BRUINS: The Uncertain Future for Black & Gold

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A lot of these thoughts about the Bruins season that just ended came to me after Game 6 of the Montreal series. I started writing but hoped beyond all hopes these words wouldn’t see the light of day.

Maybe subconsciously I thought the Bruins would lose Game 7 after the turd they laid in Game 6. I can’t recall being more nervous about any Boston team’s chances going into a Game 7 as I did the other night. It just seemed really likely everything would come crashing down.

They did play with great effort, almost too much effort for their own good. But stupid mistakes and the inability to finish scoring chances did them in, as it did in all their series losses to a motivated Habs team.

The local narrative is if the Bruins won Game 7, they’d cruise to a conference title against the Rangers and then have the upper hand in whomever they’d face in the Final. But even if they’d squeaked out Game 7, I’m not so convinced the Rangers series would have been a cakewalk.

That’s because I saw things in this Habs series that make me question the makeup of this team going forward, and if they just missed their last best chance to win another Stanley Cup with this group.

There were positives to take from this postseason. Dougie Hamilton legitimately looks like Rob Blake 2.0 and if he continues to be more responsible defensively, the word “Norris” would well be in his future. Despite some shaky moments, the rest of the young defensive core has promise. Carl Soderberg is a bonafide playmaker who could take top-line shifts if something were to happen to David Krejci or Patrice Bergeron. Loui Eriksson finally looked solid after an injury-plagued year. And despite also having some shaky games, Tuukka Rask remains a top five goalie in the league and someone I’m glad the Bruins never gave up on after the 2010 postseason debacle.

But what happened to these guys, who seemed so rock solid in a dominating regular season, a year removed from getting to Game 6 of the Final? I can’t help but feel a lot of it comes down to attitude and a lack of focus when the going got tough. That’s a really tough pill to swallow as a fan, knowing the kind of adversity they faced and mostly overcame in their last two deep postseason runs.

The defensive system the Bruins run is based mostly around the prowess of one man: Zdeno Chara. There’s no other defenseman on the planet capable of making the plays Chara can, based mostly on his physical gifts. It would not be out of bounds to say the Bruins reached their heights these last few years because they just so happen to employ a talented freak of nature as their top defenseman.

Well, even having a long reach won’t halt the longer reach of Father Time. Next March Chara will turn 38. It’s already obvious he’s lost a step, and there’s still four years left on his contract. Whether it was due to injuries or his age catching up to him, Chara was not the Chara of old the last two postseasons.

It’s similarly obvious the Bruins can’t lean on Chara like they did leading up to and including the Cup year. Do you really think Chara will be the same guy he is now in two or three years? That’s why losing Dennis Seidenberg hurt so much this year.

When things work, the way the Bruins play is a thing of beauty. We saw it in several games this postseason. When all four lines are clicking, when the defense is crisp, when Rask is well-positioned, when the skaters finish their checks and fight for loose pucks and cycle on power plays and, yes, intimidate opponents with their physical style, it reminds me of what hockey truly should be: talented guys who can hit, score and defend against any opposing team’s style of play.

This current group is the team they have, with only Jarome Iginla and Shawn Thornton as UFAs while Tory Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Chad Johnson are due RFA raises. Unless GM Peter Chiarelli feels the need to blow things up, this group is coming back mostly in tact next year, with key decisions about Krejci and Johnny Boychuk looming during the summer of ‘15.

I don’t think Chiarelli needs to blow it up yet. There COULD be at least one more year left in this group, but you just never know until you get there.

But, the Bruins need to take a long look in the mirror about the kind of team they want to be.

There is part of me that wonders if several Bruins are more interested in being “Bruins” and all the things that come with that than about working to be the best team. It’s as if they can just put on their Bruins sweater and be great simply by wearing it.

Ask yourself this question seriously, Bruins fans: how will you remember the accomplishments this postseason of Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Shawn Thornton, three of the biggest perceived tone-setters for the Black and Gold?

