06 February 2007

Hopeless in Boston?

to be posted at SportsBlurb.com and SportingNews.com February 7th.

The headlines in Boston scream: “Bruins are frozen in place.” “It’s now embarrassing.” and “Pitiful loss puts jobs on the line.”

Such is the state of the Boston Bruins, members of the National Hockey League since 1924 and winners of just two Stanley Cups since 1941. That fact hasn’t been seriously threatened for 15 years and isn’t likely to change anytime soon. How did this happen? How did a once-proud franchise fall so far as to lose the stranglehold grip they once had on the fans of New England - first with the Big Bad Bruins of the 1970s with the great Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk and Don Cherry, then followed by a minor revival with the late 80s-early 90s exciting squads that starred Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, and Adam Oates?

General Manager Peter Chiarelli is currently suffering through his first year at the helm of the Bruins, inheriting a team not quite sure whether they're still in a full rebuilding mode or looking to move up into the ranks of challengers in the Eastern Conference. Before the season started it appeared that the Bruins were poised to at least make a little noise in the middle of the conference and stand a decent chance at grabbing one of the final playoff spots. Even up until a month ago they were certainly on pace to do just that, but a January in which the team went 3-10 left them flirting with the bottom of the Eastern Conference (non-orange-and-black division).

So where are the breakdowns? A scouring of the roster both at the NHL and AHL levels shows that there appears to be precious little depth in the organization. At the top level, only four players are even in double-digit figures for goals (although I do expect Brad Boyes - nine goals - to have a bright future in front of him, despite a lousy season thus far) and only New Jersey and Philadelphia have fewer goals in the East. Defensively, the team has given up more goals than any Eastern team save the Flyers. Tim Thomas, although not generally considered in the upper echelon of NHL goaltenders, has done a serviceable job in net for the Bruins with very little support from the team in front of him. Nobody on the team is even close to a + rating with ten players at -10 or worse. These are not numbers that show a lot of promise.

Of course when Bruins fans try to pinpoint where the final stone was toppled to expose the organization’s flaws, the ill-fated Joe Thornton trade to San Jose is almost inevitably offered up. However, things didn’t have to go sour as a result of that deal. Last year after the fallout of the big trade, I wrote the following:

...Thornton’s departure should have sent a clear sign to the rest of the club that they are the future. It’s a new opportunity for the team. Thornton is a great talent but for a variety of factors it wasn’t happening in Boston. ... The Bruins may not have received “name-players” back in the deal but all three were former first round picks, including Brad Stuart who should anchor their blue line for a long time...there comes a time when you have to realize that “the plan” (whatever it may be) isn’t working, and you have to start over. That’s not easy, least of all from a marketing or fan perspective...but building from the ground up can be rewarding as it inevitably is the most efficient way of assembling a team that will compete year after year…

Most importantly, what the trade gave
Boston was roster and payroll flexibility. Not a phrase that rings with excitement for the average fan, granted, but Thornton was being paid a large percentage of what the entire team salary cap allowed. Furthermore, lest fans begin to create their own revisionist history, big Joe wasn’t exactly being worshiped by fans of the Black and Gold early last year. Some of the more polite terms to describe him around Boston were “lazy” and “ineffective” and more than once in his career he’d been accused of disappearing in big games. I’m not going to defend or attack those accusations, but the idea of Thornton leaving wasn’t so controversial in the days before the deal was made.

However, fast-forward 15 months later and the rumours that two of the parties obtained in last year's big deal - Brad Stuart and Marco Sturm - are being shopped should be more than troubling to Bruins' fans for a few reasons.
Boston's management knew that the Thornton deal would be controversial in that they were giving up the biggest "name" player, so a little PR was necessary and understandable. They needed to stress to their ever-dwindling fan-base that patience would be needed for this deal. But what kind of message will those fans take if and when just two seasons later all those players received as compensation – for the eventual league MVP - are gone? The message would either be that the trade was a dreadful mistake, or management is sadly incompetent and has no plan. Neither sounds particularly appealing.

Other recent trades have also been peculiar. Dealing Sergei Samsonov away at last year's deadline was defensible, both on his play at the time and especially since (note: Samsonov was placed on waivers yesterday by
Montreal). Samsonov had teased fans with occasional brilliance for years (notching 70+ points for two seasons) but never reached that next level that so many had expected of him, while seeing other similar exciting offensive players like Ales Hemsky and Maxim Afinogenov rocket by him in production. Yet there does not appear to have been a plan to replace his offence; gaining Marty Reasoner and Yan Stastny (as well as a second round draft pick) seemed to be a bit of the Bruins trying to have it both ways - quantity and youth. We'll never know what the options may have been at the time, but it seems that even getting just a pick would have meant a full commitment to housecleaning, and one that could be addressed in the offseason.

This week came another puzzling deal, if you could even call it a trade: big defenceman Milan Jurcina was dumped to the Capitals for a 4th round pick. I’m left wondering if there was more to this story. The 2006 Slovakian Olympic rearguard was re-signed as recently as August; at 24 years old he was known to be a work-in-progress but what could have happened in such a short time for them to completely give up on the 6’4” 235 pounder?

