By Kirk Luedeke
Tuukka Rask and the Bruins were minutes away from forcing a Game 7 in last year's Stanley Cup Final, before it all came crashing down. But as the sun sets on that heartbreak, the dawn breaks on the optimism surrounding the 2013-14 season, in which the Bruins are a clear favorite to challenge for the Cup once again. (Getty Images)
Can you feel the electricity in the October air?
That’s the pure energy of a contender, and the Boston Bruins are back as perennial candidates to capture Lord Stanley for the Hub.
This was a reality for B’s fans in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Names like Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, Andy Moog and Adam Oates rolled off the tongue as easily as Tom Brady, Manny Ramirez and Paul Pierce did when the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics were winning championships for Boston from 2002-08.
The only blemish on the record of those Bruins heroes of yore is that they never closed the deal after coming oh-so-close. Despite needing just a few pieces here and there, former GMs Harry Sinden and Mike O’Connell lost their way about the time the B’s moved out of the decrepit but beloved Boston Garden for the shiny but sterile FleetCenter in 1995. Those Bruins teams had star (but aging) talent at the top, but the quality depth of which championship rosters are constructed was clearly lacking.
Peter Chiarelli’s front office tenure began in 2006, bringing with him from Canada’s capital the hopes and dreams of a fanatical fanbase that watched every major sports team in Boston win at least one title in that opening 21st century decade except the B’s.
Chiarelli brought something, all right: a five-year plan that came to perfect fruition in June 2011, when hockey titan and captain Zdeno Chara lifted the Stanley Cup over his jubilant 6-foot-9 head. It was not only the first time a player wearing the spoked B accomplished that feat in 39 years, but a declaration of Boston’s return to its long-vacated place in the NHL’s upper stratosphere.
Bruins fans need not be reminded that just a few short months ago, the Chicago Blackhawks rode a 17-second rollercoaster in Game 6 from desperation to complete euphoria to stun the home club and capture a second Stanley Cup for the Windy City in three years. However, the mere return to the NHL’s championship series after the events in Boston of last April demonstrated the Bruins’ secure place in the hearts of its diehard faithful, spawning a new generation of loyal young fans in the process.
Even with the disappointment of having come so close only to stumble while victory was within reach, there are myriad reasons for the Bruins and their supporters to regain the swagger they had some 25 years ago.
Chiarelli, bolstered by the credibility Neely inspires as the club’s president, has built a solid foundation of talented veterans and a promising, youthful future headlined by dynamic 21-year-old center Ryan Spooner. He’s achieved that success with strong central leadership and a clear direction, and by surrounding himself with astute hockey people like assistant GMs Jim Benning, Don Sweeney and player personnel chief Scott Bradley. All bring their strengths and values to an apex of shared vision and respect for a demanding but honored culture that defines the very fabric and soul of the Boston hockey franchise.
The GM’s tenure has not been without setbacks, but even if a disastrous head coaching hire in 2006 threatened to undermine the rookie executive’s legacy before it had even begun, Chiarelli’s decisiveness in admitting his mistake with Dave Lewis served as a precursor for other momentous transactions to follow. Taking accountability but not becoming risk-averse as a result of decisions that did not bear fruit opened the door for several key pivot points from Boston’s road to ruin to Stanley Cup glory four years later.
The former agent and Senators assistant GM to John Muckler took more heat for bringing in the controversial Claude Julien, he of a curious firing months earlier by legendary New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello (Providence, R.I.). There wasn’t overwhelming support for Chiarelli’s decision to replace one failed bench boss in Lewis with another in Julien, but that may prove to be the signature move that will ultimately venerate Chiarelli’s legacy in Boston.
The former Harvard Crimson captain was the man of the hour when he turned disgruntled star Phil Kessel into a trio of picks – the highest profile of which was Tyler Seguin, who went on to be a member of Boston’s 2011 championship squad. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton and gritty winger Jared Knight are still in the fold, and as was the case with hiring Julien and dealing Kessel, Chiarelli proved he’s not afraid to make unpopular decisions if he thinks it will help the organization.
Seguin has the pure talent to be a star in the NHL, but the Bruins found his work ethic and overall game to be wanting. After signing him to a lucrative extension before the 2012-13 campaign, they saw some things emerge that they didn’t care for, not the least of which was a decline in his production and a substandard playoff performance. When Chiarelli sent him to Dallas for Loui Eriksson and three prospects, the return was not just about the players coming back to Boston. It was also a direct shot across the bow of any Bruin who might think himself more important than the team, who might believe he is above the law and, as a result, not willing to embrace the club’s culture of dedication, focus, and accountability.
That was then, this is now
In Eriksson (right), the B’s get a seasoned winger who is a more capable three-zone player than Seguin is, even if his ceiling may not be as high as the former second overall pick. Whether any of Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser and Joe Morrow pan out remains to be seen, but if the B’s lost scoring from the right side with Seguin’s departure to Dallas, Chiarelli brought in a consistent, two-way player who will likely immerse himself in The Bruin Way and accompanying environment.
Nathan Horton arrived three years ago, saying all the right things about the joy of leaving South Florida for a traditional and more competitive hockey market in Boston. Nearly a year later, he was a postseason hero and lifting the Stanley Cup in Vancouver, even though a hit from Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome cost him most of the final series. Yet in 2013, as Chiarelli and Co. prepared to invest a contract extension for bigger bucks in the former Oshawa General and third overall pick in 2003, Horton walked away from the Hub, choosing the Columbus Blue Jackets instead.
Enter Jarome Iginla, the future Hall of Famer who, in late March, declined to sign off on a trade that would have brought him to Boston. What matters now is that Neely, Chiarelli, and the Bruins refused to hold that spring snub against the career 530-goal man and longtime Calgary Flames captain. The team added some age to the roster with Iginla over Horton, but if the 36-year-old has something left in the tank, his experience and leadership makes him an upgrade over the oft-injured, streaky Horton.
Not content to rest after two big acquisitions, Chiarelli shelled out big bucks and long-term extensions to core players Tuukka Rask and Patrice Bergeron in July. For good measure, he added some capable veteran depth with Chad and Nick Johnson to keep the Bruins chugging along and in line to be cap compliant by the start of the new season.
When camp opened up in Boston earlier last month, the new-look Bruins had that distinct look of a skilled contender right out of the gate, going 6-1 in the preseason, while getting contributions up and down the roster.
NHL hockey is here; the final cuts are made and dressing room stalls occupied full-time. The Bruins have a strong mix of veteran experience and talent to go with youthful skill and exuberance. This Bruins club is slick, but hard-nosed. Your beloved B’s are a speedy, yet gritty bunch. This Olde Towne Team has that been-there-done-that swagger, but enough youngsters with the wide-eyed hunger of wanting to contribute more, with the burning desire to grab the ring that slipped beyond their grasp last June.
This Boston Bruins team is built to win the newly formed Atlantic Division and do a whole lot more. However, there’s a lot of hockey ahead to see how this modern version of the Big Bad Bs stacks up and whether it can follow the Blackhawks as just the second team to win multiple Stanley Cups in the cap era.
Open the doors at the TD Garden. Raise that Eastern Conference championship banner. But most of all, drop the puck and let’s get things going.
Bourque and Neely may hang forever from the rafters, but the fans have turned their hopeful eyes to Chara, Bergeron, (Milan) Lucic, (David) Krejci and the rest of the Black and Gold gang to host another championship parade down Causeway Street next summer.
If you’ve been around this team long enough, you know that they are built to win and have a real shot at getting back to the dance. The players can sense it, too.