Tagged: Mike O’Connell

The Bruins Continue to Disappoint

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.

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli.

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.

Former Bruin Shawn Thornton.

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.

Former Bruin Tyler Seguin.

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.

Dougie Hamilton and Zdeno Chara.

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?”

Advertisements

Prove It, Joe

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.