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.
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.
Sorry to leave without saying goodbye. I went back to school this fall for the first time in over a year, and felt it was going to be hard enough balancing a full time job with classwork, but there was so much I wanted to write about in the last three and a half months! I have a lot to talk about, and I’ll start with a quick recap of what I might have written about.
The World Series
When I last posted, I thought the Baltimore Orioles were the best team in baseball. Whoops. I had no idea about the Kansas City Royals, but I don’t think I was alone on that one. The Royals ended a playoff drought that was older than I was, having reached the postseason for the first time since they won the 1985 World Series, back when Ronald Reagan, the actor, was President. It took them twelve innings to knock the Oakland A’s (which was Jon Lester’s last game as an Athletic, signing with the Chicago Cubs earlier this week, and they didn’t even get to use Jeff Samardzija, who was traded to the Chicago White Sox last week), and proceeded to make short work of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Orioles, two teams that conventional wisdom would lead one to believe were better than the Royals. At the same time, the National League winners of the Wild Card Game, the San Francisco Giants, were also making it look easy. The ease of victory came to a grinding halt when the two teams met, though.
It was a tough series to figure out. Neither team was your typical team, and neither was accustomed to losing in the World Series, either. The Royals may have gone 29 years without playing in the playoffs, but the last time they were there, they won it all. The Giants had a championship drought of their own for a time, but in 2010 they won their first World Series title since moving from New York to San Francisco in 1958. They won again in 2012, and in 2014, they made it a dynasty. In previous series the heroes were many. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, Barry Zito, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Edgar Renteria, Hunter Pence, Aubrey Huff, Jeremy Affeldt, to name a few. In 2014, it was all about Madison Bumgarner. MadBum is now the only pitcher to start games in all three San Francisco Giants title runs, and he is still only 25. He pitched more innings in the World Series than the other San Francisco Giants’ starters (Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong, and Tim Hudson) combined, and ended it all with a five inning save in Game 7 in Kansas City. Usually, the contributions are evenly distributed along a championship roster, like the 2013 Red Sox or the 2010 and 2012 Giants, and that’s what the 2014 Royals would have been if they had won, but sometimes a pitcher can go out there and refuse to lose. The 2014 Major League Baseball playoffs will be remembered for the incredible and improbably run that made October in Kansas City mean more than just Chiefs football, but it will mostly be remembered as the Year of the Bumgarner.
This season in football, regardless of what my Patriots do in the playoffs, will be the year I more or less tuned out of the NFL. I was busy on Sundays with homework, but I didn’t feel like I was missing all that much. And I love football. The problems off the field have made it hard to be excited about the NFL this year. It’s bigger than Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. The problem lies in the commissioner’s office. Roger Goodell is the worst commissioner in all of sports and his constant change in the rules depending on how he feels any given week is maddening. I can only imagine what being a player in that league must be like. What Ray Rice did was wrong. What Adrian Peterson did was wrong, but the way the NFL handled it would not be acceptable in any other line of work. This isn’t a new opinion, but I didn’t have time to write about it in September. I look forward to the day when the NFL hires a competent commissioner, but until then, wake me up in the playoffs.
Speaking of playoffs, I haven’t watched a minute of college football, but I love they new playoff system already. College football doesn’t need a tournament of 64 like college basketball has, but this Football Final Four thing excites me. They have four powerhouse teams: Florida State, Ohio State, Alabama, and Oregon. These four teams play in the semi-final round on New Year’s Day, and they National Championship will follow. I love it. I haven’t been this excited about college football bowl season in my life.
The Bruins can’t score, and the Celtics can’t defend
It’s that kind of year at the TD Garden. Both teams can make the playoffs (well, the Celtics can, and the Bruins should), but it does not feel like the kind of season that will end with a summertime duck boat parade for either team. For the Celtics, it’s part of the learning curve of a young team, and it’s completely understandable. For the Bruins, it’s frustrating. Peter Chiarelli mismanaged the salary cap because he thought it would go up more than it has, or something, and had to trade Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders for nothing that can help them this year. The Tyler Seguin Trade from the summer of 2013 does not look very good either, as Seguin has become one of the NHL’s top scorers with the Dallas Stars, and the Bruins struggle to put the puck in the net.
