Last week, I was quite upset about the way the Boston Bruins’ season ended, and I used this space to eulogize the Claude Julien Era in Boston and wonder out loud whether the Bruins knew what they were doing going forward, and I spoke too soon… sort of. After a few days of waiting around and not announcing anything, Bruins GM Don Sweeney announced that the B’s would, in fact, be retaining Julien for a tenth season. In my opinion, that still doesn’t mean the Bruins know what they’re doing.
Claude Julien is a very good coach. I can’t stress that enough. He helped end a 39 year Stanley Cup drought in Boston, and coached perennial contenders in Montreal and New Jersey before arriving here in 2007. He is now the Bruins’ all time leader in both regular season and playoff wins, more than Art Ross who has an NHL trophy named after him, more than Don Cherry, who in the years since the Too Many Men Game has become Canada’s answer to John Madden on TV, and more than Mike Milbury, who was better known for beating a guy with his own shoe at Madison Square Garden as a player when he was the Bruins coach and is now better known for ruining the New York Islanders and doing a bad Don Cherry impression on NBC telecasts than anything else. If the Bruins were to fire him, he’d have another head coaching job in the NHL next season, and if they’re just hanging on to him so Ottawa or Montreal can’t have him, that’s just petty.
The real issues of organizational direction and accountability fall in the lap of Cam Neely. Neely is a Boston sports icon, and he’s gotten a lot of benefit of the doubt over the last nine years or so as a result, but at some point you need to wonder what’s going on. Neely was hired by the team in the 2007-08 season, the same year as Julien, and at the time, I thought it was a PR move as much as anything. In a year when the Red Sox won the World Series, the Celtics won their first title since 1986, and the Patriots were flirting with immortality when they held the record of 18-0 heading into the Super Bowl, the Bruins were as irrelevant as they have ever been in New England. This was the third season after the one the Jeremy Jacobs-led NHL owners cancelled, the second season after the B’s traded Jumbo Joe Thornton to San Jose during his Hart Trophy season and set up the Sharks as a perennial contender in the Western Conference, and the first season after the Dave Lewis debacle, a season so bad that Patrice Bergeron, the quintessential two-way NHL center, was a -28 player, the only negative +/- season of his career.The Bruins needed Cam Neely because they had lost the faith of the fanbase in an era when the other three teams in town were the industry leaders in their sports.
Neely was hired a year after Peter Chiarelli, but was promoted to a level that made him Chiarelli’s boss before the 2010-11 season, which conveniently enough, was the year the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. It has seemed that Neely has wanted us to believe that everything that has gone wrong for the Bruins (poor drafts, mismanagement of the salary cap, trading away talented young players for diminishing returns) was Chiarelli’s doing, but Neely himself is responsible for the team’s successes. In Don Sweeney, the Bruins have a GM who played on the Bruins with Neely, and he’s Neely’s guy, but it’s still not clear what Neely’s vision for the team is.
It shouldn’t be a complete surprise that Neely and Sweeney are struggling. They are not the only former star players from the 90s that have taken a turn running an NHL team, and they’re not the only ones having trouble. Wayne Gretzky is the greatest offensive player by the numbers the game of hockey has ever seen, and is a four time Stanley Cup Champion, but his tenure as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes is a footnote I’m sure he wished wasn’t there. Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic won two Stanley Cups together as the goalie and the captain, respectively, of the Colorado Avalanche, but they’re not exactly lighting the world on fire as head coach and general manager, respectively, of the Avs today. This is the comparison to the Bruins that scares me the most. Roy and Sakic are Avs royalty. Of course they got that job. Sakic played his entire career for the Nordiques/Avs, and it really wouldn’t make sense for him to work in any other front office, given his relative lack of experience before he took this job. Roy does not seem like a very good head coach, but if he fails in Colorado, he could go back to Montreal. They like coaches that speak French, which he does, and it would be his glorious return after the way his playing days ended with the Habs.