Last summer’s free agent period saw the Bruins make an early splash by signing Marc Savard and Zdeno Chara to lucrative long-term deals, giving Bruins fans hope that the team’s fortunes would turn around this season. Savard has been better than most people expected and
Boston's best player all year. Many pundits - myself included - expected to see a dropoff in Savard's production, having left prolific linemates Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa behind in Atlanta but instead Savard is on pace for his best season statistically with 66 points in his first 51 games.

Chara’s signing is one still being evaluated. He has given the Bruins a clear-cut number one defenceman, their first since Ray Bourque left for
Colorado in 2000. Yet while establishing himself as Boston's iron man - playing nearly 29 minutes per game and notching 35 points to date, he has yet to show the consistency he has been paid for or even that he showed last year with Ottawa. Named captain before the season, he has at times also shown a distinct lack of visible on-ice leadership, whether by inspired play or simply dropping the gloves and getting tough when necessary.

The issue of the sheer magnitude of Chara's contract can also not be dismissed - my biggest defence of last season's
Thornton trade was that by eliminating a player who earned roughly one sixth of the team's entire payroll the franchise gained valuable flexibility. Yet by turning around and signing Chara to a deal that pays him $7.5 million per year for five years, the Bruins have created the same potential inflexibility in their payroll with arguably a lesser player.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Bruins’ recent draft history has been simply terrible. Since the 1997 draft, in which they famously obtained both Thornton and Samsonov in the first round, the number of players who've thus far put together a successful NHL campaign can be counted on one hand, and finding success in each draft has been a stretch:

Goalie Andrew Raycroft - drafted in 1998 - put together a Calder trophy winning season in 2003-04, but after one sub-par year was dealt to Toronto in the offseason. Nick Boynton was drafted in 1999 and showed glimpses of being the tough defenceman the team had hoped he'd be, but his lack of development and adjustment to the modern game caused the team to deal him away to
Phoenix last summer. 2001 brought them Milan Jurcina and another defensive defenceman in Andrew Alberts out of Boston College; Alberts has played a solid but unspectacular role with the club and has become a serviceable fourth or fifth man on defence. 2002 first rounder Hannu Toivonen was supposed to strongly challenge for the number one job in net this year but after a horrible start lost the job to Tim Thomas and has spent time with the AHL Providence club trying to regain his confidence. Boston's second-round pick in 2003 has to date been their best selection since '97 in Patrice Bergeron. Last year's draft netted highly-regarded sniper Phil Kessel out of the University of Minnesota.

That’s pretty much it in terms of “hits” for a decade of drafting. Teams such as New Jersey or Buffalo have had a recent history of rarely missing completely with one draft and never whiffing on consecutive drafts, which has contributed to those organizations’ abilities to continually bring up new talent to fill gaps where older (or more costly) veterans may have left. By virtue of this long string of poor drafting Boston has not allowed themselves the luxury of letting their farm system replenish any losses by the parent club.

So what can the Bruins do? First, they – and perhaps more importantly their fans - are going to need patience. This is a project, but they have to fully buy into the project. Here’s a short list of what I think the Bruins could do to start to bring themselves back to the world of contention within a few years:

1) Deal Glen Murray. With 26 goals on a bad team, he’s the team’s most marketable asset and is likely at peak value. He could fetch a decent return of a prospect or two from a playoff team desperate for veteran scoring depth. Plus at his current US$4.15 million salary over the next two seasons it would free up a good amount of cap room.

2) Put Phil Kessel on the top line. Why on earth is he on the fourth line? He's a scorer, he was drafted as a scorer: let him score. If the team were more successful and contending, putting Kessel in a specific learning role would make more sense for him and the team (as Joe Thornton was used in his rookie year). Kessel is going to need to build up confidence and learn how to fail at some point - let him do that to his advantage, by using his skills and not being afraid to screw up. A little confidence goes a long way.

3) Emphasize youth. Don't send a split message here - Chara/Savard/Bergeron are each signed for at least the next three years and should be a solid core. With only approximately $31 million committed in salaries next year, the temptation could be to sign big name free agents. Resist. Use the flexibility to deal a veteran or two (Murray, perhaps Paul Mara) and truly build. That means the team should aim to begin contending in two or three years, not next year. Signing a big name free agent like Chris Drury might bring in a few fans in the short run but one skater alone will never make a difference in hockey for a team looking to improve upon what is now a 13th place standing. And by the time the team could potentially be ready to contend, Drury (and his likely $6 million contract) will be aging and again up for free agency. Free agency should be used as a final piece in the puzzle for Boston, not part of the initial building process itself.

Boston fans shouldn’t give up all hope – despite recent history, turnaround doesn’t have to take years but it does require a full organizational commitment. Unfortunately, whether the Bruins’ front office fully realizes this is a question as-yet unanswered, and over the next few weeks approaching the trade deadline we should learn more about what Peter Chiarelli has in mind for the future of the historic Boston Bruins.

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