BOSTON (CBS) – You can’t blame Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli for not paying what he considered exorbitant prices for rental players on the trade market Monday leading up to the NHL trade deadline.
You especially can sympathize with Chiarelli’s stinginess when you hear what his attitude is about making any type of a playoff run in 2015.
“I feel that we’ve improved the team,” Chiarelli said at a press conference at TD Garden Monday night. “And as I said, I think this is a good group, and some years, you don’t win the Presidents’ Trophy. Some years, you finish sixth or seventh. Some years, you don’t make the playoffs. [It’s] incumbent that we make the playoffs — and you have down years for reasons that I won’t get into. But you all know why, sometimes you don’t, and sometimes you do. We’ve tried to improve the team. We feel we’ve improved the team, and we hope for a good run coming up.”
Geez, Peter, curb your enthusiasm.
Of course, any realist knows that the odds aren’t in favor of the Bruins, who woke up in the second wild card in the Eastern Conference on Monday, making a Los Angeles Kings-like run through the postseason (if they even qualify). What Chiarelli said about his deadline day acquisitions of Brett Connolly and Maxime Talbot and the deadline day as whole was about as diplomatic as he could be under the circumstances.
No one expects Chiarelli to sit up at the dais and cry over his salary-cap issues that prevented him from doing anything bigger. In many ways the 2014-15 season was lost when the Bruins lost to the Montreal Canadiens last May. Chiarelli not only had the bonus overages against his salary cap to deal with this season. He also couldn’t retain Jarome Iginla, overestimated the ability of several of his prospects to step in and pick up the slack, and he was handcuffed by Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid and Chris Kelly’s rehabilitations in the offseason, so he had few options for moving salary out.
Chiarelli can’t read off a bunch of excuses for why this season was a bust and then say “see y’all in 2015-16.” He has to put on the brave face and talk about believing in the Bruins and their ability to get the job done. He might get lucky. The matchups could work in the Bruins’ favor and enough of the players that have underperformed for most of the season could all turn things around at the same time. Stranger things have happened, especially in the NHL, where one player wearing tons of equipment in a mask can carry a team a long way under the right circumstances.
But the Bruins aren’t a betting man’s team to win the Stanley Cup or even go more than one round in the playoffs. Even Chiarelli would probably keep his money in his pocket rather than risk it on his team. And that’s fine. It’s OK to say one thing and do another. And that’s why his moves at the deadline were such a contradiction.
On the one hand he paid a relatively fair price (compared to what teams were paying for rentals) to get Brett Connolly, who’s 22 and was drafted sixth overall just five years ago. For a number of reasons he hasn’t reached expectations in four years of professional hockey, but he still managed to score 12 goals in 50 games while averaging 12 minutes of ice time a night. On the 2014-15 Bruins, that’s what you call a sniper.
Connolly figures to get top-six, or at least top-nine, minutes with the Bruins. And he should get to play with a high-skill center on a regular basis. More important for the Bruins, his cap charge is less than $1 million and as a restricted free agent this summer he shouldn’t be in for too much of a raise. If Connolly starts to fulfill his potential, he could be an inexpensive addition to the Bruins’ core.
Had Chiarelli stopped there, you could’ve chalked up deadline day as a modest victory. The Connolly addition didn’t do anything to address the Bruins’ weakness in their top four on defense or even provide a backup for any injuries that occur on defense down the road, but bringing in Connolly showed some foresight about the Bruins’ chances this season and next.
But then there were two more moves that made you wonder if Chiarelli really gets that his team should be in a youth movement and should be hoarding young assets. First Chiarelli waived Craig Cunningham, the forward who just a month ago was being billed as the perfect “Bruins style” fourth-line center. Cunningham recently found himself scratched for Brian Ferlin. Chiarelli said the Bruins waived Cunningham to make room for a potential acquisition that never came. The Bruins didn’t have to waive Cunningham, but that’s the road they decided to go down, according to the GM. The trade didn’t happen and the Arizona Coyotes made matters worse by taking Cunningham, who became the second young Bruins forward to get claimed on waivers this season after the Bruins also lost Matt Fraser. You remember Matt Fraser, the kid with the wicked shot that was part of the haul Boston got for Tyler Seguin. Two young assets were shown the door for nothing in return in just a couple months.
Then after the deadline passed the Bruins’ second trade was announced. Former first-round pick Jordan Caron, 24, was shipped to Colorado for 31-year-old Max Talbot and 26-year-old minor leaguer Paul Carey. Caron was finally finding his niche in Boston as a fourth-line left wing and the Bruins decided it was time to send him packing and add to their collective of aged grinders. For those not in the know, Talbot is basically Gregory Campbell with a French accent. He’s a grittier Daniel Paille. He’s the type of player coach Claude Julien loves.
Basically the Bruins have gone from banking on their young players to fill in for departed veterans at the start of the year to not trusting them enough to hold down the fort during the stretch run of a down year. At the start of the season, it might’ve made sense to sign up some veteran reinforcements if the Bruins’ plans went haywire (which they did). At this point, any acquisition that blocks the likes of Ferlin, David Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner from getting as much experience as possible is a self-defeating addition to the lineup. Chiarelli has done this whole thing backwards.
The GM acknowledged that he’s going to need young players to step up in the next couple seasons because of the salary cap and the Bruins’ structure with a few players making a lot of money. You can also count on a high-priced veteran or two leaving in the next couple of years. Even if Talbot helps you get an extra point or two to get into the playoffs (and it’s not likely he will), it makes no sense to sacrifice the development of the prospects to get him in the lineup. Connolly shouldn’t push any of the kids out of the way either. Now’s the time for training under fire, not watching from the press box or from Providence.
Chiarelli didn’t want to pay the high prices it would’ve taken to go all-in again this season. Fine. He didn’t want to sell off parts and become a re-builder fine. The subtle retool can succeed if done with the right level of commitment. Chiarelli chickened out and the retool might’ve been dealt a setback.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.