They have a great goalie in Braden Holtby. They have a great coach in Barry Trotz (Trotz Trotz Trotz! As Tony Kornheiser is fond of saying). They have one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of hockey in Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals are the class of the NHL’s Eastern Conference and should be the the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, if not win it, yet in the Ovechkin Era, they have never gotten out of the second round. It’s at the point where you have to ask about the Caps: if they can’t do it this year, will they ever?
This has been the history of the Washington Capitals for some 40 years. They are often good, occasionally great in the regular season, but that greatness almost never translates for more than a round in the playoffs, with the exception of the 1997-98 season when they made the Final, but lost to the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. They are the “choking dogs,” as Kornheiser likes to call them, of the NHL. Some of it is bad luck, some of it in recent years has been running into Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington’s personal kryptonite.
Jokes are often made that the San Jose Sharks are the Capitals of the Western Conference, or that the Caps are the Sharks of the East, but even San Jose broke through and made the Final last season. If the last 12 months have taught us nothing else, we have certainly learned that the unexpected can and will happen, and sports curses are made to be broken. The Sharks broke through the same year as the Cubs, and the Caps could be next.
That is why they are one of the biggest winners of the NHL trade deadline, acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues without having to give up anyone from their NHL roster. Shattenkirk not only bolsters their strength at the blue line, he is perhaps better prepared for what the Washington Capitals need than anyone on the trade market. Shattenkirk made a name for himself as a power-play quarterback in St. Louis, being the guy to set up Russian-born sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, so it should be an easy transition dishing the puck to Russian-born sniper Alex Ovechkin in D.C.
Best of all for the Capitals, Kevin Shattenkirk is the opposite of a choking dog: he is a prevailing Terrier. Shattenkirk was a member of the Boston University Terriers team that won the NCAA National Championship in 2009, and he assisted Colby Cohen on the overtime game-winner in the National Championship Game against Miami University. That game, it should be noted, was played at Verizon Center in Washington D.C., so Shattenkirk may have experienced better postseason success at Verizon Center, albeit in college, than anyone on the Capitals’ roster.
Nothing is guaranteed in hockey. Nothing is guaranteed in any sport, but that is especially true in hockey because it is on ice, and everything that happens is based on another mistake. That being said, on paper, the Caps should be the best team at the end, and that was true before adding Shattenkirk. Bur history also tells us the team that should win and the team that does win are often not the same. This trade helps their chances of a better outcome, though. We will see how it plays out.
It finally happened, and in the most predictably Boston Bruins way possible. The Bruins fired head coach Claude Julien this Tuesday, in his tenth year in Boston, during the Patriots’ Super Bowl championship parade. Of course they were going to try and bury the fact that they were firing the coach who led them to their only Stanley Cup championship in the last 40 years on a day when the region was celebrating the greatest comeback in NFL history and a fifth Super Bowl victory that cemented Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the greatest coach and quarterback in history. Besides illustrating the Bruins’ antiquated public relations strategy that has not at all adapted for the age of social media, it also shows that from a hockey operations standpoint, that they still have no idea what they are doing. Sad.
The thing is, I was not against firing Claude Julien. I thought it was going to happen a year and a half ago when they fired Peter Chiarelli. Claude is a very good coach, but coaching turnover in hockey is higher that the other sports. For some perspective, last week, the St. Louis Blues fired Ken Hitchcock. Having been the head coach in St. Louis since 2011, Hitch was one of the longer tenured head coaches in the NHL, but Claude had been on the hot seat in Boston for years before Hitch even got to St. Louis. Winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 certainly helped Julien, but it felt like the Bruins might have fired him had they lost Game 7 to Tampa in the Conference Final that season.
Even going deep in the playoffs does not buy you much time in the NHL. Michel Therrien took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, and got fired midway through the next season, only for Pittsburgh to get back to the Cup Final in 2009 and win it that time. Last season, when the Penguins again fired their coach midseason and won the Cup, it reminded people that teams typically get their act together a little bit when that kind of urgency is placed upon them, but I was not in favor of firing Claude for the sake of firing Claude. It’s one thing to fire your coach and win the Cup when you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. That will not be happening with Zdeno Chara turning 40 next month when he turned into a statue on the ice sometime in the last 18 months. Getting rid of Julien turns the page on an era in Bruins history, a successful era that I have eulogized multiple times at this point when I thought he was going to get canned, but it does not change how flawed the roster is, and I am not convinced the people in charge have a plan to fix it.