I’ll remember Lucic spearing an opposing player in the unmentionables, flexing his bicep like a moron at another opponent in the middle of a game, skating around aimlessly for most of the playoffs, missing wide open nets every game and making a complete ass of himself by threatening Habs players in the handshake line.

I’ll remember Marchand for taking stupid, cheap, unnecessary penalty after stupid, cheap, unnecessary penalty, practically trying to lose the clinching game of the Red Wings series on his own and also constantly missing wide open nets with shots, making a follow-through pose on nearly every shot to try and look cool while doing it, as if style points would somehow make up for his stunning ineptitude.

I’ll remember Thornton giggling like an idiot after squirting water on the visor of an opposing player skating by the bench during actual game play and providing absolutely nothing of value on the ice while his locally-ballyhooed fourth line flatlined during the 12 postseason games.

Is this what you want, Bruins fans? Do you want to root for guys who pull bullshit like that? Or is that just the way “Bruins hockey” works? Did these guys get too caught up in propping up this perception of “what it means to be a Bruin” and detracting from, you know, actually doing things to win important playoff games?

I question whether or not the Bruins need those guys to win. They need guys who will stay out of the penalty box, finish scoring chances more frequently, stay defensively responsible and not make fools of themselves when the bright lights are shining. Thornton is easily a goner since they can pay someone like Matt Fraser about half what he’ll demand as a UFA this summer.

But if the opportunity presents itself, Chiarelli should find takers for Lucic and Marchand as soon as he can. I would be perfectly fine with never seeing either in a Bruins sweater again, even if it meant only getting draft picks back.

I doubt it will happen. If both are back, it won’t make me root for the Bruins any less. But I can’t help but feel this team won’t be successful again until they move on from players of their ilk, when their core is aging and you only get so many cracks at the Cup.

All is not lost. Like I said, no matter the makeup, the Bruins are positioned to be back in contention next season. But it may take more work and more changes than you’d expect to lift the Cup once again.

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BRUINS: The Unforgettable Ride

June 15, 2011 is a day I’ll remember as long as I can remember anything. It’s the day the little brother of the Boston sports scene became the man of the house.

It’s been over a month since the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, their first since the heyday of Orr and Espo in 1972. Looking back now, it’s easy to remember just that moment of victory, the images of Zdeno Chara, Mark Recchi, Patrice Bergeron and Tim Thomas lifting the greatest trophy in sports above their noggins, the duckboat rides watched by millions and the ongoing party that lead to one player who was allegedly sent home for having a bit too much fun.

But before that, there were many amazing games and breathtaking saves and heroic goals, all moments that can never be forgotten. There were twists and turns that seem unreal now, including calls (myself included) for the head coach to be fired during the playoffs.

So many factors got this team to that final whistle in Vancouver, where all the only tasks remaining were a handshake line and a trophy presentation. In some instances, the Bruins played like the best team. In others, they were more lucky than good. In all, the team took advantage of the bounces, played their hearts out, got past potentially devastating injuries, won three Game 7s and came back to the Hub as incredibly deserving champions.

With a month of perspective, I’d like to highlight some of the reasons why the Bruins are spending their summer vacation with the Cup.

A LESS BUMPY PATH

What I’m about to say takes nothing away from what the Bruins accomplished, but facts are facts: things happened to other teams, especially in the Eastern Conference, that helped the B’s become champs.

This discussion starts invariably with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sidney Crosby was on his way to a career season, scoring 66 points in 41 games, when he was sidelined with a concussion and did not play after Jan. 5. Crosby’s fellow superstar, Evgeni Malkin, then blew out his knee, missing the season after Feb. 4.

Behind the sterling goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury and Dan Bylsma’s can-do coaching style, the Pens still managed a four-seed in the East and took Tampa to seven games in the first round before bowing out. With Crosby and Malkin healthy, it’s hard to imagine Pittsburgh would have been an easy out in Eastern playoffs. We’ll never know, but the Bruins benefited from their misfortune.

