By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — After a mostly barren Bruins offseason, one in which even their good moves had their share of questions and concerns about them, the organization still expects the team to return to the playoffs in 2016-17 after narrowly missing the postseason for the past two years.
That would require some improvement on the ice, which would be hard to do if you bring back the same team as the previous year – but team president Cam Neely still expects it nonetheless.
Neely joined Joe Haggerty and Kevin Walsh on the Great American Hockey podcast and the conversation eventually arrived at the Bruins’ offseason, which did not come with any notable additions on defense. The team retained Torey Krug and Kevan Miller with four-year extensions for each and re-signed trade deadline acquisition John-Michael Liles. The biggest change on the blue line for the Bruins was buying out the contract of Dennis Seidenberg, which opens up a spot for a younger defensive prospect to emerge and perhaps bring about the improvement the team is expecting.
Despite bringing almost the same exact group back on defense and throughout the team, Neely said there was still an expectation to improve, despite acknowledging that GM Don Sweeney is still looking to add a top-four defenseman via trade.
“Basically from April to now everybody is talking about our back end, and not being able to land a top-4 defenseman. We still have an opportunity as far as cap space goes if something shakes free, and I know [Sweeney] has been working hard trying to do something,” said Neely. “But I feel like as a group we can do better than we did last year.”
The Bruins allowed the 11th-most goals in the league in 2015-16, which isn’t quite the worst but certainly not part of a winning formula. Bruins blueliners routinely struggled to keep the front of the net clear or limit scoring chances for their opponents, or even break the puck out of their own zone. Goaltender Tuukka Rask also struggled with his consistency, often bailing out the subpar defense in front of him but at times playing down to their level. Rask left a bad taste at the end of last season when he sat out the season finale with an illness.
As shaky as the defense looked for much of last season, Neely did not hesitate to hold Rask accountable, either.
“I think Tuukka [Rask] can play better than he did last year,” he said. “If that happens we should be a better club. It’s going to be a challenge and it’s going to be competitive. But I feel like the changes we’ve made through the organization, and not just in player personnel, that there’s opportunity for our group to improve.”
I’m not criticizing Neely for literally saying he expects the Bruins to improve. You should always say that about your own team. Even in the face of logic, reason, or realistic probabilities, you should say you expect to get better 100 percent of the time. There’s probably nothing Neely can say right now that wouldn’t get picked apart. He’s never going to say, “You know I expect the defense to suck again,” and I get that it’s unfair to call someone out for saying the right thing.
The issue here with Neely isn’t that he made the comments, but that he doesn’t seem to believe them in the first place. He acknowledged the rampant media conversations about the defense, but tacitly blaming their problems on the goaltender makes Neely sound obtuse about the obvious issues they have on the back end. He also constantly alludes to Sweeney working on getting a top-four defenseman, which not only tacitly acknowledges they need a big upgrade on the back end but makes his previous comments about improvement sound disingenuous.
It’s fine for Neely to say that he expects the defense to be better than last season, but he inadvertently contradicts himself when he admits that Sweeney is still looking for a top-four guy. The longer the team goes without landing the defenseman they need, the more Neely’s comments continue to ring hollow.
Neely might just be better off staying mostly silent on this issue. The general media reaction may then go to “Neely refuses to talk about Bruins defense,” but he’d be better off letting us speculate and bloviate on what he’s not saying than making it plainly obvious that he doesn’t really believe what he is saying. He’s saying the Bruins defense should be better than last season, but with almost the exact same group coming back that’s an almost impossible comment to take seriously. The idea that the team is still looking to add a top-four option only makes it sound worse.
As a team president, you should always say you expect better things from your team. But if you’re going to say so after making minimal improvements (if any) and admitting that you’re still looking to add, you’d better expect a reaction of skepticism. It’s hard to expect the Bruins to improve on defense when the team president doesn’t seem to believe it himself.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.