BOSTON (CBS) – The last time the Bruins went a long stretch of games without a bulky, strong, shoot-first right-shot right winger on their top line, they flamed out without Nathan Horton in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Washington Capitals in 2012.
The Bruins managed to rally behind Horton’s absence and collectively raise their games, not to mention make Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo into a basket case, to win the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, but they couldn’t overcome missing Horton the next year. The Bruins were 18-16-2 without Horton in the 2011-12 regular season, and 31-13-2 with him in there.
Now barring a major change of direction this offseason by general manager Peter Chiarelli, the Bruins appear prepared to again go without a power forward on center David Krejci’s right side. Jarome Iginla, who became an unrestricted free agent Tuesday, left for a three-year deal worth $16 million with the Colorado Avalanche. The Bruins did not make any moves in an attempt to replace the man who shared the team goal lead with Patrice Bergeron with 30 last season. Before you say the Bruins could’ve lost in the second round to Montreal without Iginla, they couldn’t have won the Presidents’ Trophy and might not have beaten Detroit so easily were it not for Iginla’s contributions on and off the ice.
The Bruins went into the offseason with around $6 million in cap space to sign a couple forwards and re-sign restricted free agents Torey Krug and Reilly Smith. To bring back Iginla, Chiarelli would’ve had to move a core piece or two. The GM said Tuesday he explored those types of cap-shaving deals but in the end decided he didn’t want to trade someone – i.e. Johnny Boychuk – to keep Iginla. Chiarelli also didn’t want to do another one-year, incentive-laden deal with Iginla because that could lead to overage charges in 2015, when the Bruins are going to have to do new deals with Krejci, defenseman Dougie Hamilton and other vital players.
To repeat, when it came down to it Chiarelli didn’t want Jarome Iginla.
For different reasons, the Bruins have now lost top-line power forwards two summers in a row. Iginla’s departure, however, has more in common with Tyler Seguin’s exit from last summer than Horton’s. The Bruins wanted Horton and he wanted the Columbus Zoo for his family. Boston traded Seguin, who wanted to stay, because Chiarelli and the organization decided the 2010 No. 2 overall pick wasn’t worth the cap space and didn’t fit their overall team concept. Iginla, all parties admit, was a strong fit for Boston’s style and he liked being here. Alas his cap charge wasn’t within Chiarelli’s plan for team building.
And so we’ve reached this point. How the Bruins fare the next couple years and how long Chiarelli gets to be the Bruins’ GM will be integrally tied to his decisions on Seguin and Iginla.
There’s no need to rush to judgment about the Bruins’ entire 2014 offseason work after just one day of free agency. The Bruins are rarely players on July 1 and no one can blame them considering what we witnessed around the league. Benoit Pouliot got a five-year deal. Matt Niskanen got a seven-year deal. Deryk Engelland got nearly $3 million per season on a multi-year contract. Yes, NHL GMs do sometimes partake in Canada Day parties while they’re working.
Chiarelli said Tuesday he’s still going to look at a couple guys on the secondary free-agent market and that he’s been involved in trade talks. However, he stressed that he’s not looking for help on D (and in fact has to shed some D) and that he’s probably going to bring in someone that can play in the top nine at forward. He likes Smith with Bergeron and Brad Marchand, so the new player would slot in next to Krejci or Carl Soderberg. If no one is imported, Chiarelli talked about Loui Eriksson landing next to Krejci, Daniel Paille possibly moving into the top nine and the likes of Ryan Spooner, Matt Fraser, Justin Florek or Seth Griffith getting a chance to play regularly in the NHL.
This is where Chiarelli can be judged. Because of their cap-strapped situation and because of there aren’t many high-end snipers available through free agency or trades, the Bruins aren’t likely to find a 100-percent Iginla replacement. So that leaves the internal options. Eriksson is a fine player who showed flashes during the Olympics and down the stretch of the NHL season that he still has the skills to be a 25-goal scorer. Of course, he also had some concussion troubles. He’s a left shot, which in the past hasn’t worked on Krejci’s right. And after being protected by the bulk and straight-ahead bullishness of Horton and Iginla, Krejci’s not exactly going to have the same sort of luxury next to Eriksson, whose subtle game and swimmer-like body type don’t strike fear in opposing defensemen.
There’s an outside chance that an imported player finds chemistry with Krejci and Lucic, the way Rich Peverley used to in small sample sizes, and carries the Bruins through an entire season. That would allow Eriksson and Soderberg to continue their Swedish connection. Chiarelli’s banking on one of these things happening. That’s a heck of a risk when you’re mandate is to compete for a championship.
In 2013, Chiarelli decided the sum of the parts, including what he got from Dallas in the trade, was greater than having Seguin, who scored 29 goals in 2012. Now he’s decided that the sum of the rest of his team is greater than keeping Iginla.
Chiarelli was two years removed from the Cup win when he dealt Seguin. Now he’s three years and counting removed from that triumph and the freshest Bruins result was a second-round ouster. He lets his best goal scorer walk without a proven replacement on hand. He has too many defensemen and a couple guys playing in the bottom six at forward who are clearly overpaid. That title keeps fading further and further into history along with the goodwill it brought.
This is the team he’s built and these are the “hard decisions” he’s made. There might be more to come this summer and into the fall. We know there will be even tougher ones next offseason because Chiarelli already acknowledged he’s prepared to not be able to keep the whole team together in 2015-16.
Depending on how his bet that the Bruins can succeed without Iginla goes, Chiarelli might not want to keep this team together. Depending on how the bet plays out, the Bruins might not want Chiarelli. Championships are won by players, but the guy picking those players gets the blame and the glory. Chiarelli has picked his players and they’ll determine whether he’s in for a glorious future or if he’s a one-Cup wonder.
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