Neely and Sweeney are in the same boat in Boston. They are Bruins. When Peter Chiarelli or Claude Julien get fired, every team with a coaching or front office vacancy is calling and asking for their services because they’ve proven their ability in multiple organizations, and did not just get the job because they were a 50 goal scorer or their number hangs in the rafters of TD Garden. If Neely fails (more than Sweeney, because at least Don took his time and learned the ropes as an assistant GM and overseeing the farm system for years before becoming general manager) in Boston, that’s it as a front office leader. The Vancouver Canucks won’t be calling him for a glorious return because all they are to him was the team he played for before he became Cam Neely when he was traded to the Bruins. I think when it’s all said and done, the most successful 90s-star-player-turned-executives will be Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that they left the shadow of their playing careers to run their respective teams. Yzerman and Shanahan won Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, but Stevie Y has build a really good team down in Tampa, and while Shanahan inherited a garbage hockey team in the Toronto Maple Leafs, I trust the infrastructure he has put in place, hiring former Wings coach Mike Babcock, longtime New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamiorello (age 73) to be the mentor GM to assistant GM Kyle Dubas (age 29). They are building something special in Toronto because they were not married to the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs (which, let’s be serious, has been pretty miserable since expansion began in the late 1960s), and Shanahan is smart enough to bring in smart people who aren’t just going to agree with him on everything. It would be nice to root for a hockey team that was known for being smart. Maybe the other three Boston teams have spoiled me.
The Boston Bruins have defeated the Detroit Red Wings four games to one. At times it was a tighter series than that, but with another bounce of the puck, it could have been a sweep. The Bruins now get the Montreal Canadiens in the second round.
The Red Wings continued their streak of 23 years in the playoffs, but this was by no means a Red Wings team like the ones that won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008. They still had Zetterberg. They still had Datsyuk. They still had Kronwall. They still had Franzen. They had a lot of youth and inexperience, too. They fought the good fight, but they ran into a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and was in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013.
The 2013-14 Red Wings reminded me a lot of the 2007-08 Bruins. The B’s had been bad in the first two seasons after the 2004-05 lockout, but with the hirings of Claude Julien behind the bench and Cam Neely in the front office, the B’s took a big step in the right direction. That team had a good mix of youth and veteran presence, and got strong goaltending from some guy named Tim Thomas, who would win two Vezina Trophies, an Olympic Silver Medal, a Conn Smythe Trophy, and a Stanley Cup before his tenure in Boston was over. Peter Chiarelli had more veteran leadership in the form of Zdeno Chara, Andrew Ference, and Marc Savard to go with the aging Bruins mainstays Glen Murray and P.J. Axelsson. They also got good contributions from Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Phil Kessel (who was traded to Toronto in 2009 for the draft picks that became Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, and Jared Knight), and Mark Stuart. Patrice Bergeron missed most of that season due to a severe concussion he suffered in a game against Philadelphia. I still can’t help but wonder how far that team might have gotten if Bergy was healthy in the playoffs.
The 2008 playoff run for the B’s was the start of the run they have been on the past few years. They were the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, and matched up against a #1 Montreal team that nobody in Boston expected them to beat. The Habs were really good that year. In a year when the Celtics won their 17th championship and their first in my lifetime, the Bruins landed back on the map in Boston. That team had a lot to be proud of, and so does this Wings team. It’s a disappointing end for a guy like Daniel Alfredsson who does not have that many years left to win a Cup, much like Murray and Axelsson were in 2008, but there is a lot for Detroit to be excited about with Nyquist, Smith, and Abdelkader joining the party. Mike Babcock will be able to coach those players up and have them learn from this season, much the way Claude did here in Boston.
For the Bruins, it’s good to finish a first round series in less than seven games for the first time since 2010. These are series the Bruins should win, and while they did finish the job in 2011 against Montreal and 2013 against Toronto, there is always a chance that you will fall short like they did against the Washington Capitals in 2012 if you’re taking it to sudden death over time of a series deciding seventh game. The Bruins and their fans have know for a few days now that Montreal is waiting for them when the series is over, as the Habs disposed of the Tampa Bay Lightning in a four game sweep. It was reassuring to see the Bruins bounce back from a tough 1-0 defeat in Game 1, and to overcome a 2-0 deficit in Game 4. The scoring has come from many sources, and young players like Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, Justin Florek, and Jordan Caron have stepped up and put pucks in the net. While the veteran core of Chara, Bergeron, Krejci, Lucic, Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton, and Johnny Boychuk is still there from the 2011 team, it looks a lot different with the young players contributing who were not there before.
