They have a great goalie in Braden Holtby. They have a great coach in Barry Trotz (Trotz Trotz Trotz! As Tony Kornheiser is fond of saying). They have one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of hockey in Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals are the class of the NHL’s Eastern Conference and should be the the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, if not win it, yet in the Ovechkin Era, they have never gotten out of the second round. It’s at the point where you have to ask about the Caps: if they can’t do it this year, will they ever?
This has been the history of the Washington Capitals for some 40 years. They are often good, occasionally great in the regular season, but that greatness almost never translates for more than a round in the playoffs, with the exception of the 1997-98 season when they made the Final, but lost to the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. They are the “choking dogs,” as Kornheiser likes to call them, of the NHL. Some of it is bad luck, some of it in recent years has been running into Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington’s personal kryptonite.
Jokes are often made that the San Jose Sharks are the Capitals of the Western Conference, or that the Caps are the Sharks of the East, but even San Jose broke through and made the Final last season. If the last 12 months have taught us nothing else, we have certainly learned that the unexpected can and will happen, and sports curses are made to be broken. The Sharks broke through the same year as the Cubs, and the Caps could be next.
That is why they are one of the biggest winners of the NHL trade deadline, acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues without having to give up anyone from their NHL roster. Shattenkirk not only bolsters their strength at the blue line, he is perhaps better prepared for what the Washington Capitals need than anyone on the trade market. Shattenkirk made a name for himself as a power-play quarterback in St. Louis, being the guy to set up Russian-born sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, so it should be an easy transition dishing the puck to Russian-born sniper Alex Ovechkin in D.C.
Best of all for the Capitals, Kevin Shattenkirk is the opposite of a choking dog: he is a prevailing Terrier. Shattenkirk was a member of the Boston University Terriers team that won the NCAA National Championship in 2009, and he assisted Colby Cohen on the overtime game-winner in the National Championship Game against Miami University. That game, it should be noted, was played at Verizon Center in Washington D.C., so Shattenkirk may have experienced better postseason success at Verizon Center, albeit in college, than anyone on the Capitals’ roster.
Nothing is guaranteed in hockey. Nothing is guaranteed in any sport, but that is especially true in hockey because it is on ice, and everything that happens is based on another mistake. That being said, on paper, the Caps should be the best team at the end, and that was true before adding Shattenkirk. Bur history also tells us the team that should win and the team that does win are often not the same. This trade helps their chances of a better outcome, though. We will see how it plays out.
A week after getting fired after nearly a decade as head coach of the Boston Bruins, Claude Julien has landed on his feet, being named today as head coach of Boston oldest and most bitter rival, the Montreal Canadiens, replacing Michel Therrien. To summarize, the Bruins still do not seem to have a plan going forward, and they just gave their biggest rival a coaching upgrade, looking like fools in the process. This is where we are right now.
Bruins fans could see this coming from miles away. It had long been speculated that the Bruins had held off on firing Claude in the past to block division rivals like Montreal or the Ottawa Senators from getting him. Julien has been constantly rumored to be a coaching candidate for the Habs, considering he has been their head coach before, and considering he is one of a handful of bilingual NHL head coaches. In 2011, when Randy Cunneyworth was named interim head coach of the Canadiens, the organization apologized and promised the permanent head coach (it ended up being Therrien) would be able to speak French.
This is a good move for Montreal. They are a playoff team that has struggled as of late, and perhaps a coaching change is what they think they need to kick start to put them over the top. As I mentioned last week, the Claude was fired by the Bruins, it was Michel Therrien who got fired by Pittsburgh in 2009 before they won the Stanley Cup under Dan Bylsma. The Canadiens have a great goaltender in Carey Price, and a great defensive defenseman in Shea Weber who seems like Julien’s kind of player in the tradition of Zdeno Chara, and they think this coach combined with these players could be the mix they need to win their first Stanley Cup since 1993 (the last Cup win by any Canadian team).