The top seed in the East was Washington, who beat the Rangers in five games in the first round. The Bruins were on a collision course with the Caps for the East Finals, but the most surprising of all playoff results would befall Washington when Tampa swept them in the conference semi-finals. I don’t know if Alex Ovechkin is hockey’s Karl Malone, his teams tend to shrink from big moments and this year added to his line of playoff disappointments. Again, the Bruins lucked out by not facing them.

Philadelphia, the defending East champs, suffered from goalie schizophrenia with Peter Laviolette unable to make up his mind on which atrocious netminder should fail miserably in the playoffs. The Flyers dealt with injuries with Chris Pronger appearing in just three postseason contests while Jeff Carter missed the first two losses against Boston. There would be no letdown against Philly anyway, but it’s clear the Flyers weren’t at their best, leading to the major changes we’ve seen this summer.

The Bruins went to the wire twice in the Eastern Conference playoffs as the styles of Montreal and Tampa proved to be major challenges. But all season I felt the East was wide open, and any team that got hot at the right moment could get to the Final.

It sure wasn’t easy, and I hesitate to say the Bruins ever “got hot” at least in terms of stringing together victories, but the B’s certainly had the hot goaltender and the hot defense and the strong line chemistry to get to the Final.

I wasn’t thrilled about playing Vancouver. In fact, I wasn’t thrilled about playing any of the West’s top three teams (Vancouver, San Jose or Detroit). Top to bottom, those teams all had more talent than the Bruins. But none of those teams had their determined mix, and none of them had Tim Thomas, either.

The Canucks were missing some parts on defense and seemed totally out of sorts on offense once the Sedin sisters and Hungry Hungry Burrows were shut down. Throw in the Luongo meltdowns and the Bruins were able to edge out a team that was probably better on paper.

The Bruins proved worthy of standing atop the NHL mountain when Game 7 ended. But they got help. While it doesn’t take away from the victory, it must be acknowledged.

THE MALIGNED COACH

I’m not a huge Claude Julien fan. You probably knew that already. Even after they won the Cup I STILL felt like maybe he isn’t the right coach for this team long-term.

But…credit needs to be given. Twice during the playoffs the Bruins found themselves down 0-2 and twice the team came back. Julien did not allow them to get down and steered them in the right direction.

I hammered Julien for sitting Seguin in favor of Michael Ryder, and through the first three games of the Montreal series, I wasn’t wrong for feeling that way (0 points, 3 SOG). But in Game 4, Ryder pulled through big. He wound up playing every playoff game and scored 17 points (he totaled 41 points during the regular season).

I next hammered Julien for playing Shawn Thornton instead of Seguin in Game 3 of the Final. I tweeted the move (which came after the B’s scored two total goals in the first two games) meant Julien didn’t care about winning the series.

Well, I was wrong. Thornton brought toughness and energy for the rest of the series and Seguin wound up playing the last four games anyway due to Nathan Horton’s concussion.

Maybe after winning the Cup and bringing the right attitude and preaching the right style of play I should cut Julien some slack, and trust that he knows more about this stuff than I do…

Wait, what am I saying? I just lost my sports fan instincts there for a second. Of course I know more about this than Julien! Now where’s that phone number to call Felger and Mazz?

ALL THE RIGHT MOVES

OK, maybe not ALL the right moves by GM Peter Chiarelli led to this championship. The Tomas Kaberle trade was a dud. The guy was brought in to improve the power play and scored eight PP points in 49 total games in Black and Gold. All that cost were two draft picks and a promising forward prospect. He goes down as the Bruins version of Eric Gagne.

But enough with the negative. Chiarelli pulled a number of excellent moves, between trades, draft choices and free agent pickups that led to this championship. His other in-season moves this year were terrific, shipping out the dead weight of Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart (a stay-at-home type heading for free agency rendered redundant by the emergence of Adam McQuaid) to the Thrashers (err, Jets) for a package including Rich Peverley.

