By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Two things have remained the same since the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011.
Claude Julien has been the coach and the team has been built around Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask. Leaders have come and gone, as have bit players, and Peter Chiarelli was fired, but the Bruins have had the same man calling the shots behind the bench and the same quintet of leading players.
The Bruins’ latest lethargic loss to the New York Islanders, a 4-0 sleep-fest on Monday, has their record reading more losses than wins again (23-19-5, which is 24 losses for anyone not forced to read the standings the way the NHL insists). The two teams directly behind them hold six (not a misprint) games in hand and the Bruins have a losing home record (10-11-0) regardless of how you want to read those numbers.
Something is not right and it’s disturbing how the same problems have kept resurfacing, not just this year but in the past two seasons. If you believe that coaching is the culprit and general manager Don Sweeney should make a move — and Sweeney didn’t shy away from that notion in his comments to the Boston Globe last week about keeping his options open — you’re entitled to that opinion. As of Monday, after he canceled practice, Julien was confident he still had the backing of his bosses as his team attempts to take the proper steps to improve and possibly get back on the winning track in Detroit on Wednesday.
“I feel that I’m doing my job and I feel that they’re there and so far I think we’re working through it together. There’s no questions there,” Julien said.
If the coach isn’t to blame, then the players are. And it’s not about pointing a finger at Jimmy Hayes, or Kevan Miller or Riley Nash. With all due respect, they’re small fish in the Bruins’ pond. It’s up to the big sharks to make sure the Bruins bite every night.
The core group won the title in 2011 and went to the Final in 2013. They also lost in the first round the season after the Cup win and were upset in the second round after winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2014. Then they didn’t make the playoffs two seasons in a row, including last year when they needed one point on the last day of the season to qualify and instead produced a performance every bit as putrid as what they did on the ice Monday against the Islanders.
It’s worth noting that in some of the Bruins’ worst losses this season, their best players have been the most prominent no-shows. For these purposes, I will include the Dec. 10 loss to Toronto because the Maple Leafs have surged this season but at the time that win was their only one in seven games and they were in last place. The Bruins also failed to make their presence felt against Colorado on Dec. 8, the Islanders on Dec. 20 and on the road against New Jersey on Jan. 2, when Julien even admitted his team “laid an egg.”
Patrice Bergeron in those five games had no points. Same for David Krejci. Brad Marchand had one goal and one assist. Zdeno Chara isn’t counted on to score but it wouldn’t have hurt if he had chipped in more than one assist. Rask has been the Bruins MVP this season, but in the four pathetic team performances he played in, he allowed 11 goals.
When asked about the core of the team doing more to make sure the Bruins aren’t using game nights to rest up for their off days, Bergeron began his answer with his typical smirk whenever this writer dare ask a question tougher than “are you great or the greatest center?” Then he only partially put the onus on the core to rattle the Bruins’ cage and make sure the every-other-week egg-laying ends before it’s too late.
“Well I think the leadership group, we have to hold ourselves accountable as much as the rest of the team has to hold themselves accountable,” Bergeron said. “I think you have to be prepared for every game and yesterday afternoon was definitely one that no one showed up and we’re part of it, we’re part of the team obviously, so you need to show the way as leaders and that’s all.”
Before Sweeney fires the coach, or ownership or president Cam Neely does something else more drastic, the Bruins have to assess if this core is the right one at the right time to get the team where it wants to be. Can Sweeney and the Bruins’ brass be certain that the right measure will be taken to prevent another Islanders-game-type performance when the chips are down, the way the Bruins didn’t answer the bell against Ottawa in the regular season finale last year? David Backes was imported for five years at a $30 million price tag to help make sure the troops always answer the call but maybe the answer to the Bruins’ recurring problem isn’t solvable just by signing one free agent with a captain’s pedigree.
The danger for the Bruins if they fire the coach is dealing with the fallout if that move doesn’t work. They’ll probably have downgraded in terms of coaching acumen, both in strategy and managing of players, and they’ll be stuck with the same core of players that might be more to blame.
On the other hand, changing the core is difficult. It requires a wise practitioner of general manager duties and would necessitate Neely and ownership deciding if Sweeney is the man to carry out the plan. Changing the core also would mean faith that the market would be willing to accept a full-fledged rebuild or there would have to be a decree from ownership that profit margins can stagnate or decrease while the organization rights itself.
Oddly, this might be the best time to alter the core. Instead of sticking to his promise to the veterans that he’ll keep the Bruins in contention, Sweeney could give a few of his best players the chance to pursue glory elsewhere. And with the cupboard stacked with prospects, both at the professional and amateur levels, there might be enough young talent to entertain the masses even without succeeding in the standings. Cut the current core in half to add even more for the future and the development curve could and franchise turnaround could be accelerated.
For now the Bruins can buy in to the mirage that is the current standings, with their padded point total based on games played placing them second in the weak Atlantic Division. They can proud that they didn’t totally tank despite entering this season with only one major addition from last year’s roster and boast about the development of some of their younger players both in the NHL and the AHL.
But pretty soon they’re going to have to make some realistic choices, and those decisions might even starting leading up to the trade deadline March 1.
The key to the Bruins’ success in the near and distant future won’t be about adding a journeyman or depth defenseman at the deadline or even a top-four defenseman at the deadline or in the summer. It’ll be about whether a core that’s had as many successes as failures for the past six years should be kept together for the short haul, because those players are only getting older and their value is diminishing.
Firing the coach won’t eliminate this dilemma and could be a catalyst for more trouble.
The core players seem to believe they are the answer to the Bruins’ problems. We’ll find out if they can back it up over the next few weeks.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.