BOSTON (CBS) — The Bruins’ offseason is longer by a couple of weeks than anyone would’ve expected when the Stanley Cup playoffs opened with them as the overall No. 1 seed.
A second-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens, however, forced a team that looked like world beaters in March and April to look toward the mirror at its deficiencies that were obviously easier to hide in the regular season than the playoffs.
This summer, president Cam Neely, general manager Peter Chiarelli — and whatever’s left of Chiarelli’s staff after the rest of the league picks it over for promotable personnel — will be tasked with determining what tweaks to make. They’re almost relegated to just tweaking rather than overhauling by the long-term contracts and no-trade clauses so many of the players have.
There might be some subtle changes to increase team speed and to possibly find a better finisher. Obviously the Bruins will look to make sure they’re not caught too young on defense. These are all facets of the game which Neely and Chiarelli have discussed in a general sense during press conferences over the past week to diagnose what went wrong in 2014. Chiarelli even admirably admitted he might’ve missed the boat at the trade deadline when the mandate was to make up for the loss of injured defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and instead all the Bruins got were practice players Andrej Meszaros and Corey Potter.
But there’s another element of the game Chiarelli and Neely would be wise to focus on, and that’s the level of maturity the Bruins need proportional to their talents and their style of play. Let’s face it — as the Bruins’ seven-game loss to Montreal played out, no one could classify the Bruins as classy, mature or even smart. One or two dumb things could be chalked up to the old “heat-of-the-moment” excuse. If you take the Bruins’ body of work against Montreal, and even against Detroit in the first round, as a whole, it points to a team that might be lacking in leadership and wisdom.
Starting with forward Milan Lucic’s decision to check Detroit defenseman Danny DeKeyser for a cup (just weeks after Lucic did the same to Montreal defenseman Alexei Emelin), the Bruins continually drew attention to themselves for non-hockey reasons. Forward Shawn Thornton decided to clean Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban’s shield with a squirt of water at the end of Game 5. Lucic and linemate Jarome Iginla tried to double-team Montreal defenseman Mike Weaver at the end of Game 6. With the season hanging in the balance in Game 7, forward Brad Marchand snowed goaltender Carey Price and earned a two-minute minor penalty. Marchand’s two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct was part of his 18-penalty-minute postseason, which, oh by the way, included zero goals scored.
Lucic then capped off the festivities with his threats to Emelin and Montreal forward Dale Weise in the post-series handshake line. This display of stupidity was probably the least egregious of Boston’s actions because Lucic’s taunts came after the series was over and didn’t cost the Bruins anything in terms of hockey.
In a press conference to autopsy the 2013-14 season Tuesday at TD Garden, Neely offered the expected defenses of his players. Neely, who of course played in an era when the threshold for acceptable on-ice antics was much higher, assured everyone that a lot worse had been said in a handshake line or two over the years. He threw Lucic a break because “stick work happens. It’s not just our team that does it. It does happen.” As for the water squirting, Neely bemoaned Thornton’s actions as act that “as an organization you don’t like to see happen, to be quite honest with you.”
Just when you thought that Neely might be giving everyone a break for the distractions that clearly had an effect on the Bruins’ ability to play their game, the president finally showed some contrition.
“Well, I think when you see all of those things happen, there is some concern about, we’ve got to get back to where we’d like to be as an organization,” Neely said. “And those are things, you know, when you have the passion, when you have the physicality of the way we play and certain players, and the drive and determination, yeah, you can harness that a little differently than what we showed, there’s no question.”
The best way for the Bruins, especially Lucic and Marchand, to harness their emotions would’ve been to bear down and bury any number of the dozens of prime scoring chances they had. Or even if their offensive games weren’t clicking, they could’ve hit a puck carrier a little harder or made a better play on the back check. Instead they chose to talk, threaten, take foolish penalties and in the end make the Bruins look bad.
Lucic and Marchand are never going to be pure goal scorers. However, through hard work they’ve made themselves into guys that can score 25-plus goals per season while also being solid in their own zone. They’re both in their mid-20s and have been in the NHL for the better part of a decade. The rambunctious Marchand famously made it through this season without an NHL suspension or benching from his coach. Lucic was also mostly on his best behavior during the regular season. For some reason in the playoffs, both players went batty.
Captain Zdeno Chara reflected last week on all his team had been through, and he talked about the 2014 playoffs as a learning experience. I’m not sure how many playoff runs a team that’s kept the same core together for seven seasons needs to learn all of its lessons. But the Bruins, especially Chiarelli, are going to have to decide if growing up is in the cards for several of their players, in particular Lucic and Marchand. Scoring slumps are part of the game. Hurting your team with needless antics are grounds for seeking out a trade. Both Lucic and Marchand are protected by no-trade clauses in their current contracts. That doesn’t mean the Bruins can’t make it clear they don’t want these players back if that’s the course the organization decides to head.
Of course, the best-case scenario here is that the leadership from the front office and the dressing room makes it clear that this is the end of the learning process. Nothing but professionalism will be tolerated going forward. The threat of possible eviction from the great run the Bruins have been on the past several seasons could be enough to get through to young guys like Marchand and Lucic and get them to both become model citizens and better players.
Chiarelli and his staff have had these players under their control for long enough to make the determination needed: Are Lucic and Marchand capable of taking the next step in their growth and reaching their potential, or are they forever going to be talented, overgrown babies? Then, the Bruins have to decide if these are players they can continue to build around. It’s not an enviable position to be in, but hard decisions are part of Chiarelli’s job
It’s a lot easier to decipher if a team lacks speed or scoring or experience. How Chiarelli measures the maturity of some of his best players, however, will go a long way toward determining if the Bruins will win the Stanley Cup again in the GM’s reign.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.
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