Peverley didn’t put up gaudy numbers after the trade (just seven points in 23 regular season games), but provided a great third and fourth line presence and was supremely versatile by playing both center and wing. When Horty went down in the Final, it was Peverley who stepped up and played first-line minutes alongside Milan Lucic and David Krejci. Peverley responded by scoring two goals in the Game 4 shutout victory and proved an invaluable cog in the Game 6 and 7 victories.

A few days before the Peverley trade Chiarelli moved a second round pick to Ottawa for Chris Kelly. For the rest of the season and playoffs, Kelly anchored the third line, winning face-offs and showing toughness, grit and a bit of scoring from that spot. He wasn’t slowed down by a dive into the goal that broke his face in Game 3 against Montreal. He managed 13 points and a plus-11 while playing in every playoff game. The Bruins do not win the Cup without Kelly. Period.

Going into the season Chiarelli shored up the club for success, including extensions for Chara and Bergeron and re-signing the likes of Recchi, Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk. They traded underachiever Dennis Wideman and a first rounder to Florida for Horton and Gregory Campbell. We all know what Horton meant especially in the playoffs, but Campbell had an outstanding year centering the fourth line and was clearly more than a throw-in.

There was the drafting of Seguin, the future first line center who could become the best player of all. That pick of course came because Brian Burke decided Phil Kessel was worth losing two top 10 picks after ’09. Kessel has played exactly zero playoff games since the trade while Seguin already has a Cup.

But perhaps the best move of the offseason was the one Chiarelli didn’t make.

All summer Thomas’ name was mentioned in trade talks after his disappointing ’09-’10 season. Tuukka Rask was the future. Thomas was the past. Move him for a goal-scorer and move on. Well, Chiarelli knew Thomas needed hip surgery and went into the season also knowing he would have two capable goalies. Rask lost the first game of the season in Prague. Thomas won the second. That led to one of the greatest seasons ever for a goaltender, all because Chiarelli kept faith Thomas could do it again.

The beat goes on. I hammered Chiarelli for giving Andrew Ference an extension last year, but he proved to be so rock solid. Chiarelli managed to keep young guys like Krejci and Milan Lucic while knowing Kessel was the right one to move.

Despite not having anything left to prove, Recchi re-signed twice, Chiarelli knowing how important he was to the room. Recchi was the veteran leader who taught everyone how to win. I’d be worried about his void in the room, but I’m confident he’s passed on his best attributes to Chara, Bergeron, Lucic and Seguin so they can be mini-Recchis for the rest of their careers.

Unlike the ’10 Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks, the Bruins are set for continued success. They miraculously find themselves with nearly $9 million in salary cap space with Brad Marchand still to sign. They are stocked in the minors, with Jared Knight, Jordan Caron and Ryan Spooner leading the way. Oh, and they also managed to steal stud Dougie Hamilton with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft, a lean, mean D-man compared heavily to Rob Blake. Thanks again, Burkie.

THE BEST THERE IS

Tim Thomas cemented his legacy as an all-time Boston sports icon with his astounding regular season and incredible run to the Stanley Cup. By now you know the numbers and accolades: his .9382 regular season save percentage was the best in NHL history, combined with his even 2 GAA he earned his second Vezina. In the playoffs, Thomas was equally great with a .940 save percentage and 1.98 GAA as a Conn Smythe shoe-in.

It wasn’t always easy. After losing the first two games to Montreal I blasphemously tweeted that everyone had “tricked themselves into believing Tim Thomas was a goalie that plays well when it matters.” My concern was not unfounded given his scattershot style and, well, this. He also struggled in the Tampa series, allowing at least four goals in four of the games.

But Tim indeed came up big when it mattered. He shut out Game 7s against Tampa and Vancouver. He allowed one or zero goals in 11 of 25 playoff contests. Once the Bruins scored the first goal in Game 7 of the Final, I knew they would not lose, solely because of Thomas. I have never had so much confidence in any player in any situation.