Team president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney now have one less person to blame besides themselves for the mess the Bruins are in right now. After missing the playoffs in the spring of 2015, Neely pinned the team’s failings on then-GM Peter Chiarelli, and Chiarelli deserved his share of blame for sure, but it never totally made sense why they kept Claude around when they promoted Sweeney to GM, except for the purpose of self preservation on the part of Neely and Sweeney. Why did they not fire Claude in the spring of 2016, when they missed the playoffs for a second straight year in an eerily similar manner? The only reason I can think of as a cynical Bruins fan is that they still did not have a plan, and they decided to put off firing Claude longer to distract from that fact. It’s behavior like that from the team that has bred institutional cynicism from Bruins fans that inspires signs like this alternative fact laden one I saw on Reddit this week from Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks:
I am not sure if this sign, starring White House Press Secretary and Melissa McCarthy character Sean Spicer, says more about the state of America or the state of the Boston Bruins, but either way, I do not feel good about where we are or where we might be going.
Regardless of how they go here, the Bruins are now in the Bruce Cassidy Era, and so far are 2-0, including today’s win over the Vancouver Canucks, and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Maybe replacing Julien with Cassidy, who was the head coach for the Providence Bruins of the AHL before joining Julien’s NHL staff this season, and previously served as head coach of the pre-Ovechkin Washington Capitals, will provide enough of a spark for the Bruins to get into the playoffs this year, but I do not expect them to do anything once they are there. Changing the coach will not change the fact that Zdeno Chara is a million years old, that Tuukka Rask has played more than he should because the backup goaltending situation is not as good as it traditionally has been (Remember when the Bruins had the tandem of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in net for three straight years? That was awesome.), that Patrice Bergeron is not getting any younger, and that Brad Marchand’s goal scoring prime is being wasted on an inferior team that has blown a chance at the playoffs in two straight seasons.
I might not feel as down on the Bruins as I do if the other three teams in Boston were not regarded as “smart teams” in their respective leagues. The Patriots are the smartest team in the NFL, as evidenced by their five Super Bowl wins in an era when that is not supposed to happen, and the Red Sox and Celtics were early to embrace the analytics movements in baseball and basketball. The Bruins? They are trying to win a style of hockey that no longer exists, or they are trying to change with the times, depending on the day and who you ask, but in trying to remain competitive, they are not rebuilding, and I am not convinced they know how even if they are trying to.
This is an article I wrote for my school newspaper at Fitchburg State University in October 2016. Now that I have graduated, I am publishing some of the writing I did during the semester.
Hockey fans will look back on October 12, 2016 and remember it as the day a new era in the NHL began, even if they did not watch it live. After a decade of the league being dominated by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane (with Jaromir Jagr, who won two Stanley Cups before Bill Clinton was elected president, is still somehow playing at a high level on top of all that), it is clear to me that a new generation is ready to take the NHL by storm. Toews and Kane have won three Stanley Cups together in Chicago, and may win it again this season, Crosby captained the Pittsburgh Penguins to a second Stanley Cup last June, and while he has yet to find the same playoff success as his peers, Ovechkin remains must-watch television whenever he steps on the ice, but it will not be long before Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, Patrick Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs begin to take over the highlight shows, podcasts, and Reddit posts that drive hockey discussion in the 21st Century, and while McDavid and Eichel arrived in the NHL last season, the new era truly began on October 12 when Auston Matthews made history.
Matthews, who was selected with the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, scored four goals in his NHL debut on the road against the Ottawa Senators, including scoring on each of his first three career shots. The Maple Leafs lost the game 5-4 in overtime, but he showed that he belonged and that Toronto has a cornerstone piece to build their franchise around going forward. The Leafs, the most consistent punchline in hockey for nearly 50 years, finally have something to be excited about again, and it came from an unconventional place.
While McDavid, Eichel, and Laine come from much more traditional hockey talent pools, (McDavid is from Ontario, Eichel is from Chelmsford, Massachusetts and played at Boston University, and Laine is from Finland), Auston Matthews is from Scottsdale, Arizona, was the first in his family to play hockey, and got into the sport from going to Phoenix Coyotes games as a child. The original Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona in 1996, and Matthews was born in 1997. This is a kid who would be playing college football or baseball this year were it not for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s polarizing strategy of moving NHL teams from cities like Winnipeg, Quebec, Minneapolis, and Hartford to nontraditional markets like Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, and Raleigh (though Winnipeg and Minnesota did eventually get new teams, in addition to expansion franchises in Ottawa, Nashville, Columbus, San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, and Tampa) in the 1990s. Matthews being selected #1 overall back in June is a sign that hockey is growing, that the best athletes from more places are choosing that sport, and the key to the NHL’s growth going forward is not making the game more popular in Canada, (which is why the NHL’s next expansion team is going to be in Las Vegas, not Quebec, as the people of Quebec have not had their own team in 20 years, but still watch the games on TV and buy the jerseys), but to strengthen its influence in the United States.