The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, That was awesome. They were bounced by the Washington Capitals in 2012. That was lousy, but Bruins fans were okay with it because they had just won the year before, and Tyler Seguin and Tuukka Rask were young and getting better. In 2013, they came within 17 seconds of the chance to play a Game 7 for the Cup in Chicago, but then the next 17 seconds happened (normally I would link a Youtube clip to a sentence like that, but it’s been a year and a half, and I still haven’t had the stomach to live through that again), and that was lousy, but it was a fun ride just to get there. In 2014, they lost to the hated Montreal Canadiens, who lost to the New York Rangers, who lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final. This year, the downward trend has continued. Can they right the ship? Of course. Can a lower seed win it all if they get hot at the right time? Just ask the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Champion Kings. If you’re going to take a couple of steps backward, is it a good idea to raise ticket prices? No.
I will write more soon.
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.
With the announcement by Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli earlier this week that the team would not be re-signing 4th line winger and enforcer Shawn Thornton, it marks the end of a very successful era in Bruins hockey. Thorty was a fan favorite and, in many ways, the heart and sould of the Boston Bruins. It was probably time to move on, but let’s take a moment to sit back and appreciate what Shawn Thornton did for Boston.
Thornton arrived in Boston in the summer of 2007, signing with the Bruins just weeks after his breakout season concluded by raising the Stanley Cup over his head as a member of the Anaheim Ducks. That was also the summer that marked the arrival of current Bruins head coach Claude Julien as well as two guys names Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett for the Celtics. Of the four, Thorty’s arrival received the least amount of fanfare or anticipation, and in a year when the Red Sox won the World Series, and the Celtics won their first NBA Title since the days of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, and the Patriots came within a helmet-catch by a guy who never caught another pass in the NFL of going 19-0, the Bruins quietly turned themselves into a contender once again.
Shawn Thornton was the tough guy the B’s had been lacking for a long time. The Bruins were not only on the way back, but they were playing like the Bruins of old. Many fighters in the NHL can only fight. I’ve written about John Scott before and how guys like that are bad for the league and bad for the sport, but Thornton was a more traditional enforcer like what Terry O’Reilly was for the B’s in the 70s and 80s. He wasn’t quite the scorer O’Reilly was, but he could play the game, and the amount of ice time Julien gave him reflected that.
While Thorty did have his moments on offense, like the that beautiful penalty shot goal against the Winnipeg Jets a couple years ago, his biggest contributions to the team were in changing the mentality of the team. In the 2011 playoffs, the Bruins got the offensive spark they needed in the Eastern Conference Finals against Tampa when they put Tyler Seguin in the lineup in place of the concussed Patrice Bergeron, but when Bergy was healthy enough to play, Thornton was the odd man out. It’s no coincidence, in my opinion, that the B’s fortunes turned around in the Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks when Thornton was inserted back into the lineup in place of the concussed Nathan Horton. The year before that Thorty was the guy who stood up to Matt Cooke after effectively ending Marc Savard’s career, and was there to defend his teammates too many other times to count in his seven years in Boston.
The Bruins fell in the playoffs this spring to their bitter rival the Montreal Canadiens. While the Habs got scoring production from their 4th line, the Bruins struggled to get offense from every line. Montreal has a player similar to Thornton in fellow 2007 Stanley Cup champion George Parros, but the difference between the two is that Thornton had to play significant minutes in the playoffs, while Parros was sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch. I hope Chiarelli decided to part ways with Thornton to retool the team but not to make the 4th line the scapegoat for Boston postseason woes. Shawn Thornton did not put them over the top (not that it’s his role to do so), but David Krejci and Brad Marchand didn’t put the puck in the net at all. Milan Lucic squandered golden opportunity after golden opportunity. Tuukka Rask was good, but Carey Price was better. The Bruins were good enough to win the President’s Trophy, but couldn’t get out of the Atlantic Division in the playoffs, and Shawn Thornton is hardly the only one to blame.
The 2013-14 season was not Thornton’s best, and his attack of Brooks Orpik in a game I went to in December did not make him look good, but I’m sure Bruins fans are smart enough to not remember him just for that. Shawn Thornton was a Bruin. He was a Bostonian. He helped bring the Stanley Cup back to the city he loved, and did what he could to help the city heal after the Marathon tragedy last year. He was so much a part of Boston the last seven years, that it earned him a cameo appearance in Ted. Wherever his hockey career takes him, he will always be remembered fondly by Bruins fans. Thanks for the memories, Thorty!