By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Two years removed from missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for a second straight year, the Bruins have built themselves back up to a level of prominence where losing in the second round of the postseason is seen as a positive.
During a season that saw them work in five rookies on a regular basis and battle through more than 300 man games lost to injury, the Bruins finished second in the Eastern Conference and reached the second round of the postseason for the first time since 2014.
The veteran core led by Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and David Krejci, though, isn’t getting any younger. So the time for selling hope of a brighter future is in the past. Once cast as salesmen for what type of glory the Bruins could achieve three or four years out, president Cam Neely and owner Jeremy Jacobs are now fully ensconced in win-now mode.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement that’s coming off this year, there’s a little disappointment from the way it ended, but I think our future is bright,” Neely said during his joint year-end press conference with Jacobs at TD Garden on Wednesday. “But we can’t feel like after the year that we had we can just coast. It’s going to be a challenge and we want to get better.”
In the years since the switch in general manager from Peter Chiarelli to Don Sweeney, these Neely-Jacobs press conferences have focused on the process and the building back of the Bruins to elite status through drafting and development. There was still plenty of talk of the brighter future and the “kids” who are on their way to keep the Bruins moving on their upward swing, even after the Bruins already spent the past season breaking in five rookies at once.
But there was a little different tone to this year’s press conference because Neely and Jacobs know you only get to celebrate reaching the second round once per cycle. Just like in business, growth in sports is imperative and satisfaction is the enemy. The Bruins were knocked out in the second round two straight years before they broke through and went four rounds on their way to the Stanley Cup championship in 2011. They didn’t build off their 2009 success the way they hoped, and they not only lost in the second round a second straight time but lost in historic fashion by blowing a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia.
That’s why as much time was spent Wednesday discussing disappointment in losing in the second round and how to avoid that fate in 2019 as was spent patting the Bruins’ coaching staff, players and management on the back for taking another step after a first-round playoff ouster against Ottawa in 2017.
“Of my 43 years, there’s only one that I was really happy with, and that was ’11. So … hope springs eternal, obviously,” Jacobs said. “I think the building from within and the speed that we’re seeing in the game has changed, and I think this next generation bodes well for us. [Coach] Butch [Cassidy] and Don and Cam have recognized this next generation and I think we profited from it this year. I think we should improve on it next year. But not everybody’s myopic in the league, as I wish they were, and they see the same handwriting. Some will move faster than others, I think we’re further in that line right now. And I’m really hopeful that next year is an improvement on this year.”
In terms of improvement, Neely went further this week than Sweeney did last week in spelling out priorities. When asked whether he’s leaning toward solidifying the back end or the secondary scoring aspects of his team, Neely threw a wild card and said priority No. 1 is taking care of the backup goaltender position, which could mean re-signing Anton Khudobin.
After his explanation of the Bruins’ goaltending needs, Neely touched on the other two potential areas that could be improved. He didn’t want to take credit away from Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk, but Neely acknowledged some skepticism about the Bruins being able to improve with two diminutive left-shot defensemen behind Zdeno Chara on the depth chart. The Bruins are clearly going to pursue every avenue to upgrade that position but as always won’t mortgage too much of their future to do so.
And without him making a blanket statement on the matter, Neely sounded confident there was enough forward talent to cover the Bruins going forward even if Rick Nash and Riley Nash walk and the Bruins don’t import impact replacements for them. Let’s face it, he’s seen Ryan Donato and Anders Bjork play more than most and knows what those two could mean to the Bruins over the course of a full, healthy season.
The Neely/Jacobs regime has built up the necessary goodwill to grant them the benefit of the doubt. There’s been pain along the way but every kid that’s been plugged into the lineup has flourished and every veteran has continued to produce, including Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak blossoming into full-blown superstars after signing long-term contract extensions.
There’s every reason to buy the positivity being grown on Causeway Street. Now we’ll see if management has what it takes to make sure that goodwill isn’t squandered.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.