July 17, 2011

From NEHJ: Why the B's have what it takes to repeat

By Jesse Connolly

When it comes to the National Hockey League, there are a number of reasons no team has been referred to as the two-time defending champs for more than a decade. 

GM Peter Chiarelli not only built a champion, but he also put the Bruins in position for long-term success. (Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

GM Peter Chiarelli not only built a champion, but he also put the Bruins in position for long-term success. (Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Dynasties in this great sport have gone the way of the helmetless player.

With eight different teams winning titles over the past eight seasons, parity reigns supreme in the NHL as the league’s landscape has changed dramatically over the years. It’s almost crazy looking back on decades past, as only three clubs captured the Cup from 1976 to 1988, a stretch in which the Canadiens won five times and the Oilers and Islanders had four apiece.

However, when Montreal was busy capturing four consecutive Cups in the late 1970s, there were as few as 17 teams in the league, nearly half the number that exists today. Those Edmonton squads that featured future Hall of Famers in Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr, in their wildest dreams, would never have been able to keep such a talent-laden squad together in a salary cap era.

So does this mean we have just witnessed the last championship for the Boston Bruins for quite some time? Is there no chance of the Black and Gold becoming the first team since the Red Wings in 1998 to defend their title?

Not necessarily.

Continuity

It’s not often a team heads into the offseason knowing their championship roster is already 95 percent intact for the next season. Such is the case for the Bruins, who have an extremely short list of free agents to deal with this summer.

With Mark Recchi retiring, and Michael Ryder signing with Dallas, Tomas Kaberle is the only regular about to embark on unrestricted free agency. Kaberle has expressed interest in returning after arriving via trade from Toronto in February.

Rookie Brad Marchand, a key contributor in the postseason with 11 goals, is a restricted free agent. While he’s undoubtedly due for a nice raise now that his entry-level contract is up, there’s no doubt the feisty winger will be retained.

Cap space

After guiding the Bruins through a dire salary cap dilemma with flying colors this past season, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli now has the team in rock-solid shape financially. Stripped of any wiggle room in the past two seasons, the Bruins general manager was twice forced to trade his leading goal scorer from the previous season, including a deal that sent Marco Sturm to the Kings for future considerations — GM speak for “squat.”

With the cap jumping to $64.3 million in 2011-12, the Bruins have a little more than $12 million to work with heading into next season — and that’s with a wild card in Marc Savard still on the books. That not only should be more than enough to accommodate the likes of Kaberle and Marchand, if Chiarelli goes that route, but it also should give him the flexibility to explore other options on the free-agent market.

Veteran presence

From the glue guys such as Andrew Ference and Shawn Thornton to shining stars in Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas, the elder half of Boston’s roster will be back in Black and Gold come October.

Any team in the NHL would have a fighting chance with Chara on its blue line. That’s good news for the Bruins, as their 34-year-old captain is under contract until the summer of 2018. Renowned for his unrivaled work ethic and training regimen, Chara promises to continue his role as one of the top defenseman in the league for years to come.

Thomas, 37, can’t be expected to replicate his historic regular season and postseason numbers, but there’s plenty of reasons to believe this year’s Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophy winner has a few great seasons left in the tank. Numerous goalies have proven capable of playing at a high level beyond the age of 40, including Thomas’ idol, Dominik Hasek — who was still in top form at 43 before heading back to Europe.

In addition to their anchor on the blue line and their rock in net, the Bruins have plenty of other key veterans they can continue to count on. Penalty-kill stalwarts Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell will be back in action, with resident tough guy Thornton rounding out the fourth line again alongside them.

Midseason pickups Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly also are set to return. The duo both stepped it up big time in the playoffs at each end of the ice, making Chiarelli look like an absolute genius when all was said and done.

On the back-end, German-born workhorse Dennis Seidenberg is under contract until 2014, while Ference — a strong favorite to take over Recchi’s spot as an alternate captain — is signed through the 2012-13 season. Johnny Boychuk, 27, is entering the final season of a two-year extension.

Prime time

With their top-performing postseason players expected to get even better next year, the future is looking blindingly bright for the Bruins.

Seven members of the Bruins’ playoff roster are age 26 or younger and, if the development curve holds true, have yet to reach their primes. Of the Bruins’ top-four scorers in the postseason, only Nathan Horton — he of the countless heroic moments during the playoffs — has celebrated his 26th birthday.

Patrice Bergeron, who has proven to be one of the top two-way players in the game and now has both a Stanley Cup and a gold medal on his resume, will turn 26 in July. David Krejci solidified himself as a legitimate first-line center before proving to be an absolute stud in the postseason. He’s just 25. And, of course, there’s Milan Lucic, the Bruins’ leading goal-scorer during the regular season with 30 goals, who celebrated his 23rd birthday during the finals.

Fellow youngsters such as Adam McQuaid, 24, and the aforementioned Marchand, 23, also expect to improve their games, as does No. 2 overall pick Tyler Seguin, 19, who’s bound to display his brilliant offensive skills more often in his second pro season.

And don’t forget about Tuukka Rask, who took a backseat throughout the Bruins’ playoff run. The Finnish netminder, who led the league in both goals-against average and save percentage in 2009-10, is just 24.

Reinforcements

Chiarelli has done a fantastic job of restocking the Bruins’ pool of prospects during his tenure, and we could see the fruits of all that labor in the fall when a number of young, talented players will push for spots.

From familiar faces such as Steve Kampfer, Jordan Caron and Matt Bartkowski, to OHL standouts Jared Knight and Ryan Spooner, Chiarelli might be able to inject even more affordable youth into the lineup if the kids are ready for duty in the NHL. If not, the GM has still set this organization up quite nicely for the coming years.

Dynasty dynamics

After Bobby Orr scored “the goal” to win the Stanley Cup in 1970, many thought it’d be the first of many championships to come for the Bruins. As it turned out, Orr, Espo, Chief and the rest of the gang had only one other title left in them as dreams of a Bruins’ dynasty were dashed and a prolonged drought had only just begun.

So what’s in store for this band of Bruins? Will the city of Boston host another rolling rally next June, and maybe another the following summer? If recent history holds, chances may be slim. 

Like the plight of a pro poker player trying to avoid a bad beat and work his way through a field of thousands of competitors at the World Series, it takes an immeasurable number of things to go right for a hockey team to make it through the playoff gauntlet. Look no further than the Bruins’ opening-round series against the Canadiens for proof, as only a single bad bounce could have made a world of difference. Instead of ascending to hockey glory, the Bruins’ playoff run would’ve come to a screeching halt before it even got off the ground.

So while a dynasty might be a reach, that certainly doesn’t mean the drive to win that the Bruins possess is suddenly going to wane. Julien and the Bruins will return in the fall as hungry as ever to relive the magic they experienced this spring and reward the Hub of Hockey with another jubilant championship celebration. 

By the looks of it, they’ve got all the right ingredients to pull it off.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com