July 18, 2010

The case on Chiarelli can now go to jury

By Kevin Dupont

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.Peter Chiarelli (Getty)

Now it's time to judge Peter Chiarelli's Bruins. Just over four years since taking over the failed hockey product on Causeway Street, Chiarelli -- who turns 46 next month -- just returned home from California with the latest boatload of future promise inherent in the NHL's annual draft.

Depending on how you count, it was Chiarelli's fourth of fifth draft since being named Boston's GM. Technically, he had yet to assume the corner office for the June 2006 draft, which is the same draft that had the Bruins selecting Phil Kessel (No. 5 overall), Milan Lucic (No. 50) and making the Andrew Raycroft-for-Tuukka Rask swap with the Leafs.

If you don't believe Chiarelli's fingerprints were all over those June '06 moves, then don't waste any of your time watching the wildly-popular CSI shows ... it’s just not your cup of prima facie evidence.

We have seen plenty of positive signs during Chiarelli's tour in town. The building is full again. Interest is high. Two sports radio stations talk about all things Black and Gold. Under Chiarelli's guidance, the club even has won a couple of playoff series. In the grand scheme of things, such as winning a Stanley Cup, that really isn't saying much, but it's an improvement over what went on for most of the decade prior to Chiarelli's arrival. The Bruins are winning again. Not a lot, but they are winning.

What we will see now, with five drafts under his belt, is ultimately how Chiarelli will be judged. Is Joe Colborne the real deal at center? Can Jordan Caron score off the wing? Is Ryan Button a bona fide NHL puck-moving defenseman? Will the June 2010 really be the draft that added the big-time forward, the franchise centerpiece, or is the new kid in town just another Joe Thornton -- Jumbo in name but something much shorter in deed (at least for his time here in the Hub of Hockey)?

Thus far, only two of Chiarelli's choices have made an impact on the NHL level. Kessel and Lucic both stepped into the league -- Lucic a year after Kessel -- and look today as if they will have long, if not elite, pro careers. Thus far, though, all of Boston's draft picks of '07, '08 and '09 have added nil to the club's fortunes.

That isn't to say that the top picks in each of those drafts -- Zach Hamill, Colborne and Caron, respectively -- are busts. All of them may make it to the Spoked-B varsity. But right now, today, in a league ever-more inclined to bring teenagers into a man's game, none of them has added to the equation.

If we are saying the same thing a year from now, or even midway through the upcoming season, then that's not good. Chiarelli's track record in the trade and free-agent market is, at best, mixed. His best deal of all could turn out to be the Kessel swap to Toronto last September, but that's a deal he was not inclined to make, only relenting when it became clear Kessel (then a restricted free agent) had a huge deal in hand with the Maple Leafs. When Toronto GM Brian Burke (Providence, R.I.) offered a comfortable way out, sweetening the pot with an added first-round pick, it allowed Chiarelli to retain his dignity while surrendering the 21-year-old sniper.

Had Toronto's fortunes been better in 2009-10, and not positioned Boston for the No. 2 pick in the draft, Chiarelli's reluctant parting of Kessel would have sent a steady stream of rock tossers to those talk radio shows.

Playoff victories over Montreal (2009) and Buffalo (2010) have helped to mask over a number of Chiarelli follies, including the Brandon Bochenski acquisition (at the expense of losing Kris Versteeg, now of the Cup-champion Blackhawks), the trade for goalie Manny Fernandez (two seasons, 18 victories), the swap with Ottawa to acquire Peter Schaefer (eventually a buyout bust) and the free-agent purchase (three years/$12 million) of the maddeningly inconsistent Michael Ryder. Free-agent hire Derek Morris also was far less than advertised, leading to the March trade deadline deal that hustled him out of the Hub in less than a full season.

Only fair to note, of course, that Chiarelli also was the guiding hand in acquiring both Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard as free agents in July 2006. As mentioned above, he also directed the Raycroft-for-Rask swap. If not for Jim Benning, Chiarelli's top talent appraiser, diamond-in-the-rough Johnny Boychuk likely would not have been acquired in trade from Colorado.

Judge all of those deals as you will, and give what weight you will to the pair of playoff series victories, but the ultimate test of Chiarelli's leadership will be, must be, the draft(s). Draft picks, especially in a salary cap system, eventually determine a team's success.

Just look at the last two Cup winners: Chicago with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane; Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Hard to deny, in either case, that those were the players who defined the team, providing the DNA for the championship -- so much so, in fact, that their teams won without an established elite netminder.

Now, granted, it's not as if the draft is chock-a-block full of players like Toews, Kane, Crosby and Malkin. There is only so much superstardom to go around. I get that. But the Bruins, like all teams, have to keep a steady flow of kids - -stars, pluggers and mere roster-fillers alike -- arriving on the varsity. To date, we haven't seen any of the 17 kids selected in the drafts of 2007, '08 and '09 make a dent, never mind an impact, in Boston.

Will any of these kids step up, be it now or in the near future? Are they the promise or just a bunch of pretenders? With four-plus calendar years on the job, Chiarelli, in these months ahead, ultimately will be judged by what, if anything, these kids deliver. Their incubation period is drawing to a close.

And with it is the start of summing up Chiarelli's true effectiveness as GM.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com