I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade the night the story first broke because I felt too close to it as a fan of Isaiah Thomas. In two and a half seasons, he became the most universally popular Celtics player among casual Boston sports fans–more so than Paul Pierce–since Larry Bird. Personally, I wrote about Isaiah in his relatively brief tenure almost as much as I have about David Ortiz, Tom Brady, and Patrice Bergeron, three titans of the City of Champions era that Boston has been enjoying since February of 2002.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade in the week that followed, as the teams first acknowledged the trade on their various social media profiles, but then the trade did not get finalized right away. The Cleveland Cavaliers were skeptical of the integrity of Isaiah Thomas’ injured hip (a concern that admittedly did not get talked about enough once the Celtics’ season ended) and asked for more assets to complete the trade. It was not a one-for-one swap of two star point guards to begin with: the Celtics also gave up Jae Crowder, Ante Žižić, and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 1st round draft pick, the last unrealized asset from the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade to the Nets in 2013. To complete the deal with Cleveland’s concerns about Thomas’ hip, the Celtics also had to add a 2020 2nd round pick from the Miami Heat.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade after the trade was finalized, and after the Celtics held their introductory press conference with Irving and free agent signing Gordon Hayward. While I understood that it was a huge trade, and objectively a good trade that will help the Celtics in the long run, I was not sure I could bring anything else to the table that had not already been said in the week between when the trade reported and when it became official. That said, I do have quite a few thoughts on the matter, and I have been writing about the Celtics in this space since the days of Pierce, Garnett, Doc Rivers, and Rajon Rondo, and if I never write about it, then why am I writing about basketball at all?
Bill Simmons pointed out on various podcasts that trades like this hardly ever happen. Two conference rivals, the two Eastern Conference finalists from 2017 just swapped point guards. The last time contenders of this caliber traded players of this caliber within the same conference was in 1980 when the Phoenix Suns dealt Paul Westphal to the Seattle SuperSonics for Dennis Johnson. But with the looming threat of LeBron James’ free agency next summer, these were desperate times for Cleveland. And with the looming threat of having to sign a guy under six feet in his late 20s with an injury history to a maximum contract, Boston was acting from a point of desperation in its own right.
I wrote in the spring about my worry that Isaiah would get the Malcolm Butler treatment from the Celtics, and in September, Butler is (for now) still a member of the Patriots, and Isaiah has been dealt. My worry was the Boston Sports Media would use any success in the Eastern Conference Finals after Isaiah went down with his hip injury to take him for granted and put the ball in motion towards running him out of town. I was admittedly emotionally attached to Isaiah, but I really did think he could be one of the three stars on a championship team. I did not think the Celtics would be able to get anything in return comparable to Isaiah, considering the asking prices at the deadline for Paul George and Jimmy Butler, and later, given the returns Indiana and Chicago got for George and Butler when they traded them during the summer. Of course, I thought all of that before I knew Kyrie Irving would be available.
In Irving, the Celtics landed another dynamic point guard who can score at will, but while both are injury-prone, Kyrie is taller and younger. Some have argued that the Celtics were not able to land a player who has proven he can be the best player on a championship team, but the only players who fit that description are LeBon, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard that are still in their prime (sorry, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki), but Kyrie is the next best thing. He performed well in the Finals against Golden State, and even though he already has a ring, seems eager and poised to win outside of LeBron’s shadow.
The Celtics turned over their roster a lot for a team that was just in the Eastern Conference Finals. For some context, the Celtics had six players from the very bad 2006-07 team (Pierce, Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Brian Scalabrine, Leon Powe, and Tony Allen) that contributed to the 2007-08 championship team, while they now only have four players (Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown) left from three months ago. For even more context, the Bruins currently have six players (Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, and Tuukka Rask) left form their 2011 Stanley Cup team, and they won the Bruins won the Cup six years ago! Danny Ainge knew the Celtics were still far off from where they wanted to be, and he made the moves he needed to make if they wanted to move forward. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward might not be enough to get past the Warriors, but they have certainly narrowed the gap between them and Cleveland, with Cleveland’s future in jeopardy beyond 2018.
It’s really incredible how quickly Danny Ainge rebuilt the Celtics going out with a whimper against the New York Knicks in 2013. They only went into the lottery once with their own pick, made the two biggest free agent signings in franchise history, and got good returns in trades for Pierce, Garnett, Rondo, and Thomas. While the post-Kobe Lakers continue to toil in the lottery, Ainge reminded everyone that he is one of the best GMs in the game. A decade after bringing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston, the Celtics have reloaded once again. He made a move I could not have made (and that’s one of a hundred reasons I don’t run the Celtics), and improved the team’s championship odds, and expanded their championship window.