For Boston, this is more of what I was talking about last week. The Bruins did not fire Julien sooner because they did not have a better plan and they were afraid to see him coaching a rival. Now, they still do not have a better plan, winning streak that includes a win over Montreal under Bruce Cassidy notwithstanding, and Julien is coaching a rival. While the Bruins are stuck in the middle, Bruins fans are stuck seeing their team’s all time winningest head coach (Julien passed Art Ross, who has an NHL trophy named after him and who named the Boston Bruins, on the franchise win list last season) behind the bench for the Montreal Canadiens of all teams. The thought crossed my mind the other night when the Bruins played the Habs that if the Bruins win, Claude could be Montreal’s new coach, but the reality is just now sinking in, even though I understood this could and probably would happen on an intellectual level for years.
Ultimately, blame for this falls back in Cam Neely and Don Sweeney. They tried to prevent this from happening, and it still happened, and Bruins fans are still stuck with them while Julien is coaching a real contender and Peter Chiarelli is running the loaded with young talent Edmonton Oilers. There have been worse time to be a Bruins fan, but the fact that the people who made the franchise respectable for the first time in decades are gone makes me concerned about how soon things will get better.
It finally happened, and in the most predictably Boston Bruins way possible. The Bruins fired head coach Claude Julien this Tuesday, in his tenth year in Boston, during the Patriots’ Super Bowl championship parade. Of course they were going to try and bury the fact that they were firing the coach who led them to their only Stanley Cup championship in the last 40 years on a day when the region was celebrating the greatest comeback in NFL history and a fifth Super Bowl victory that cemented Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the greatest coach and quarterback in history. Besides illustrating the Bruins’ antiquated public relations strategy that has not at all adapted for the age of social media, it also shows that from a hockey operations standpoint, that they still have no idea what they are doing. Sad.
The thing is, I was not against firing Claude Julien. I thought it was going to happen a year and a half ago when they fired Peter Chiarelli. Claude is a very good coach, but coaching turnover in hockey is higher that the other sports. For some perspective, last week, the St. Louis Blues fired Ken Hitchcock. Having been the head coach in St. Louis since 2011, Hitch was one of the longer tenured head coaches in the NHL, but Claude had been on the hot seat in Boston for years before Hitch even got to St. Louis. Winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 certainly helped Julien, but it felt like the Bruins might have fired him had they lost Game 7 to Tampa in the Conference Final that season.
Even going deep in the playoffs does not buy you much time in the NHL. Michel Therrien took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, and got fired midway through the next season, only for Pittsburgh to get back to the Cup Final in 2009 and win it that time. Last season, when the Penguins again fired their coach midseason and won the Cup, it reminded people that teams typically get their act together a little bit when that kind of urgency is placed upon them, but I was not in favor of firing Claude for the sake of firing Claude. It’s one thing to fire your coach and win the Cup when you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. That will not be happening with Zdeno Chara turning 40 next month when he turned into a statue on the ice sometime in the last 18 months. Getting rid of Julien turns the page on an era in Bruins history, a successful era that I have eulogized multiple times at this point when I thought he was going to get canned, but it does not change how flawed the roster is, and I am not convinced the people in charge have a plan to fix it.
Team president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney now have one less person to blame besides themselves for the mess the Bruins are in right now. After missing the playoffs in the spring of 2015, Neely pinned the team’s failings on then-GM Peter Chiarelli, and Chiarelli deserved his share of blame for sure, but it never totally made sense why they kept Claude around when they promoted Sweeney to GM, except for the purpose of self preservation on the part of Neely and Sweeney. Why did they not fire Claude in the spring of 2016, when they missed the playoffs for a second straight year in an eerily similar manner? The only reason I can think of as a cynical Bruins fan is that they still did not have a plan, and they decided to put off firing Claude longer to distract from that fact. It’s behavior like that from the team that has bred institutional cynicism from Bruins fans that inspires signs like this alternative fact laden one I saw on Reddit this week from Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks:
I am not sure if this sign, starring White House Press Secretary and Melissa McCarthy character Sean Spicer, says more about the state of America or the state of the Boston Bruins, but either way, I do not feel good about where we are or where we might be going.