If there’s any problem I have with hockey’s youth movement, it’s that the best players are stuck in Canada. Coming out of the 2005 lockout, the NHL was able to win back fans because of parity and a high number of competitive teams, but perhaps more importantly, the best teams the last ten years were in American markets. Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Tampa, and San Jose were in the mix for the Stanley Cup more often than they weren’t in a time when the NHL really needed American TVs tuned into their games. Now it seems like the next generation of elite players will be mostly based in Canada, and that could be a problem. It would take the Edmonton Oilers making the Stanley Cup Final for one of Connor McDavid’s games to make it onto NBC, and the same is true of Patrick Laine in Winnipeg. At least Matthews is in Toronto, which as Canada’s largest city and the only Canadian city with teams in the NBA or MLB, is a little more justifiable for American network executives.
All in all, the future of the NHL is bright, and Auston Matthews is leading the way, not just for a franchise that last won the Stanley Cup when there were still only six NHL teams (I know it was 1967 and not 1908, but seriously, the Leafs are the Chicago Cubs of hockey and this doesn’t get talked about enough in America), but for kids playing hockey all across the United States. If a kid who grew up in a state where hockey cannot be played outdoors any time of the year can score four goals in his first NHL game less than a month after his 19th birthday, a lot more kids are going to play hockey thinking they have a chance at the NHL when they otherwise might have stuck to football, and that can’t be a bad thing.
I wrote a few months ago about the underwhelming to disappointing summer the Boston Bruins were having, just a few years after winning the Stanley Cup, and just one year after adding perennial 30 goal scorer Jarome Iginla to a roster that was 17 seconds away from forcing a Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals. That was before the B’s traded Johnny Boychuk for nothing that could help them this season, and that was before the injuries and excuses began. This Bruins team is bad. It’s the worst I’ve felt as a fan about the team since the 2009-10 season, but even then, a young Tuukka Rask had given us a reason for hope. This team isn’t tough, can’t score, and has deficiencies on defense that make the goaltending look bad. How did it happen this way to a team that won the second President’s Trophy in franchise history last spring? What has to happen for things to get better?
The highlight for the Bruins in the summer of 2013 was the acquisition of Jarome Iginla in free agency, after the B’s had failed to complete a trade with the Calgary Flames during the season. Iginla instead was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom the Bruins swept on their way to their second Stanley Cup Finals appearance in three years. Unfortunately, Iggy’s stay in Boston ended with a second round playoff exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens (who lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New York Rangers, who lost in the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, meaning the B’s didn’t even come close to being beaten by the best team in the tournament). Once again a free agent, Iginla took his talents to Denver to join the Colorado Avalanche in the summer of 2014.
Players come and go. That’s the nature of professional sports, but Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli did not bring in anyone to replace Iginla. Iggy was brought in to replace the production on the top line that Nathan Horton had contributed from 2010 to 2013 (Iginla was more productive than Horton in the regular season, but lacked Horty’s playoff scoring touch that defined his tenure in Boston), and without a player of that caliber drawing coverage and creating space, the production of Milan Lucic and David Krejci has also suffered this season.The Bruins offense is the worst it has been since 2009-10, the year before they traded for Horton (as well as Gregory Campbell, when the Bruins traded Dennis Wideman to Florida), when 4th liner Daniel Paille had to play significant minutes on the top line alongside Krejci and Lucic. The team has restrictions with the salary cap, but they have been doing a lot more subtraction than addition to this once great roster in recent years, and not just with the 1st line right wing position.
The Bruins lost some major pieces of their identity be choosing to move on from defenseman Andrew Ference (now living in hockey hell as captain of the lowly Edmonton Oilers) in 2013 and enforcer Shawn Thornton (now with the Florida Panthers) in 2014. The Bruins team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011 was not the fastest, not the most prolific offense, and not the most talented team in the NHL by any stretch of the imagination. They won with grit, hard work, physicality, and otherworldly performance in net after otherworldly performance in net by Tim Thomas. Guys like Ference and Thornton were quintessential Bruins in that regard. They were the glue guys in the dressing room who brought a physical edge on the ice. Ference was the guy who started the “Starter Jacket” tradition during the 2011 playoffs, awarding a vintage Bruins jacket he found in a thrift shop to the player of the game (and eventually giving it to the retiring Mark Recchi in the banner raising ceremony), and continuing similar rituals during other playoff runs. Thornton added a certain energy to the game, even if he wasn’t dropping the gloves, and adding Thorty to the lineup against the Vancouver Canucks allowed for the Bruins to play with an edge they did not have when he was in the press box.
