By Matt Dillane
Having the hockey season end in early April is never fun, especially two years in a row. Bostonians have high levels of expectation for their teams, and the Bruins have some of the most passionate fans on the planet.
Throughout the summer, the blame will fall on a variety of places for the Bruins failing to play playoff hockey once again. On March 12th, the Bruins had a 10-point cushion for a playoff spot with 12 games left in the season, only to see it slip away as the Red Wings and the Flyers punched their tickets to the postseason on the final weekend of play.
This wasn’t a choke. The Bruins just simply aren’t a great team anymore.
Take a look at what the Bruins had to work with this season.
First-year GM Don Sweeney asked head coach Claude Julien to get the job done with a defense full of holes. With Dougie Hamilton being moved to Calgary, the Bruins blue line was left with a contorted collection of pieces: A 39-year-old Zdeno Chara who looks older by the game, Torey Krug who is an offensive specialist but no more than a bottom-pairing player on a good team, the oft-injured Adam McQuaid who is a second-pairing defensive defenseman, a rapidly declining Dennis Seidenberg, Kevan Miller who was painful to watch at times, and a pitching rotation of Matt Irwin, Joe Morrow, and Zach Trotman.
The Bruins attempted to put a Band-Aid on a bullet wound at the trade deadline by acquiring veteran defenseman John-Michael Liles. The 35-year-old finished the year as a minus seven in 17 games played for the black and gold. With an expiring contract, his future with the team remains unclear.
With such a thin defense, the Bruins were unable to sustain consistent results throughout the season. The team had good bursts, including earning 12 of 14 points during a seven-game run in March that landed the team on top of the Atlantic Division. This is the same Bruins squad that started the season allowing 16 goals in its first three games, and had tough stretches like that of late December and early January when the Bruins lost five of six games. This includes getting manhandled at the Winter Classic by the equally flawed Canadiens. By the end of the year, the wheels fell off the already wobbly wagon.
While the coach certainly shoulders some of the blame, Julien helped the Bruins achieve some results with a gutted roster following the losses of Hamilton and a strong on-ice presence in Milan Lucic. Julien adapted his breakout game which led to more speed and more goals. The Bruins finished the season with a 2.88 goals per game average, fifth most in the NHL. Brad Marchand (37), Patrice Bergeron (32), and Loui Eriksson (30) all reached the 30-goal mark, and contributions from David Krejci (17-46-63) and first-time Bruin Matt Beleskey (15-22-37) helped complement strong first and second lines. Trade deadline addition Lee Stempniak also contributed 10 points in his 19 games as a Bruin.
And yet, that’s where the production came to a halt. Despite their best players having good years, the top heavy Bruins had an even larger number of ghosts (unfortunately, not like Shayne Gostisbehere). Brett Connolly, Jimmy Hayes, and Joonas Kemppainen all underperformed. Zac Rinaldo and Max Talbot amounted to what was expected, which was hardly anything at all.
Young talents who were actually given a chance to play on a regular basis had an up and down year for the Bruins. While David Pastrnak shows great potential, he battled a bit of a sophomore slump coupled with injuries. Although at 19-years-old, he’s expected to have some growing pains. Ryan Spooner had a promising start to the season before albeit completely disappearing down the final stretch.
Another problem came in between the pipes. Tuukka Rask finished the season ranked 28th in goals against average (2.56) and 30th in save percentage (.915%), having his worst season since 2010-2011, when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup with Conn Smyth and Vezina Trophy winning-Tim Thomas in net. These are not numbers the third-highest paid goaltender in the league should put up.
The organization is at a crucial fork in the road. Two members of the front office are ex-Bruins who played with great pride for the club in Sweeney and President Cam Neely. While the fans should believe no one takes missing the playoffs to heart more than these two, CEO Charlie Jacobs has his hand over the self-destruct button with growing unhappiness among the Garden faithful.
The roster is in desperate need of a makeover, including moving some its core players who have overstayed their welcomes. What the value is in a severely diminished Zdeno Chara and in highest-paid Bruin David Krejci who is set to undergo hip surgery remains to be seen. The seemingly evergreen Patrice Bergeron turns 31 this offseason and needs talent around him outside of Marchand to capitalize on his limited prime years remaining.
While this team needs more than just a coaching change, it is very likely Julien has coached his final game behind the Bruins bench. What a peculiar situation for the man being honored as the Bruins all-time winningest coach just a few weeks ago. Despite the lackluster finish not completely being his fault, the coach is typically the first to go. Julien getting the axe is even more likely after seemingly blowing his second chance given to him last offseason by Sweeney. While the first year GM may be given a pass after just one season at the helm, Neely’s future is uncertain as well after producing varying results since his arrival for the 2010-2011 season.
This is a deeply flawed organization at the moment. One that needs a very active offseason to set itself up for a successful future and to avoid middling out over the second half of the decade as top players age away. The Bruins have been lucky to have more passionate fans than the team deserves after a second consecutive underwhelming season. It’s time to reward these fans by acquiring the players necessary to compete for a Stanley Cup title. What remains to be seen is who the ones in charge of acquiring these players will be. Outside of Bergeron, no one should be safe this summer. However, a full gutting of the team may be difficult with ten players having either no trade clauses or no movement clauses in their contracts.