It’s safe to say that expectations were tempered entering the 2016-2017 NHL season for the Boston Bruins. Coming off of two straight back-to-back late collapses in as many seasons, which saw them miss the playoffs in each, fans were becoming restless about their beloved B’s. In addition, there was unrest among the Boston faithful divided on whether Claude Julien should return to the helm.
The Bruins front office eventually quelled rumors of possible replacements Nate Leaman and Bruce Cassidy and fortified their depth at center by adding another veteran in former St. Louis Blues captain, David Backes alongside Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. It helped to lessen the blow of losing Loui Eriksson to free agency to the Vancouver Canucks. The Bruins also inked defensemen Kevan Miller and Torey Krug to four-year contract extensions to help supplement the minutes of Adam McQuaid and the aging Zdeno Chara.
The B’s started the year 10-6, confirming that sticking with Julien may have been the right choice. A big reason for the strong start was the consistency of Brad Marchand, Bergeron and David Pastrnak‘s line and Tuukka Rask‘s Vezina-like-play in the net, securing three shutouts and winning 10 of his first 11 starts in net.
However, it became readily apparent that their blue line was thin and anyone net-minding other than Rask was a liability. Anton Khudobin, Malcolm Subban, and Zane McIntyre combined for the other five losses in that 10-6 start. In fact, someone not named Rask in net wouldn’t help the B’s win until the 23rd game of the season.
Change on the Horizon
The month of January was not kind to the Bruins where they suffered their first losing month of the season going 6-8 and bringing back visions of their past collapses. The rumor mills and news feeds called for the Bruins to make a change. After the second game in February, they did just that firing Julien (26-23-6) after losing back-to-back games to fellow contending playoff nemesis’ Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs, while giving up an average of four goals against over that span of 16 games and 10 losses.
Enter Cassidy, who provided exactly what the rumor mills demanded, a much-needed culture change. The Bruins went on a 7-1 run under the newly appointed general. The aforementioned line of Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak combined for 12-goals and 17-assists during that span.
We’ve Been Down this Road Before
However, like a new relationship where everyone seems to try a bit harder to impress their new love, boss, or significant other, after a while, things eventually began to fall into a similar rut.
After all, you can’t change a leopard’s spots. The B’s spent the last week jockeying for position due to losing four in a row to teams directly impacting the Bruins playoff hopes in the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators, with Toronto and Tampa fighting for the same two spots as the Bruins. Eventually, the Lightning bowed out and the Leafs faltered losing the last three of four games, which helped the Bruins to secure a spot in the playoffs, but the Bruins certainly made it more interesting than was explicitly necessary as the season closed. Leave it to the Bruins to always do it the hard way.
The optimistic fan thought that the Bruins had a chance against the Ottawa Senators. After all, losing to a team eight consecutive times is impossible right? And with each regular season game, the Bruins seemed to play the Senators closer and closer.
All six games in the playoffs were within one goal and four of the six went into extra frames. Although, in Game 1 with the depletion of the blue line due to Krug (whose puck moving ability was sorely missed) being out with a lower-body injury and Brandon Carlo suffering concussion symptoms the Bruins were forced to insert young phenom (2016 first round pick) Charlie McAvoy, who held his own. Another young gun, second year Frank Vatrano, scored his first playoff goal and Marchand continued piling onto his career year (85 Points) scoring the go-ahead goal in Game 1 and putting the Senators on their heels, a position they were not familiar with against the Bruins.
However, there were a number of things, almost all self-inflicted, that sent the Bruins to their demise.
It began in Game 2 where they showed the inability to hold a 3-1 lead entering the third. In OT, Chara got called for a delay of game penalty and Ottawa took advantage scoring just as Boston killed the penalty. Game 3 at home, the Bruins fell down 3-0 and had their backs against the wall but came back to tie it. A microcosm of their season.
However, once again in OT, a bad penalty. This time, Riley Nash got called for a play where he admitted he should have been better and more composed, despite getting hit in the face.
“It was a physical game. Everyone was hitting good. But it doesn’t matter if it’s a man’s game or not. I can’t do that.”
– Riley Nash
The resulting penalty again left the Bruins shorthanded in OT where the Senators once again, capitalized.
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) April 18, 2017
Game four had an ill-timed offside call that went against the Bruins, nullifying the score, which would have given the B’s the lead. While the call was correct, the rule in how it is allowed to be challenged needs to be re-worked. It was akin to an NFL team scoring a touchdown and a challenge being made to the play three plays before where the player stepped out of bounds.
While the Bruins forced a Game 6, an inopportune penalty by Pastrnak, a bad rebound by Rask, and Clarke MacArthur ultimately sent the Boston Bruins into hibernation in brutal fashion. Derick Brassard fired a shot on Rask who thought he had kicked it to safety as his team worked to kill off a penalty. Unfortunately, Rask had literally gift wrapped the puck and put it on his own doorstep for MacArthur to hammer it home while gutting Bruins fans everywhere ending the series.
The Bruins have a lot to look forward to in the future, with a youthful and productive blue line on the horizon with Carlo, McAvoy and Krug, and a young offensive group in Pastrnak, and Vatrano and leadership with the likes of Bergeron and Backes (with a second year under his belt in the hi-octane media swarming Boston market). McAvoy showed a lot of poise for his first NHL game experience to be in the playoffs. By necessity, he logged the second most minutes per game (26:12) behind the immortal physical freak of a specimen Chara. So far, he has proven he can shine in the biggest moments at every level. Just look to his Double-OT goal in this year’s Division I hockey playoffs.
— Marina Molnar (@mkmolnar) March 24, 2017
However, questions remain on what to do with the oft-injured Krejci, the soon to be immortalized into the Smithsonian Chara, and the ever enigmatic Rask.
While they clearly do not have a backup plan for Rask, they need to start to think about feasible options, because he is no longer on the rise as age will continue to become a bigger factor and they’ll need a suitable backup with the potential to take over when the day comes where Rask will have no choice but to stop being a one man army. They cannot afford to lean on Rask so heavily in the regular season and expect a Vezina performance when the stakes are highest.
It has been reported that Chara is open to an extension as he heads into the last year of his contract. However, how long should the Bruins be willing to extend a player going into his 20th season that has clearly lost a step in his game?
Furthermore, with Bergeron and Backes signed through 2020, do you try to trade Krejci (who has a no movement clause) for a veteran blueliner to pair up with McAvoy on the right side of the ice? Would any of the teams he might accept a trade with even be interested in the oft-injured forward, without the Bruins eating significant cap or sweetening the deal with a prime prospect which might prove counter-productive.
And what about Brad Marchand, who just signed an eight-year extension? While he had a career year offensively, he clearly has not matured any with his two-game suspension for a blatant spear? He was lucky it didn’t cost him any playoff games. Will that modified no trade clause come back to bite the Bruins?
The Bruins have solidified their coach for next year in Cassidy, but there are plenty of moves to be made in this chess game to prevent an early hibernation next year, or a narcoleptic finish that keeps them out of the playoffs altogether. Any missed opportunities at this point are wasting what remains of the best years for Bergeron and Rask. Chara is already on borrowed time.