At least when they let Ference walk in free agency, there was confidence that young defensemen Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton could step up and take on more responsibility on the blue line, but with the departure of Thornton this summer, it was a shift in philosophy as much as a change in personnel, and it has not worked thus far. The Bruins reacted their playoff loss to Montreal by thinking they needed to get faster and more skilled to be able to go toe to toe with Montreal in the future. That may not be wrong. The Habs had a player (who has since retired) very similar to Thornton in the form of Princeton grad George Parros. Parros is another old school tough guy, and has a mustache that never got the memo that the 70s ended, and was teammates with Thornton on the Stanley Cup winning 2007 Anaheim Ducks, but the biggest difference between the two players was that Thornton was playing significant minutes for the Bruins, while Parros sat in the press box during the playoffs for the Canadiens. The Bruins called up from Providence an enforcer named Bobby Robbins, a UMass Lowell grad who had never played in the NHL before this season, but had a little bit of Hanson Brother in his game and brought energy and toughness to every shift. He was sent back down shortly thereafter, and the Bruins are left with a little bit of skill, and not enough toughness on their roster. They did not necessarily need Shawn Thornton, but they do need a tough guy.
I was wrong about the Seguin Trade. I’ve admitted it, and I would be more insistent that the Bruins admitted it if it would change the fact that the trade happened and that Tyler Seguin is never coming back (at least not in his prime). I wrote in the summer of 2013 (on the day the trade happened if I remember correctly) that Seguin was a disappointment, and that Loui Eriksson was a better fit for the Bruins, and he has been nothing to write home about until very recently. Reilly Smith has exceeded my expectations, but that was only because I didn’t know who he was before the Bruins acquired him from Dallas. At any rate, the Bruins gave up on Tyler Seguin too early, and Seguin might score 50 goals for the Dallas Stars this year. It could be argued that Taylor Hall would have been a better fit for the Bruins, but he was off the board when they drafter at #2 in 2010. With talent like that, the Bruins should have been more patient, and should have allowed him to flourish in the offensive zone rather than harp on his defensive shortcomings. Seguin is still only 22, and has found a home in Dallas. Meanwhile the Bruins are struggling to score just as badly as the year before they drafted him.
Peter Chiarelli was enough in Boston’s defensive depth at the beginning of the season to trade Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders during the preseason. Boychuk, like Ference and Thornton, was a big part of the Bruins’ physical identity during both Cup runs, and had only gotten better since his first significant ice time during the 2009-10 season. After Dennis Seidenberg went down with a knee injury last season, Boychuk stepped up and established himself as the team’s second best defenseman after captain Zdeno Chara. In return, the Bruins got two second round picks, and a conditional third rounder, which felt like a bad return on a good player who is only 30. The trade looked even worse as Chara, Adam McQuaid, and Torey Krug have all missed significant time with injuries this season while Boychuk is making a great impact for the suddenly competitive Isles.
The Bruins have mismanaged the roster when it comes to the salary cap. I understand wanting to keep a good team together, but the Bruins overpaid players they should not have, and the salary cap has not gone up the way Chiarelli may have thought it would. The Bruins owe Chris Kelly $3 million this season and next season. They owe Loui Eriksson $4.25 million this season and next season. They owe Milan Lucic $6 million this season and next season, and his price is likely to go up if he becomes an unrestricted free agent as scheduled. The Bruins will also have to pay more for impending young free agents Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, Craig Cunningham, Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton (all restricted), Matt Bartkowski, and Carl Soderberg (unrestricted) after this season, not to mention veterans Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, whom the Bruins seem more and more unlikely to bring back, given the circumstances. That’s a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of variables keeping the Bruins where they are. A trade or two needs to be made to make the picture clearer.