While I have my doubts about how quickly the Celtics will come together early in the season–I would not be surprised if they go through early struggles like the 2010-11 Miami Heat–the long-term future of the team is much brighter and clearer than it was even six months ago. From a local perspective, the NBA season got a lot more interesting.
The expansion franchise experience is one of misery that in time builds into joy, if done right. The team begins its story as a literal roster of cast-offs from the pre-existing teams, builds through the draft as fans around the rest of the league constantly question whether or not they actually belong. It’s not fair, and it’s frustrating how fans who complain that not enough people like hockey, but then condemn newcomers to the game for not knowing enough, but this is the sort of initiation the people of Las Vegas are about to experience.
In baseball, it is possible to become a contender in just a few years as the 1997 Florida Marlins and 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks proved. But most cases, if the team sticks with its original city, a slow start followed by middling returns is the best to expect. The closest thing hockey has to early expansion success like that is the early success of the Colorado Avalanche, but they were the relocated Quebec Nordiques, and not a true expansion. Storied franchises like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, and Chicago Blackhawks go through decades of struggles, too. The years of trying, and the years of failing make the eventual playoff successes, like what we saw from the electrified fan base of the Nashville Predators last spring all the more exciting once it does happen.
Fortunately for the Golden Knights, they landed one of hockey’s great play-by-play announcers. Dave Goucher had been the radio voice of the Boston Bruins for 17 years, and it was announced last month that he was leaving the Bruins to be the TV play-by-play man for the new franchise in Vegas. During his time in Boston, Goucher made some of the most iconic calls in the history of Boston sports. For me, Goucher’s “GET THE DUCKBOATS READY!!!” at the end of Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final is right up there with Gil Santos’ “IT’S GOOD!!! IT’S GOOD!!! IT’S GOOD !!!” at the end of Super Bowl XXXVI, Johnny Most’s “HAVLICEK STOLE THE BALL!!!” in the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals.
My first hockey post on this blog was in reaction to the Bruins’ Game 7 comeback against the Leafs in May of 2013, and while I headlined the post with a line from Bruins TV play-by-play man and Revolutionary War enthusiast Jack Edwards, the iconic call from that game was Goucher’s. That night it was “BERGERON!!! BERGERON!!!” Aside from his game calls, Goucher’s other great achievement in broadcasting was a hilarious recurring segment on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich morning show called “Dave Goucher Goes to the Movies” in which he would do play-by-play of a famous movie scene, and contestants would have to guess the movie (although the version I linked is actually the ‘television edition”).
I grew up in a house without cable and therefore, grew up listening to the Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics more than I watched them. Even in college, I didn’t have a TV in my dorm room more semesters than I did, so Goucher’s radio calls were how I consumed Bruins games most of the time from 2008 to 2012 when I lived on campus, and that was quite the time to be a hockey fan in Massachusetts. The Bruins became respectable for the first time since trading Ray Bourque, and won the Stanley Cup in 2011. The best hockey my hometown team did in my lifetime was chronicled by Dave Goucher, and his passion and enthusiasm is something Vegas really needs if hockey is going to work there.
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.
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.
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.
Last summer was a lot more exciting for Bruins fans than this one. Last year, the B’s had come 17 seconds away from a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final, but fell short against the Chicago Blackhawks. In July of 2013, the traded away former #2 overall draft pick Tyler Seguin along with Rich Peverley to the Dallas Stars for a package of talent that included Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, and Matt Fraser, and signed veteran free agent goal scorer and future inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame Jarome Iginla. While the decision to move on from Seguin so early into his career, and just before the six year contract extension the Bruins had given him in 2012 was about to kick in, could be second guessed and criticized, it was a bold move by a contending team to retool and improve on the fly. The Bruins got guys that were better fits for their system than Seguin, and for a time, it worked.
The B’s were the NHL’s best team in the regular season, earning their first President’s Trophy since 1990, but they ran into a difficult opponent in their hated rival Montreal Canadiens. A second round exit from the playoffs was disappointing for sure, but what happened this summer, unlike the last, gives us very little, if anything, to be excited about.
Last year, the Bruins were adding Jarome Iginla to a team that played in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. This year, with Iginla signing with the Colorado Avalanche, the B’s are subtracting a perennial 30 goal scorer from a roster that had trouble scoring in the playoffs, and have brought no one in to replace his production. It’s finally caught up to them. Peter Chiarelli gave out contract extensions like candy around the time the B’s won the Cup in 2011, but with the hard salary cap that Jeremy Jacobs spent two lockouts fighting for and restricting, they now lack the flexibility to bring in impact free agents without trading away key members of the roster. It’s a tough position to be in, and it really looks like the general managers approach to building the team does not match well with the beliefs of his influential owner, who would rather see an entire season get cancelled than see the NHLPA win in the labor negotiations.
