Couture, and strong goaltending over the years from Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi, the Sharks have been among the top regular season teams in the NHL ever since he arrived there, but they have yet to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Anything can happen in playoff hockey, and any team can beat any other team at any time, but when a team that good falls apart that consistently, it can’t be a fluke. John Tortorella spouted off on Thornton expressing that sentiment a couple of years ago when Torts was still coaching the New York Rangers. Right now, Jumbo Joe is one of the best players in the history of the NHL who has never won anything. That’s a tough distinction to hold and one that does not go away until you win. Joe Torre had participated in more Major League Baseball games that anyone else without getting to the World Series before finally managing the 1996 Yankees to a title. Steve Nash holds the distinction in the NBA as the only MVP (which he has won twice) to never play in the NBA Finals. Dan Marino may be the greatest quarterback of all time, but the fact that he never won a Super Bowl and only got to the big game once makes it a debate.
My inner seven year old Bruins fan is still rooting for Jumbo Joe a little bit. As a 24 year old Bruins fan, I’d love to see Joe come back to Boston at the end of his career in pursuit of a Cup, the way Ray Bourque went to Colorado or the way Jarome Iginla has made his way to Boston. He’s still one of the elite playmakers in the NHL and could still contribute, but I’m not convinced he can win it all as captain of the San Jose Sharks. Thornton is now 34 years old and his beard is starting to go gray. The kid who wore #19 and lined up between Milt Schmidt’s #15 and Terry O’Reilly’s #24 during the National Anthems is likely never to get his name and number in the rafters of the TD Garden, but I’d like to think that his story with the Boston Bruins is not yet over. In the meantime, he still has a lot of questions to answer about finishing in the playoffs.
The only thing on Earth that is better than playoff hockey is overtime playoff hockey. That doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to satisfy, and there’s always a chance that it ends in heartbreak, but the payoff is so great when you win. Last night, the Bruins got their first taste of overtime playoff hockey since the Stanley Cup Finals last June.
It didn’t look good from the start. Detroit was playing like the team that needed the game more in the 1st period, trying to tie the series 2-2 and guarantee another home game at Joe Louis Arena rather, and were boosted by the return of their captain Henrik Zetterberg, who had not played since the Olympics when he injured his back playing for Sweden. The Wings dominated play in the 1st period, and had a 2-0 lead in the 2nd on goals from Niklas Kronwall and Pavel Datsyuk, but the Bruins did not give up. After Torey Krug scored in the 2nd to make it 2-1 on an abbreviated power play, the B’s controlled the pace of play. Milan Lucic scored early in the 3rd, and the Bruins had plenty of chances to get ahead in that period, but Brad Marchand missed an open net, and Jonas Gustavsson was very strong in net for the Red Wings filling in for Jimmy Howard.
It took until overtime, but with the exception of a breakaway by Justin Abdelkader that was turned away by Tuukka Rask, all the great chances to score were Boston’s. In this series, we’ve seen 20 year old defenseman Dougie Hamilton grow up right before our eyes. Jarome Iginla got credit for the OT goal, but it was Hamilton’s shot that Iggy redirected. Hamilton is starting to play like the guy the Bruins were hoping they were getting when he was drafted in the summer of 2011. That’s what good teams do. They draft and develop the next generation of star players while winning in the meantime. Detroit did that in the late 90s and early 2000s, drafting Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Kronwall while competing every year for the Cup. Dougie has grown up a lot since being a healthy scratch for much of last year’s playoffs, and it’s time to start calling him Doug Hamilton, because he’s not playing like a little kid anymore.
Another player who has shown a lot of growth since the last playoff series the Bruins were in is Carl Soderberg. The Giant Angry One-Eyed Swede was still trying to get accustomed to the size of the rinks in the NHL when he had to play against Chicago in the Finals last spring. Now, he’s a force. Soderberg has made the B’s 3rd line a legitimate line to deal with whenever they’re on the ice. It’s good to see this guy finally succeed in the NHL after playing for years in his native Sweden.
The Bruins now have a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Red Wings and are heading home to the TD Garden to play Game 5 on Saturday. Things look good for the B’s right now. Zetterberg is one of the best players in the world, but he’s not up to speed with playoff hockey just yet. Todd Bertuzzi, who was Milan Lucic’s favorite player growing up in Vancouver, was never known for his speed, but he’s skating really slowly at 39. The Wings might have themselves a goalie controversy after how well Gusavsson played in place of Howard in Game 4.
As good as it may seem right now, the Bruins know perhaps better than any other team in the NHL that the series isn’t over until the fourth win. Claude Julien’s team choked away a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, before winning the Stanley Cup in 2011. They had a 3-1 series lead last spring against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it took sudden death overtime in Game 7 for the B’s to end that series. The hated Montreal Canadiens are waiting around for the winner of this series after sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Bruins need to take care of business with the Wings before they think about the Habs. Is it Saturday yet?