It seems like it has been a lifetime since the Boston Bruins were the cream of the NHL crop. Just a few years ago, the Bruins had a three-season span in which they made it to the Stanley Cup Final twice, winning the top prize in one of those trips and losing to the perennially dangerous Chicago Blackhawks in the other.
But those Bruins are long gone, and the current group–though it features some of the same key pieces–has ridden wildly inconsistent seasons to back-to-back non-playoff finishes. The 2015-16 campaign marked the first time Boston missed the postseason two years in a row since 2007. In fact, their recent back-to-back misses mark only the third time they’ve gone two seasons without a playoff appearance since 1968.
That disappointing finish meant there was plenty of blame to be spread around following the subpar effort. It’s tough to pin any blame on the offense. Patrice Bergeron had one of the best seasons of his career, Brad Marchand had a career year and the Bruins as a whole finished fifth in the league in goals-for.
The defense and goaltending seem to be the main culprits, yet it was head coach Claude Julien who in fact got thrown under the bus by the Bruins faithful. Questions swirled as the season came to a close, positing whether or not Julien was done in Boston. The pressure ramped up enough that Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney was forced to confirm that Julien would return in 2016-17, continuing the latter’s run as the league’s longest tenured coach.
Sweeney was right to make such a statement, especially considering it was he himself that caused most of the club’s problems this season.
To say Sweeney has stumbled out of the gate as Boston’s General Manager would be a colossal understatement. The first-year manager failed to stock his team with enough talent to be competitive in 2015-16, centrally due to the fact that he subtracted core pieces from the club without replenishing the organization’s pool of talent.
Taking over the head office role in May of 2015, Sweeney kicked off his tenure by trading two of the Bruins’ best options up front and on the blue line–Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton. Outside of AHLer Colin Miller, the returns consisted mostly of draft picks (netminder Martin Jones was technically acquired in the Lucic deal, but was immediately flipped to San Jose).
But that didn’t add up for Boston. The club lost one of their top defenders and one of their top scorers, and neither were subsequently replaced with comparable talent. All in all, Sweeney removed four of the Bruins’ top seven scorers from 2014-15. Lucic and Hamilton were dealt in the above deals, Carl Soderberg was traded to Colorado for a draft pick and Reilly Smith was shipped to Florida in exchange for Jimmy Hayes.
All four of those former Bruins had exceptional seasons with their new clubs. Lucic topped 20 goals and 50 points once again in Los Angeles, Hamilton posted a career-high 43 points for Calgary, Soderberg posted a career-high 51 points for Colorado, and Smith posted a career-high 25 goals along with 50 total points for Florida.
Sweeney gave up some legitimate talent, though this wouldn’t be an issue if he restocked his team’s cupboard before the season began. That didn’t happen.
Instead, the Bruins bit on what many saw as the offseason’s biggest trap. Matt Beleskey, who was coming off a career season of 22 goals and 32 points in only 65 games (a pace that translates to 27 goals and 40 points over a full 82-game season). Beleskey had hit double-digit goal totals only once before in his previous five seasons, leading many to assume he would regress after landing a hefty contract.
After inking a $19 million deal with Boston, that slide occurred as expected. He was still much better than his pre-2014-15 seasons, but Beleskey’s 15 goals marked a significant drop in his goals per game pace, as his .34 from 2014-15 fell to .19 in his first season as a Bruin.
The issue wasn’t that Beleskey was disappointing. He wasn’t too bad. But he was the only replacement Sweeney brought in after subtracting four of the team’s top seven scorers.
Even Beleskey at his 2014-15 level wouldn’t have been enough to fill that void, but the fact that his 37 points were less than all seven of those previously mentioned top Bruins scorers simply exacerbated the situation. Hayes didn’t fare much better, scoring only 13 goals and 29 points, a downgrade from his 2014-15 numbers, while Smith became one of Florida’s best offensive weapons.
However, Sweeney’s mishandling of his club’s offense was masked by Bergeron and Marchand taking the team on their backs, and Loui Eriksson playing like a man motivated to land a big-figure contract this summer. Yet even with these stars performing at their peak levels, the offseason moves made the club more top-heavy, with an offense more prone to drying up down the stretch (Boston posted the third-fewest goals in the league over the final month of the season).
On the blue line, Sweeney wasn’t as lucky in regards to mistakes being masked.
The Bruins’ eventual collapse should come as no surprise given the state of their defensive corps heading into 2015-16. With a major piece subtracted via Hamilton’s trade to Calgary, Boston stumbled into the new campaign with a back end featuring a top pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. The duo may have done some fine work in years past, but with Chara a year shy of 40 and Seidenberg nearly 35, there was no reason to believe either would perform at an elite level this season.
And that is precisely what occurred. Both seemed a step too slow in 2015-16, finishing with the worst Corsi-For percentages of their careers (both below 50 percent).
Torey Krug emerged as the Bruins’ lone hope on the back end, scoring a career-high 44 points and posting solid puck possession numbers as well (he led all Bruins defenders with a Corsi For percentage of 52), but the young rearguard wasn’t enough to get Boston back to level ground. Especially considering Krug was the only Bruins defender who played the majority of 2015-16 to finish with a Corsi For percentage above 50 percent.
Combining that subpar defensive play with some inconsistent performances from veteran netminder Tuukka Rask, the Bruins stumbled down the stretch, allowing the seventh-most goals-against over the final month of the season as they won just four of their final 14 games.
But the issue wasn’t Rask, or the team’s lackluster blue line, or the top-heavy forward corps. It was the fact that Sweeney mishandled the Bruins’ assets. Shipping out a sizeable amount of talent without bringing an equal amount back into the mix. Perhaps that was by design, as the team stocked up on draft picks and began looking towards the future.
If that is truly the case, then it should come as no surprise that a playoff appearance wasn’t in the cards in Boston this season. The Bruins seem to be at a crossroads between winning now and moving ahead with a subtle rebuild. And while the fans, coaches and players seem convinced they are leaning towards the former, the moves made by Sweeney tell a much different story.
After said moves, the current group’s window to contend for a championship looks fairly close to being closed. Bergeron, Marchand, and David Krejci can still put up points, and Rask is still serviceable in net, but unless Sweeney moves ahead with a significant overhaul of the club’s blue-line this summer, it’s unclear how the club will avoid running into similar problems in 2016-17.