Regardless of how they go here, the Bruins are now in the Bruce Cassidy Era, and so far are 2-0, including today’s win over the Vancouver Canucks, and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Maybe replacing Julien with Cassidy, who was the head coach for the Providence Bruins of the AHL before joining Julien’s NHL staff this season, and previously served as head coach of the pre-Ovechkin Washington Capitals, will provide enough of a spark for the Bruins to get into the playoffs this year, but I do not expect them to do anything once they are there. Changing the coach will not change the fact that Zdeno Chara is a million years old, that Tuukka Rask has played more than he should because the backup goaltending situation is not as good as it traditionally has been (Remember when the Bruins had the tandem of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in net for three straight years? That was awesome.), that Patrice Bergeron is not getting any younger, and that Brad Marchand’s goal scoring prime is being wasted on an inferior team that has blown a chance at the playoffs in two straight seasons.
I might not feel as down on the Bruins as I do if the other three teams in Boston were not regarded as “smart teams” in their respective leagues. The Patriots are the smartest team in the NFL, as evidenced by their five Super Bowl wins in an era when that is not supposed to happen, and the Red Sox and Celtics were early to embrace the analytics movements in baseball and basketball. The Bruins? They are trying to win a style of hockey that no longer exists, or they are trying to change with the times, depending on the day and who you ask, but in trying to remain competitive, they are not rebuilding, and I am not convinced they know how even if they are trying to.
This is an article I wrote for my school newspaper at Fitchburg State University in October 2016. Now that I have graduated, I am publishing some of the writing I did during the semester.
Hockey fans will look back on October 12, 2016 and remember it as the day a new era in the NHL began, even if they did not watch it live. After a decade of the league being dominated by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane (with Jaromir Jagr, who won two Stanley Cups before Bill Clinton was elected president, is still somehow playing at a high level on top of all that), it is clear to me that a new generation is ready to take the NHL by storm. Toews and Kane have won three Stanley Cups together in Chicago, and may win it again this season, Crosby captained the Pittsburgh Penguins to a second Stanley Cup last June, and while he has yet to find the same playoff success as his peers, Ovechkin remains must-watch television whenever he steps on the ice, but it will not be long before Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, Patrick Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs begin to take over the highlight shows, podcasts, and Reddit posts that drive hockey discussion in the 21st Century, and while McDavid and Eichel arrived in the NHL last season, the new era truly began on October 12 when Auston Matthews made history.
Matthews, who was selected with the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, scored four goals in his NHL debut on the road against the Ottawa Senators, including scoring on each of his first three career shots. The Maple Leafs lost the game 5-4 in overtime, but he showed that he belonged and that Toronto has a cornerstone piece to build their franchise around going forward. The Leafs, the most consistent punchline in hockey for nearly 50 years, finally have something to be excited about again, and it came from an unconventional place.
While McDavid, Eichel, and Laine come from much more traditional hockey talent pools, (McDavid is from Ontario, Eichel is from Chelmsford, Massachusetts and played at Boston University, and Laine is from Finland), Auston Matthews is from Scottsdale, Arizona, was the first in his family to play hockey, and got into the sport from going to Phoenix Coyotes games as a child. The original Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona in 1996, and Matthews was born in 1997. This is a kid who would be playing college football or baseball this year were it not for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s polarizing strategy of moving NHL teams from cities like Winnipeg, Quebec, Minneapolis, and Hartford to nontraditional markets like Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, and Raleigh (though Winnipeg and Minnesota did eventually get new teams, in addition to expansion franchises in Ottawa, Nashville, Columbus, San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, and Tampa) in the 1990s. Matthews being selected #1 overall back in June is a sign that hockey is growing, that the best athletes from more places are choosing that sport, and the key to the NHL’s growth going forward is not making the game more popular in Canada, (which is why the NHL’s next expansion team is going to be in Las Vegas, not Quebec, as the people of Quebec have not had their own team in 20 years, but still watch the games on TV and buy the jerseys), but to strengthen its influence in the United States.
