By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins lost on Wednesday night, ending their season with a somewhat embarrassing showing on Long Island. As such, some folks are mad.READ MORE: "Time for the village to step up": Volunteers help ease nationwide baby formula shortage
They’ll blame the goalie, or blame the coach … or blame the goalie AND the coach. That is all simply part of the venting process.
But with the Bruins now having been eliminated in the second round for two straight years, getting overwhelmed by their opponent both times, it should be quite clear that the Bruins weren’t nearly good enough to win this series against the Islanders. They’re even farther away from competing with the Tampas, Vegases and Colorados of the world.
And it’s honestly difficult to envision them getting there.
That’s in part due to where they currently are, but more so in how they got here.
The defensive corps of the team is, quite simply, bad. Outside of Charlie McAvoy — a bona fide No. 1 who still was not perfect in the playoffs — the team’s depth is nonexistent.
Kevan Miller missed 121 out of 124 games from March 2019 through August of 2020. Don Sweeney prioritized him as a day-one signing when free agency opened last year. He missed 35 of their 67 games. He wasn’t much of a help when he was on the ice, either, as the Bruins were outscored 15-12 at even strength when he was on the ice in the regular season.
Matt Grzelcyk, fresh off signing a four-year, $14.75 million deal last year, essentially looked like a store brand version of Torey Krug, which was to be expected. Krug is a special player whose price tag was too high for Boston. (Though, it’s worth noting that the dynamic duo of Jake DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk combined to make $7.36 million this year. Torey Krug made $6.5 million, and he produced 32 points … just two fewer than DeBrusk and Grzelcyk combined. DeBrusk, as you likely know, is a forward. John Moore also still carried the most unnecessary $2.75 million cap hit in the NHL, a mantle formerly owned by Adam McQaid in Boston, which doesn’t help the Bruins when it comes to paying certain players.)
The team forced Zdeno Chara out the door so that the likes of Jeremy Lauzon, Urho Vaakanainen, and Jakub Zboril could develop and get more ice time. This plan failed so spectacularly, it does not get nearly enough attention. Lauzon had an OK regular season but got exposed in the playoffs. Zboril played a forgettable 42 games where he was largely sheltered (he was on the ice for 251 faceoffs in the offensive zone or neutral zone, but just 75 defensive zone draws). Vaakanainen got more AHL playing time than NHL playing time.
The development of those three D-men may be moving along at various stages, but depending on them in a year with Cup aspirations was imprudent. Sweeney didn’t have to retain Chara specifically (though he essentially plays for free and brings a lot to the table in addition to steady defense and penalty killing), but he should have had some more NHL-caliber D-men in his plans. Having to scramble to add Jarred Tinordi and Mike Reilly midseason (and giving away a third-round pick to rent Reilly for a couple of months to do so) exposed the organization’s lack of impact players at left D.
Over the course of the season, it wasn’t great. In the playoffs, it was a catastrophe. Some of that had to do with Brandon Carlo getting injured in Game 3, but he could not have prevented all or most of this:
There was a theme with the Islanders' even-strength goals vs. Boston. pic.twitter.com/a9nR8m5HNc
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) June 10, 2021
(Anyone who can look at that and still throw a hissy fit about the goaltender is — much like those shots — beyond saving.)
In the forward group, Sweeney surely deserves credit for signing Craig Smith, a valuable contributor on the second line. He deserves credit, too, for acquiring Taylor Hall at the deadline, though we’ll get to that in a bit.
The decision to sign Coyle long-term has not worked out. Since Coyle signed his six-year extension worth $5.25 million per year, he’s recorded 58 points in 121 games. He was moved to wing this year to try to spark something, but it’s safe to assume the Bruins didn’t dedicate $5.25 million of their cap space to a third-line winger. Coyle went 28 games without scoring a goal, and he scored just once in the final 32 games of the regular season.
Of course, a part of Coyle’s struggles had to do with an abysmal season from Jake DeBrusk, whom Sweeney signed to a two-year deal last year upon the start of his restricted free agency. In his first year making real NHL money, DeBrusk scored five goals. He spent time upstairs as a healthy scratch, both in the regular season and postseason. Signing him wasn’t a mistake — he scored 27 goals in 68 games two years ago — but when a player steps backward this far, you have to wonder how it got so bad so fast.
Put it all together, and the Bruins had third and fourth lines incapable of producing offense at the most important time of the year. (Chris Wagner, Sean Kuraly and Curtis Lazar combined for one postseason point. Not that fourth lines should carry offense by any means, but some contribution ought to be expected, especially when they’re getting shifts in the final minutes of close playoff games. Ritchie, DeBrusk, and Coyle had a combined two points against the Islanders. Both came on the same goal in the first period of Game 2.)
