Tagged: Milan Lucic

Draftastrophe 2015

I’m not really sure where to begin. I almost bought a Dougie Hamilton Boston Bruins jersey a couple of months ago, so there’s that. I went to a bachelor party a couple of weekends ago, and two of my friends were talking about the Bruins trading up in the draft for Boston College star and Norwood, MA native Noah Hanifin (Boston University star and Chelmsford, MA native Jack Eichel was locked in at #2 in the draft, and there was no way the Buffalo Sabres were trading that pick), and we had already resigned ourselves to the likelihood of Milan Lucic getting traded sooner rather than later, so there’s that. By the time I showed up for the wedding on Saturday, the damage had been done. Those same two friends and I were commiserating over what happened instead. How did this happen?

I work evenings, and I turn off the mobile data on my phone when I’m working, except on breaks. At my first break on Friday night, I saw updates from Yahoo Sports and from Reddit that Milan Lucic had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings for a 1st round pick, goaltender Martin Jones (who has since been traded to the San Jose Sharks), and prospect defenseman Colin Miller, and that Dougie Hamilton was headed to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a 1st round pick and two 2nd round picks. Okay, here we go. Something big is about to happen. It’s sad to see Hamilton, an impending restricted free agent, go before he becomes the player he’s supposed to become, but maybe this is what they need to acquire Hanifin.

I shut off the data and put my phone in my pocket knowing the Bruins had the 13th (from LA), 14th (their own), and 15th (from Calgary) picks in the draft and anticipated what might happen next. When I went on Reddit at my next break, /r/BostonBruins was full of “Fire Sweeney,” “Fire Neely,” and “seriously, what the hell just happened?” posts. Apparently, instead of trading up, they kept those picks.

At 13, the Bruins took Jakub Zboril, a defenseman from the Czech Republic, who was projected to be drafted in the middle of the 1st round. Okay, so far, so good. Might not be Hanifin, but it’s something.

At 14, the Bruins took Jake DeBrusk, a forward for the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League, ranked in the late 20s by most prospect evaluators. Alright, I guess. I mean, they took him a little ahead of his consensus value, but it the Bruins think he’s their guy, then he’s their guy, right? Their probably going to use the next pick on someone that’s a more sure thing and little less of a reach…

At 15, the Bruins took Zachary Senyshyn, a forward for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. He is ranked #38 by NHL Central Scouting, #39 by ISS Hockey, #40 by Bob McKenzie of TSN, #42 by Future Considerations, and #57 by Hockeyprospect.com. Yeesh. Now that’s a reach. That’s what you use the Hamilton pick on? This kid better be good, or in a couple years Don Sweeney is going to be looking for work somewhere on the Canadian prairie the way Peter Chiarelli made it to Edmonton this summer (On a side note, I can’t wait until Chiarelli inevitably becomes the probably the first executive in any sport to trade away the first two picks from the same draft when he deals away Taylor Hall for pennies on the dollar. It’ll be the inverse of the House of Cards-style manipulation that Pat Riley pulled off to get the top three picks from the 1992 NBA Draft to play together in Miami).

The biggest concern I have as a Bruins fan is the same one I have as a Red Sox fan: it’s unclear to me which way direction the teams are going, and it’s unclear to me if the teams themselves know.I’ll save my rant about the Red Sox for another day, but with the Bruins, I can’t tell if they’re trying to compete right now or rebuild. If they’re competing now, why let Lucic go now? Even if you can’t or don’t want to re-sign him at the price he’s going to command as an unrestricted free agent, you’d get the most out of him with a playoff run in a contract year. I had the same issue with Chiarelli doing the same thing with Johnny Boychuk last year.

If you’re going to rebuild, then why did Hamilton get traded and not Zdeno Chara. It’s clear he’s not the player he once was, but he could still contribute to a contender if he’s not having to play the amount of minutes he normally plays. If you’re going to rebuild, why did you give an aging, perpetually injured veteran blueliner like Adam McQuaid a four year contract extension? If you’re rebuilding, isn’t Dougie Hamilton the kind of player to keep around?

I wrote in the middle of the 2014-15 season that there were only three players the Bruins should not consider trading: Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Hamilton. With Hamilton now traded, and the window to compete while Chara is still a Bruin quickly closing, the only untouchable player on the roster is Bergeron. They should tear this thing down. Trade Chara. I’d be more hesitant about trading Tuukka Rask, but is they get a good return (which I have very little faith the Bruins can do), they should trade him, too. Put the “C” on Bergeron’s jersey, and find a coach who can better adapt to the changing landscape of the NHL. It sounds simpler than it is, and I have my serious doubts that they can pull it off, but can it really get much worse than it is right now?

Hamilton is the fourth talented player the Bruins have dealt with a varying return in recent years. While Hamilton did not reach the level that Joe Thornton or Phil Kessel or Tyler Seguin reached in Boston, he was a star on the rise. With all four players questions arose of their character or competitiveness, and some of those issues were valid, but when this kind of thing keeps happening with the same organization, it makes me think the issues are more with the Bruins than the individual players. Claude Julien’s system is demanding in the defensive zone, and players like Seguin, Kessel, and more recently Ryan Spooner, have struggled to gain his trust despite their offensive prowess. At some point you need to score, no matter how good your defense and goaltending are, and the Bruins have trouble dealing with guys that can be playmakers or goal scorers in the offensive zone.