If there’s any problem I have with hockey’s youth movement, it’s that the best players are stuck in Canada. Coming out of the 2005 lockout, the NHL was able to win back fans because of parity and a high number of competitive teams, but perhaps more importantly, the best teams the last ten years were in American markets. Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Tampa, and San Jose were in the mix for the Stanley Cup more often than they weren’t in a time when the NHL really needed American TVs tuned into their games. Now it seems like the next generation of elite players will be mostly based in Canada, and that could be a problem. It would take the Edmonton Oilers making the Stanley Cup Final for one of Connor McDavid’s games to make it onto NBC, and the same is true of Patrick Laine in Winnipeg. At least Matthews is in Toronto, which as Canada’s largest city and the only Canadian city with teams in the NBA or MLB, is a little more justifiable for American network executives.
All in all, the future of the NHL is bright, and Auston Matthews is leading the way, not just for a franchise that last won the Stanley Cup when there were still only six NHL teams (I know it was 1967 and not 1908, but seriously, the Leafs are the Chicago Cubs of hockey and this doesn’t get talked about enough in America), but for kids playing hockey all across the United States. If a kid who grew up in a state where hockey cannot be played outdoors any time of the year can score four goals in his first NHL game less than a month after his 19th birthday, a lot more kids are going to play hockey thinking they have a chance at the NHL when they otherwise might have stuck to football, and that can’t be a bad thing.
It’s not entirely fair to compare basketball to hockey as frequently as we do. Sure, both the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League play 82-game regular season that encompass the traditional North American academic year, and both are played indoors in arenas, and many basketball and hockey teams share said arenas in many cities, but basketball is poised to challenge football as the most popular sport in the United States in the next 20 years and challenge soccer internationally, while hockey is struggling just to stay in fourth place. While the NBA is as popular as it has ever been, leading to an enormous spike in the salary cap this year, the NHL’s cap is staying put by comparison. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two sports is they way their own versions of “The Decision” played out this summer.
The original “Decision” came in the summer of 2010, when LeBron James decided to rip out the collective heart of the city of Cleveland on live national television to take his “talents to South Beach.” The move was polarizing to say the least, added water to the packet of Instant Villain Mix that was the Miami Heat, and ultimately made LeBon’s eventual return to Cleveland and title run this spring that much sweeter for a city that hadn’t won a championship since the Johnson Administration. This summer, both the NBA and NHL had the biggest free agent courtship stories of the decade, and while the Kevin Durant free agency experience lived up to the billing, the drama in the NHL this August seems incredibly minor by comparison, but at the same time, a really big deal for that sport.
Enter Harvard University captain Jimmy Vesey of North Reading, Massachusetts. Vesey was selected in the 3rd Round (66th overall) by the Nashville Predators in the 2012 NHL Draft. He had such a good 2015-16 season for the Crimson that was received the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey , and was guaranteed a top-six spot on Nashville’s roster, as the Preds were gearing up for a playoff run in a stacked Western Conference. In as surprising move, Vesey informed the Predators that he was not interested in signing with them, and that he intended to hit free agency when his draft rights expired on August 15. While is must be frustrating for Nashville, who not only used a draft pick on him, but invested time working with him in development camps over the years with the understanding that he would be part of that team’s bright future (And the Predators are a team that is really going places. I’ll have more on that another day.), but it was well within Vesey’s rights to do what he did. Vesey did not choose Nashville. Nashville chose him, and he has blossomed into a really good player whose game has the potential to translate very well to the NHL. Had he been in the draft after his senior season at Harvard, he may very well have gone in the top ten. The summer of 2015 was a chance for Vesey to explore his options.