In terms of players coming up the pipeline, the picture isn’t promising. The Hockey Writers had just two Bruins on their top 100 prospects rankings going into the year — John Beecher at No. 94, and Jack Studnicka at No. 84. That’s just one subjective list, obviously, but it’s indicative of a near-empty cupboard in terms of young, affordable contributors on the horizon. (Cameron Hughes, a sixth-round pick in 2015, led the AHL Bruins with 21 points in 25 games this year.)
Jeremy Swayman changed that prospect outlook quite a bit with his quick rise, but he won’t be scoring goals or defending opposing forwards.READ MORE: Video: Likely tornado spotted in Charlestown, New Hampshire
This is, really, the result when a franchise deals away so many draft picks to patch holes or rent players. And the misses on actual draft picks — mistakes in the first round of the 2015 draft came to the forefront during the Islanders series — end up hurting a bit more.
As the Bruins have desperately tried to compete for Cups — and obviously came close in 2019 — Sweeney has consistently sent away draft picks in an effort to try to craft a champion.
In doing so, the Bruins have given up:
–A first-round pick
–Two second-round picks
–Two third-round picks
–Two fourth-round picks
In order to get:
–Marcus Johansson (rental)
That is extraordinarily poor asset management. If there was a Cup to show for it, then perhaps it could be argued that it was all worthwhile. Alas, Zac Rinaldo did not contribute to any Cup runs. Johansson came close, but his 10 regular-season games and 22 playoff games cost Boston a second-rounder and a fourth-rounder.
Giving up that first-rounder for Kase was necessary in order to shed 75 percent of the terrible contract for David Backes (five years, $30 million), which was Sweeney’s third massive whiff in that department. (Matt Beleskey at five years for $19 million and Jimmy Hayes at three years for $6.9 million being the other two. The five-year, $13.75 million deal for John Moore isn’t quite on that level, but it’s an equally misguided judgment from the GM.)
More recently, Sweeney gave up a second-round pick to rent Hall. They won a single postseason series. Hall might take a discount because he enjoyed his time in Boston so much, but he’s just as likely to seek the highest bidder once again, like he did last year.
Regularly giving away draft picks without replenishing them while also losing the acquired players is not a sustainable way of managing an organization. Obviously.
In terms of making picks, Sweeney selected 32 players between 2015 and 2019. Three of them — McAvoy, DeBrusk, Carlo, with Swayman being a potential fourth — have become reliable regulars for the Bruins. Twenty-three of them have played 16 or fewer NHL games. Seventeen of them have played in zero NHL games.
It’s too soon to judge the 2020 class, obviously, but not much is going to be expected of 58th overall pick Mason Lohrei or 89th overall pick Trevor Kuntar. (The Bruins didn’t have their first-round pick, from the Kase trade.) Boston won’t have a second-round pick this year. They’ll be without a third-round pick next year, for the Mike Reilly rental.
Looking ahead, it’s possible that Sweeney makes another smart signing or two up front, akin to the Craig Smith deal, with the money saved on David Krejci. It’s also possible that another swing at a Backes/Belesky/Hayes type is made.
And in net, while a lot of people in Boston may be ready to move on from Tuukka Rask, relying on a goaltender with 10 career starts to carry a franchise with a legitimately bad defensive corps is probably not the road to a championship any time soon. (Whenever Rask does leave, whether that’s this year or several years down the line, the city that spends endless hours complaining about goaltending is certainly in for a rude awakening, unless the team lucks into a Hall of Fame replacement.)
Whether Rask makes his own decision on his future or whether the Bruins make it for him is hard to gauge. Rask is a bit of a mystery man. But that’s not the only franchise-shaping decision that’s looming.
Patrice Bergeron is under contract for only one more year. Krejci — who debuted for the Bruins in January 2007, ranks second all-time in playoff points in franchise history (behind only Ray Bourque), and is a top-10 player in Bruins history — is an unrestricted free agent. Hall, a former No. 1 pick who’s also a UFA, flashed for a while but didn’t finish strong.
There are decisions to be made, and there’s no easy route back to the top of the NHL to be found. It’ll take some creative and resourceful moves in order to even stay on the periphery of contention next year, let alone take steps forward.
Given the numerous missteps in asset management, draft evaluations, and free-agent moves, it’s even more difficult to envision Sweeney being the one who gets the Bruins where they need to go.
In losing in six games to the Islanders in round two, the Bruins didn’t underachieve. That is precisely the problem. And realistically, it doesn’t feel as though they’re equipped to elevate themselves to the top tier of the league in quick fashion.
Of course, things could always change. Given the overall body of work from the past five years, it’s hard to envision that it will.
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