This past weekend was a trial by fire for new Bruins GM Don Sweeney. Sweeney, who worked under Chiarelli for years in the Bruins organization, is similar to Chiarelli in that they both played college hockey at Harvard, but differs from Chiarelli in that he was teammates with team president Cam Neely on the Bruins, and is supposed to be Neely’s guy. If this is Neely’s vision for the Bruins, I’m worried. I thought getting rid of Chiarelli would be a good thing, and he did need to go. From bad drafts (see Hamill, Zach and Caron, Jordan) to overpaying role players from the Stanley Cup team (see Kelly, Chris) to not getting a good return on players traded away (see Seguin, Tyler and Boychuk, Johnny) to giving away young players for nothing on the waiver wire (see Fraser, Matt and Cunningham, Craig), it was about time the guy lost his job. It would have happened sooner if not for the heroics of Tim Thomas in the spring of 2011.

Chiarelli and Claude Julien made the Bruins respectable again for the first time in a long time, but it was time to move on. I’m not sure exactly why Claude Julien is still the coach of the team. He’s a very good coach, he’s won a Stanley Cup here in Boston, and his defense was a key to the success of Team Canada in the 2014 Olympics, but I’m not convinced he’s the right guy to oversee a rebuild. He coached up a young roster when those young players were Bergeron, Lucic, David Krejci, Kessel, Mark Stuart, and Blake Wheeler, but he was also in good position to compete in the short term with veterans like Chara, Marc Savard (whose long-term injured reserve contract was traded to Florida this week), P.J. Axelsson, Thomas, and Glen Murray providing leadership and experience to the room. Claude likes to lean on the guys that came up big for him in the past. Chris Kelly’s presence on the roster stunts the development of Ryan Spooner because Claude trusts the overpaid Kelly more than the inexperienced with high upside Spooner. For Spooner and David Pastrnak and Seth Griffith and Alexander Khoklachev to get better, they need to play, and they need a coach that will play them.

What there doing makes sense until the next move, and as a fan of the team, that’s troubling.

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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?”

Days of Future Past

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.

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.

One Series Down

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.

Claude Julien and P.J. Axelsson at a Bruins game earlier this season.

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.

Sudden Death, Sudden Life

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?

Is It Playoff Time Yet?

It’s become almost boring to write about my beloved Boston Bruins because so little has gone wrong as of late. They have been a winning machine for the bulk of the season.

To summarize: they were hot before the Olympics. Patrice Bergeron won his second career Gold Medal. Loui Eriksson won a Silver Medal. Tuukka Rask won a Bronze Medal. They lost two games after the Olympics, but gained a point in one of them. They won 12 games in a row. They lost in a shootout to the Montreal Canadiens. Since then they’ve beaten the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks 3-0, putting last year’s Stanley Cup Finals in the rear view mirror in the process, and the Philadelphia Flyers on the road in a shootout.

I could have written an angry post about how the B’s can’t shake the Habs, and how those gutless-chicken-divers-to-the-north could be the one thing holding them back in the East, but I’m not sure that’s the case. The Bruins dominated that game even strength. If they can stay away from the stupid penalties (which is easier said than done, I realize, given Montreal’s tendency to play for the penalty rather toughing it out even strength), then they can handle Montreal, too.

On every other front things seem good. The Bruins seem like a better team than the one that got to Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago, and are in great position to run the table in the Eastern Conference, but that kind of confidence in any of the teams I root for always makes me nervous. I started following sports in the mid-90s, which was perhaps the most futile few years Boston sports fans have ever had to endure. None of the four teams won a championship, and the only Finals appearances were by the Bruins in 1990 and the Patriots in 1997. Neither one really stood a chance to win it. Because of that, I’m almost more comfortable with my teams as underdogs. I know this sounds spoiled, and we have been spoiled with three Super Bowl victories, three World Series titles, an NBA championship and a Stanley Cup championship since 2002, while Buffalo’s best decade yielded four Super Bowl losses and a Stanley Cup Finals loss, and the state of Ohio has not won a professional championship since 1990, but for every big win, there are crushing defeats on the biggest stage, and those hurt so much more. Boston is a city that identifies with its sports teams as closely as any city in North America, and eight titles later, the passion still shows.

The Bruins’ greatest strength is their depth. Tuukka Rask can take the night off, and the team won’t feel any less confident with Chad Johnson between the pipes. They have more able bodied defensemen than can dress each night (and that doesn’t include Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid, who have not yet been ruled out for the playoffs), which creates a level of competitiveness that keeps everyone playing their hardest in a time of year where Bruin teams in the past have started to coast. We won’t have to worry about the Bruins having to flip the switch to turn the intensity on this spring, because they’re already there.

This is the first regular season in the Claude Julien Era where I can sense that the team is hungry for more before the playoffs have started. They were so close to the Stanley Cup last year that it’s been eating at them ever since. The summertime acquisition of Jarome Iginla, who was on the Pittsburgh Penguins team that was swept by the B’s last spring, adds another guy who is hungry for the Stanley Cup, and who just so happens to be one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the NHL. Iggy has provided consistency to the B’s top line that I have never seen, and it’s made David Krejci and Milan Lucic into more reliable regular season players than I ever thought they could be.

In the game this past week against Chicago, the Bruins honored the Boston Fire Department, and it was reminiscent of the way the city used sports (particularly hockey and baseball) to heal in the wake of the tragedy at the Boston Marathon last April. Boston’s Firefighters were the 1st Star of that game (Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask were 2nd and 3rd, respectively), and the Bruins players really seem to get that this is a great city and a special place, not just another town where you can play hockey and get paid.

Bruins fans have been waiting for the 2014 playoffs as soon as the 2013 playoffs ended with the other team raising Lord Stanley’s Cup on the ice of the TD Garden. It’s a few weeks away, and it still can’t come soon enough. Let’s go.