It is hard to quantify the equivalent talent in basketball that teams were courting in Jimmy Vesey. He’s obviously not an established, can’t-miss talent like LeBron in 2010 or Kevin Durant in 2016. He hasn’t even played in an NHL game yet even though Vesey, who turned 23 in May, is older than Jonathan Toews was the first time Toews captained the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup. The closest thing I can think of would be if there was a basketball player from Eastern Europe or Australia who had YouTube highlight reels upon highlight reels destroying guys and hitting insane shots in half-empty gymnasiums that also had never been drafted by anyone. In a case like that, the chance of that guy becoming Euro-Jordan would be slim, but too tempting a chance to not at least look into when elite talent is so hard to come by. The award he won is promising, but not necessarily indicative of success at the next level, either. The Hobey Baker is about as hit and miss as the Heisman Trophy, if not more so, because the Junior Hockey leagues in Canada are still the more mainstream pipeline for NHL talent than the NCAA. Kids who can play in the NHL at 18 or 19 typically go from Juniors to the NHL. Those who cannot make that leap play college hockey, or end up there because they are American and get overlooked. Some Hobey Baker winners, though have made it as stars in the NHL, like Ryan Miller or Chris Drury, and the most recent winners, Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College and Jack Eichel of Boston University, have turned into promising and exciting players for the Calgary Flames and Buffalo Sabres, respectively. If you believe in things coming in threes, maybe Jimmy Vesey completes the Hobey Baker Winners Who Went To College In The Boston Area And Took The NHL By Storm Hat Trick.
What Vesey represented more than anything was a free high draft pick who would be cost controlled for the next couple years, who had a real chance to blossom into a top-six forward. The NHL has a hard salary cap, and teams generally hang onto their good players, unless they’re my Boston Bruins, in which case I need another drink. Jimmy Vesey was a low risk, potentially high reward acquisition for whichever team was able to land him. The Bruins, the Blackhawks, the Rangers, the Sabres, the Islanders, and the Maple Leafs were all in very different situations, but all really wanted the player because of how he could cheaply improve their team in an era when everyone is struggling with the same salary cap. Boston was the only city that was in the mix for both Vesey and Kevin Durant this summer, and the Bruins and Celtics both came up empty handed. With Durant, the Warriors were the far easier situation to join compared to anyone in the NBA, but with Jimmy Vesey’s decision to sign with the New York Rangers, the reasoning is not as clear.
I can understand not wanting to sign with Boston as a kid who grew up and went to college in Massachusetts. If you want to find out what it’s like to live somewhere else, there is no better time than when you’re 23. Was New York the better hockey situation, though? Not if he wants to win right away, I don’t think. The Blackhawks are the class of the NHL, and the chance to play with Jonathan Toews, who I think is this generation’s Steve Yzerman and that comparison might be selling Toews short, or the chance to play on a line with for the Islanders would be better than anything the Rangers can offer him, as they are a team that can only go as far as the still excellent but aging goaltender Henrik Lundqvist can take them. The Rangers offer him a place to showcase his talents as he prepares for that second contract, with little threat of getting bumped down a line from younger, hungrier talent. After that, maybe Jimmy Vesey decides to come home to Boston, or to a closer to contending Toronto or Buffalo team, or maybe he washes out of the NHL by then. The Hobey Baker Award doesn’t have the greatest track record of NHL success, after all.
The real problem with Jimmy Vesey’s Decision wasn’t that he exercised his right to pursue free agency, it was that it was August and hockey fans were so bored we made it a bigger story than it was because there was nothing else going on. The rest of the big free agents signed in the first week of July, and we’re still a couple of months away from real NHL games. All we have in August is regular season baseball (which as a Red Sox fan, has been good this year), and the mostly nonsense that is the Olympics. We did this to Jimmy Vesey more than he made this about himself. If his career doesn’t reach the level of anticipation that the past week did for hockey fans, we need to remember that.
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 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.