As for Iginla, I’m really sad that he didn’t get to win the Stanley Cup with the Bruins. When I was a kid, the Bruins’ best player was Raymond Bourque, and he played for the B’s for over 20 years, but never won the Cup with Boston. When I was in 4th grade, the Bruins traded him to Colorado so that he would have a chance to win it all before retiring, and a year and a half later, he did. Bourque had one of the great endings to a career in the history of professional sports, and I really wanted to see Iggy get that in Boston after years being the face of the franchise for the Calgary Flames, but alas, it seem that if Iggy wants a Bourque ending to his illustrious career, it will be in Denver just like it was for Ray. As a Bruins fan, I’ve always liked the Avs because of what they did for Bourque, so it won’t be hard to wish Iginla and the Avs well in the West next season.
With the departures of Iginla and Shawn Thornton, the Bruins will have to fill the holes with young talent. Chiarelli and his hockey operations team have not been particularly good at drafting in recent years, and many of the young prospects haven’t panned out, but people haven’t noticed because the earlier batch of players to come through the system were competing for the Stanley Cup. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci were drafted by the Bruins before Chiarelli was general manager, and while he had been hired by the Bruins, Chiarelli was still working as an assistant GM for the Ottawa Senators on the day of the Draft in 2006 when the B’s traded Andrew Raycroft to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a Finnish goalie draft selection named Tuukka Rask, so it’s unclear how much credit he can take for that one. The best draft selections in the Chiarelli Era were on picks they got from Toronto in the Phil Kessel trade, where they were so high up he couldn’t miss, in Tyler Seguin (#2, 2010) and Dougie Hamilton (#9, 2011), and even Seguin got traded three years later because they were sick of him. The jury is still out on former 1st round pick Malcolm Subban (#24, 2012) because goalies take longer to develop and the Bruins already have a young Vezina Trophy and Bronze Medal winning goaltender under contract for years to come. This is the year for Jordan Caron to step it up if he’s going to make it in the NHL. Drafted in 2009, Caron has numerous chances to establish himself with the Bruins, but has never shown more than the occasional flash of skill. This year is an important one for Matt Bartkowski, Ryan Spooner, Justin Florek, and Matt Fraser as well. A lot of veterans from the Stanley Cup team aren’t in Boston anymore and now is their time to shine.
If there’s one thing to get excited about for the Bruins it’s newly drafted forward David Pastrnak. The Czech-born 18 year old was taken by the B’s with the 25th pick in this year’s draft, and has a chance to make the team this fall. I always get worried about rushing young players along too quickly. The ones with high expectations like Joe Thornton (#1, 1997), while obviously talented, tend to get rushed into a major role too early. Jumbo Joe probably never should have been the captain of the Boston Bruins, or a least not at that time, and his teams never made it past the 1st round of the playoffs. He’s a great player, and he will be in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday, but he’s continued his history of postseason underachievement as the captain of the San Jose Sharks. On the other hand, Patrice Bergeron (#45, 2003) was a second round pick who didn’t come in with a whole lot of hype or fanfare, but made the Boston Bruins’ roster as an 18 year old rookie because of his work ethic and for doing all the little things right. Bergeron wasn’t rushed. He was ready at that age, and he’s the kind of guy every team in the NHL would love to build their team around. Pastrnak could be really good, and he could have an impact on the Bruins this season, but I’m not ready to say that he’s the answer or that he can replace Jarome Iginla’s production.
The Bruins are sending mixed messages again. The hockey decisions make it look like a transition year, but the raise in ticket prices (my friend’s season tickets were $40 per seat, per game in 2013-14, but they’re up to $50 in 2014-15) make it seem like they’re supposed to be that much better this year. Ownership is getting greedy, and it’s making the hockey people look bad. Having a bridge year is one thing, and raising ticket prices is another, but doing both at the same time is the kind of thing that turned fans off of the Bruins for a long time. Jeremy Jacobs is all about the bottom line. That’s why the NHL has a salary cap, and that’s why Ray Bourque and Cam Neely didn’t get their names on the Stanley Cup in Boston as players. It’s moments like this that make it tough to be a Bruins fan. We had a good run from 2008 to 2014, but this is the first time in a while that I’ve been more excited in the middle of the summer about the Patriots than I am about the Bruins. That being said, I know I’m going to get reeled back in as soon as the puck drops for the first time this fall. Jeremy Jacobs knows this, and that’s how he can get away with doing what he’s been doing to Bruins fans since 1975. Excellent.