If it were up to me (which is it not), almost everyone on the roster would be on the table for trade talks. The only players I would not trade under any circumstances at this point are Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Dougie Hamilton: the Norris Trophy winning captain, Selke Trophy winning alternate captain, and the promising young defenseman. The Bruins sold too low on Seguin, and after the Boychuk trade, my lack of faith in their ability to get a proper return on Hamilton has only been reaffirmed. David Krejci should not be traded under any circumstances, for all intents and purposes, but I left him off the list because of the long shot possibility of packaging him up to get a Jeff Carter, or an Anze Kopitar, or a Jonathan Toews, or a Ryan Getzlaf, but that will never happen. I love Tuukka Rask, but the Bruins drafted goalie prospect Malcolm Subban (P.K.’s brother), and the years the Bruins would spend developing him into a franchise goaltender are years that Tuukka is under contract. Going forward, they will only be able to keep Rask or Subban long term, so both should be on the trade block now. Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly are two players I would trade (for the right return, obviously) without feeling bad about it, and while I like them, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Dennis Seidenberg, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille, Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg, and Torey Krug are all players they could move and teams would be willing to give up substantial assets to acquire if the Bruins become sellers at the trade deadline.
I would be more confident in the Bruins’ ability to build through the draft and the farm system if Chiarelli was any good at drafting. Much like Theo Epstein with the Red Sox, much of his championship roster was put together by his predecessor, with key acquisitions like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tim Thomas being made my former GM Mike O’Connell (now the Director of Pro Development for the LA Kings), and the trade to acquire Rask on Draft Day from Toronto happening while Chiarelli was still under contract with the Ottawa Senators (was it Chiarelli? was it O’Connell’s people? was it Harry Sinden? My guess is Harry, but that’s another column for another day). Chiarelli’s greatest drafting successes came early in his tenure when he selected Phil Kessel (#5), Milan Lucic (#50), and Brad Marchand (#71) in 2006 (in 2009, Kessel was traded to the Maple Leafs for the draft picks that became Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight, and Dougie Hamilton), but he’s gone cold since then. His best recent draft selections were Seguin (#2, 2010) and Hamilton (#9, 2011), but that was because those were picks acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs so high it would be really hard to miss, and even then, they dealt one of those players after three seasons.
Other Bruins drafts were highlighted by Subban (#24, 2012), a goalie drafted by a team that didn’t need a goalie, Jordan Caron (#25, 2009), Jared Knight (#32, 2010) and Ryan Spooner (#45, 2010), who have not been able to establish themselves at the NHL level, and Zach Hamill (#8, 2007) who was drafted ahead of Logan Couture, Brandon Sutter, Ryan McDonagh, Lars Eller, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Max Paccioretty, all of whom have become productive NHL players while Hamill washed out of the Bruins’ organization, was traded to Washington for Chris Bourque (Ray’s kid), and now plays professional hockey for the hockey club HPK in Finland. There is still hope for 18 year old Czech prospect David Pastrnak (#25, 2014), but he will not be able to help the Bruins turn their fortunes around this season.
Normally, it would be natural to blame the coach for a roster with a history of success to not be as motivated as they used to be, but it’s hard to blame Claude Julien for this. I’ve been critical of Julien before, and I think his system has its flaws, but you can’t put this season all on him. Claude didn’t trade Johnny Boychuk. Claude didn’t let Shawn Thornton take his talents to South Beach. Claude didn’t let Jarome Iginla leave and try to replace his production with minor league talent. Claude may have been frustrated with Seguin’s inconsistency on offense and liability on defense, but he wasn’t the one who thought Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, and Joe Morrow were a satisfactory return for a 21 year old sniper, either. Claude Julien may be on the hot seat in my mind someday, but it will not be this day. The B’s have bigger problems than the coach.
Right now, the Bruins are a mess, and Chiarelli, Julien, and Team President Cam Neely have their work cut out for them. Trades need to be made, and draft picks are not a good enough return. Players who can put the puck in the net should get a higher priority than they have been getting. If they can put more skill around the solid foundation of Chara, Bergeron, Hamilton, and Krejci, good things will happen, and Julien’s system is such that with good defensemen, either Rask or Subban can thrive. They might be able to turn it around this year, but I’m not holding my breath.
Every great team has to move on from the past. Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork are the only players that remain from the last Patriots team to win the Super Bowl. The Celtics just traded away the last remaining player from their championship contending days from 2008 to 2012, and are looking ahead to the future. David Ortiz is the last player remaining from the 2004 Red Sox, and they have been moving on from players from the 2007 and 2013 World Series squads left and right. Peter Chiarelli can fix this. He was captain of the hockey team at some school called Harvard, and is highly though of enough from his peers to be named to the front office of Team Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics, and now he has to use his Ivy League intelligence and hockey IQ to fix the Bruins team he built into a champion once already. The questions that remain are “when?” and “how?”