Thomas’ story is part of what makes his meteoric rise so compelling. The Quebec Nordiques took him 217th overall in the ’94 NHL Draft, yet he went on to complete a four-year career with the Vermont Catamounts before the professional journey began in ’97. Over the next five seasons, Thomas would lace up in Finland, Sweden, the East Coast Hockey League, the International Hockey League and the American Hockey League before finally making his NHL debut with the Bruins for four games in ’02-’03.

During the lockout, Thomas went back to Finland, where he dominated SM-liiga, Finland’s top pro league, notching a .946 save percentage and 1.58 GAA in ’04-’05. He was set to return to the league when he was persuaded to come home to play for the Bruins once again.

After winning the Cup, Thomas talked about his past in the post-game press conference. Because of how strong the Finnish league was, and how well he played there, he told the assembled press staying in Finland after the lockout would have suited him fine. He’d have been just as happy staying there for the rest of career as he would have playing in the NHL. (EDIT: He starts talking about this about 1:20 into this clip.)

It was a fascinating sentiment, but given that it came from Thomas, the super-humble family man who could walk away from this at any second and be the exact same guy, I guess it wasn’t altogether surprising.

In this world where we constantly question the dedication or motivation of our sports stars, where the quest for fame and recognition drive the daily debate, Tim Thomas is the kind of guy you feel proud to root for.

Having said that, Thomas is not a goody-two shoes. This play exemplifies Thomas’ aggressiveness on the ice, and stands as the single play by which I will always remember him and the ’10-’11 Bruins:

Game 3 was a must-win. Earlier in the game, Aaron Rome laid one of the dirtiest hits in recent memory on Nathan Horton, running both from the contest and ultimately the series. It was the karmic shift the B’s needed. They exploded for four goals in the second period and turned the game into a physical showdown they would not lose.

The Canucks weren’t going away. Despite their emasculation for 9/10ths of the series, the Sedin sisters were always there, always lurking, always potentially breaking out and taking over as they had so many times before.

About 6:30 into the third, the Sedins were out there in a rare situation where Chara was not, and Seidenberg committed a rare giveaway in front of his own net. Henrik came up with the puck and made a move toward Thomas into the crease. At the last second, the puck trickled to the left where Boychuk was waiting to make a play, although Sedin did manage to get a shot off.

Thomas knew Boychuk could make a play on the puck. That left Thomas to make a play on Henrietta.

Notice Timmy never leaves his crease. By checking Sedin away, he was saying: “No. Not here. Not now. This is my area. You’ll have to shove me back to get this space.” And nobody was more surprised by what happened than Sedin.

Just like how the Canucks must have been surprised at how good the Bruins actually were. Like any great championship team, it started with the goalie. The Bruins scored four more goals that night, winning 8-1, then took three of the next four to win the Cup.

LAST THOUGHTS

Of all the amazing things the ’10-’11 Boston Bruins accomplished, perhaps most amazing was taking a city where hockey had become an afterthought and creating an ice renaissance that could have long-lasting effects. So many kids who looked up to Ortiz and Brady and Pierce now look up to Chara and Bergeron and Thomas.

They want to pass and create like Krejci. They want to lead and score like Lucic. They want to bruise like Thornton, shoot like Boychuk, grind like Campbell and race like Seguin.

They want to come together with their hockey brethren and experience 1/10th of the chemistry, brotherhood and togetherness that created an unlikely champion.

Like the Patriots who demanded to be introduced as a team, the Red Sox who never stopped despite impossible odds and the Celtics who rallied around the African allegiance concept of ubuntu, these Bruins won together. Perhaps Thomas and the Chara/Seidenberg pairing led the way, but the team won because everyone made a difference.

Will we ever see anything like this again? Well, I guess that’s why we watch. Because we hope we might. We hope our teams will bring us the kind of joy and excitement this team brought New England.