The anchor of the Bruins’ success, much like last year, has been goaltender Tuukka Rask. I’ve been a Rask fan since the first time I saw this video from his Providence days five years ago, and was excited when the B’s parted ways with Manny Fernandez to make room for Tuukka behind Tim Thomas. He had an excellent rookie year in 2009-10 and even beat Thomas out for the starting job in the playoffs, that was forgotten by many because of how that season ended (I’d really rather not talk about it again), and because of the historically great season that Timmy had in 2010-11. When Tim Thomas achieved cult hero status in Boston for bringing the Stanley Cup home for the first time since 1972, Rask gained himself many critics and detractors within the fan base for being the young replacement, when he had really been the plan for the future all along. Last year he shut a lot of those critics up, but the Bruins couldn’t finish the job, but it was enough to earn a big payday last summer. After a great showing in Sochi this February, helping Team Finland medal by shutting out Team USA in the Bronze Medal Game, and putting together a phenomenal regular season and has allowed just six goals through five playoff games. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was still playing for a contract.
There is still a long road ahead for the Bruins, but knocking off the Red Wings was an important first step.
It’s finally here. There is nothing better than playoff hockey in all of sports. That’s my opinion, but it’s so true that it might as well be a fact. We’re in for two months of intense games where every team wants it the same amount. It’s going to be great, so buckle up!
My beloved Boston Bruins were a team on a mission from god during the regular season, trying to erase the painful memory of seeing Chicago raise the Cup on Boston’s ice last year. For their efforts, they were given the President’s Trophy, which is awarded annually to the best team in the NHL regular season. As a result, they get to play a team that hasn’t missed the playoffs in my lifetime in the first round. Over the last twenty-four years, the Detroit Red Wings have replaced the Montreal Canadiens as the model franchise for professional hockey. Led at first by captain Steve Yzerman, then captain Nicklas Lidstrom, and now captain Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings have been as consistent as they are skilled. The Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008, and had more star players in that time than anyone. Yzerman, Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Brendan Shanahan, Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood, Domenik Hasek, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, and the list goes on.
This is the first time since the 1950s, when there were only six teams in the NHL, that the Bruins and Red Wings have met in the playoffs. Since then, the two franchises have combined for seven Stanley Cup Championships, and are the two most successful NHL franchises based in the United States. With the Nashville Predators parting ways with Barry Trotz earlier this week, Detroit’s Mike Babcock and Boston’s Claude Julien are the two longest tenured coaches in the NHL, and they have both taken their current teams to the Stanley Cup Finals twice, and have each won the whole thing once. Babcock and Julien also coached Team Canada together in Sochi two months ago, so they should be very familiar with each other’s systems.
Both teams have an interesting combination of youth and experience. Boston has more players on their roster with their name on the Stanley Cup, but they have also gotten significant contributions from young players like Kevan Miller, Matt Bartkowski, Torey Krug, and Riley Smith. While Detroit still has veterans from the 2008 Stanley Cup winning team like Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Daniel Cleary, and Niklas Kronwall, they are going through a bit of a youth movement with a lot of players who were playing for the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins a year ago. Gustav Nyquist seems to be the best young player for the Wings so far.
Both teams also have an aging veteran future Hall of Fame forward who is hungry to win a championship before they retire. The Bruins acquired longtime Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla last summer right around the same time the Wings signed longtime Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. I have written about both players this season, and I thought it would be interesting to see how far they can get in this playoff tournament, but I had no idea they would be meeting in the first round. The B’s tried trading Matt Bartkowski to acquire Iginla at the trade deadline in 2013, but Iggy chose Pittsburgh over Boston. The Bruins are back in the playoffs a year later and once again Iggy is looking to make a run at the Cup. This is why he signed with Boston, and this is why Alfie signed with Detroit. This is playoff hockey, and this is as good as it gets.
The Wings rely on speed and skill while the Bruins rely on physicality and defense. Both teams have good young goalies, but I give the Bruins an edge with Tuukka Rask over Detroit’s Jimmy Howard.
The games don’t start for the B’s and Wings until Friday, but I’m already stressing out about it. Let’s go! Start the playoffs now! Now! Now!