By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — For the second straight spring, playoff hockey will exist only on television screens in the city of Boston. The Garden ice will be melted down, making way for some basketball games and concerts for Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez.READ MORE: Hopkinton High School First In State To Drop Mask Mandate
There’s no getting around it: that stinks. It really, really does.
The city of Boston is, quite simply, a better place when playoff hockey is taking place. From 2008-14, the Bruins played in 97 playoff games, well over a full season’s worth of games. The majority of the minutes in those games were frenzied rushes of chaos. Nothing can replace that.
Little else can provide the pleasant experience of driving with the windows down in 77-degree weather, listening to Michael Felger complain about something on the car speakers, knowing that puck drop is mere hours away. The atmosphere in the Garden reaches absurd levels. The atmosphere is so powerful that the Bruins have somehow managed to do the impossible — they have made Audioslave cool.
There is just no way to replace this:
The games became such a regular occurrence that their absence last year was jarring. Now, we’ll have to listen to Felger complain about something without having the sweet escape of playoff hockey in the city to distract us.
It’s not a whole lot of fun.
Yet … if the second straight season of missing the playoffs leads to some major changes, it may well be a good thing for the franchise.
Seemingly the only thing that will capture the attention of the ownership would be missing out on the revenue that comes with reaching the playoffs, and when that happens twice in as many years, heads are going to roll.
It may be unfair for whichever parties end up being the sacrificial lambs — hello, Claude Julien — but change is nevertheless something desperately needed for the Bruins.
Really, they peaked from 2011-13 and slowly began a slow bleed of the talent from their roster. Sure, they managed to capture the Presidents’ Trophy in 2013-14, but that is when the downslide began. Tyler Seguin was hastily traded away in 2013. The next year, Jarome Iginla walked in free agency and Johnny Boychuk was shipped away days before the season began. Dougie Hamilton was traded away following ’15, and Carl Soderberg left, too.
None of those players, really, have ever been properly replaced.
In the meanwhile, Dennis Seidenberg’s level of play has dropped considerably, and Zdeno Chara has shown more signs of age with each year that passed. The forward group– with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Loui Eriksson — still included several high-level players, and the influx of Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak has been encouraging.
Ultimately, though, the depth of talent on the roster declined year by year. Along with salary cap mismanagement, it’s what cost Peter Chiarelli his job, and it put the Bruins in the situation they’re currently in at this moment.
Had the Bruins made the playoffs last year — or this year, or both — they would not have made it very deep. Yet the stagnation would likely be allowed to continue. Even though there’s no real benefit to being a fringe playoff team and making an early postseason exit, merely making it a round or two in April and May probably would have been enough to satisfy the head honchos who are supremely focused on the bottom line (as is their right as business owners, however unbecoming it may be to a fan base).
Now, change is necessary. Such has been the case every time the Bruins snapped their streak of 29 straight playoff appearances. Steve Kasper was fired in ’97. Pat Burns was fired in 2000. Robbie Ftorek made the playoffs but didn’t win a round, and he was fired midseason the next year when the team was still in playoff position but sliding down the standings. Mike Sullivan was canned in ’05. Dave Lewis was sent packing the following year.
If there’s one thing the Jacobs family has proven to be unable to tolerate, it’s missing the playoffs.READ MORE: 'Our Kids Deserve Better': Photos Show Spoiled Meals Served To Lynn Elementary Students
But firing Julien won’t magically cure the franchise, and it won’t be the only change that will be made before October.
The Bruins cannot enter next season relying on Zdeno Chara as if he’s still 30 years old. They can’t surround him with Joe Morrows and Zach Trotmans and Kevan Millers and Adam McQuaids and expect everything to be OK.
As the past two years have proven, that strategy is a recipe for sporadic peaks but is not the pathway toward sustained success.
How, exactly, the Bruins try to get back on that path is not yet known. It will presumably start behind the bench, but it will largely be decided to the creativity and savvy of the general manager. Last summer’s moves by Don Sweeney could be summed up as mezza mezz. For every good move (flipping Milan Lucic for Colin Miller and, eventually, a first-round pick) there was a bad move (only getting picks for Hamilton). The Reilly Smith-for-Jimmy Hayes swap has certainly not favored the Bruins to this point. The decision to dedicate relatively big dollars to McQuaid remains every bit the head-scratcher now as it was last June.
And then there was the flat-out horrific move of trading a third-round pick for Zac Rinaldo, who managed to tally a whopping three points and may have made sports history by getting himself suspended at the major league and minor league level simultaneously this season.
Sweeney added two decent players at the deadline, but gave up quite the haul of picks to get them. Both are now free agents-in-waiting.
So, it’s hard to state with great confidence that Sweeney’s big-picture plan is right or wrong. But now, we’ll get a much better idea. And the pressure will be on.
There’s the chance, as with anything in sports, that it turns the tide the wrong way. Perhaps the Bruins end up getting worse next year, and even worse the following year, and it’ll take a new GM with a whole new approach to clean it up. Maybe they don’t even catch a whiff of the Cup until 2030.
Or, Sweeney could display some creativity that gets the team much closer to title contention as soon as next spring.
While the GM’s role remains significant, the team’s success and failure ultimately reflects upon Cam Neely. He’ll always be a beloved figure for his feats on the ice from 1986-96. Yet in his tenure as team president, the image of him hoisting the Cup above his head is countered with the footage of him on “Behind The B” bemoaning the deficiencies in Seguin’s game. Seguin has gone on, of course, to put up 234 points in 223 games for Dallas.
Rumors of the reasoning for trading Seguin have floated around for years, but absent any real information, we’re left to assess the move only through what we actually know. And from that perspective, such a misread of talent on a player that spent three years with the team is one that figures to leave a lingering stench for years to come.
(As an aside, I’ve always found it noteworthy that in that “Behind The B” episode, no fewer than a half-dozen members of Boston’s front office are seen saying at least one bad thing about Seguin, but Sweeney was not one of them.)
It makes you wonder — if the Bruins get worse over the next year, or two, or three … might Neely eventually get the ax?
It seems far-fetched. Neely is as engrained with the culture of the Boston Bruins as one can possibly be, and he is the hockey voice on which Charlie and Jeremy Jacobs rely. But, what happens when that hockey voice can’t explain away the fault of missing the playoffs for three or four straight years?
That is a scenario that remains hypothetical and years away. For now, the pressure is on to revive a roster that hasn’t been able to keep its head above water for two years straight.
Change is, without question, necessary. From Seguin to Boychuk to Iginla to Hamilton to Lucic, to the lack of equal or even near-equal replacements, the Bruins have been going in the wrong direction for several years. There’s no guarantee that change will be for the better, but at the very least, ownership is now pressed to do something to ensure that stagnation does not linger.MORE NEWS: FBI Offering Up To $20K For Info On Suspect In 1981 Norton Murder