It was only four short years ago that the Boston Bruins we're down 3-2 to the Vancouver Canucks, on the verge of losing the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals and being the American team that finally let the Cup return north of the border for the first time since 1993.
Instead, the Bruins rallied back and won the series in seven, the franchise’s first championship in 39 years. With a roster boasting established superstars like Zdeno Chara, Tim Thomas and an impressive young core boasting names like Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin and David Krejci, the Bruins were labelled as the next potential great dynasty – in an era of hockey where the definition of dynasty has drastically changed from what it once was.
Since then, Thomas and Seguin have been unceremoniously booted out of Beantown. While Thomas’ replacement, Tuukka Rask, has been excellent since taking over the Bruins net, Seguin was replaced with several solid – but not game-breaking – players. Zdeno Chara is finally starting to show his age and, for the most part, all Lucic and Marchand have succeeded in doing since 2011 is establish themselves as two of the most despised players in the league (for almost all the wrong reasons).
What has changed since that magical summer of 2011? While the Bruins did make it to the 2013 finals, they were deftly handled by the Chicago Blackhawks (perhaps the closest thing to a true new-age dynasty). 2012 saw them bounced in seven by Joel Ward (surprising, I know) and the Washington Capitals, while 2014 was even more painful as their nemesis, the Montreal Canadiens, strutted into TD Garden and ended the Bruins season in Game 7 of Round 2.
For a team with as much talent as they have on the ice and behind the bench, the Bruins have massively underperformed since their Stanley Cup conquest. We saw what has happened to teams like the Vancouver Canucks (who the Bruins beat in 2011) and the Detroit Red Wings who have gone through stretches like these after winning a championship. On paper, the Bruins are still a force to be reckoned with, but the numbers paint a much more ominous picture for the Bruins and their loyal fanbase.
3 The Aging Defensive Stalwart
If there's one thing that can turn a franchise from a pretender to a contender with one fell swoop, it's adding a superstar defenceman - a guy who can put up points, defend his own end, and control a hockey game while playing close to 30 minutes a night.
That's exactly what the Boston Bruins got when they signed Zdeno Chara in the summer of 2006. After a marvellous stretch of seasons (between 2007-2012) where he never dipped under 44 points (capped off by a career-high 52 in 2011-2012), Chara's numbers have slowly but surely begin to dip. While he put up a respectable 40 points last season, he had just 19 in 48 games (which projects to 33 points over an 82 game schedule) and had just three in the first nine games of this season before going down with a leg injury early in the year.
The injury in itself is concerning - Chara has only missed 20 games in the eight seasons he's been in Boston. While this season has been a small sample size, a quick look at last year's playoffs begin to show the decline of the man who was once the most feared defenceman in the league. not only for his size, but for his skill.
Since 2009, Chara never averaged less than 27:21 minutes per game during a playoff run (regardless of how many games the Bruins played). In the 2013 playoffs (where the Bruins reached the finals), Chara averaged a whopping 29:05 a game. Last year, Chara's TOI in the playoffs dipped significantly to just 25:20 per game. Whether this was a matter of injury or something else, it was startling to see Claude Julien utilization of his team's best player.
Chara's "decline" can be compared to that of another soon-to-be Hall of Fame defenceman. Nicklas Lidstrom was a legendary defenceman - arguably one of the top rearguards the game has ever seen. While Lidstrom was fairly productive even in his final seasons, he was still relied upon heavily when he was the same age as Chara. When Lidstrom was 36 years old, he averaged 30:37 minutes a game during an 18-game playoff run. A year later he averaged 26:49, and never breached 26:22 a game during a playoff run between 2008 and 2012 (when he retired).
Chara's massive drop in ice-time happened at the same age as Lidstrom, and while Lidstrom was still a solid player during his final seasons, he was not able to carry the team the way he once did - and he had a much better supporting cast than Chara has ever had in Boston. Lidstrom did not win another Cup after the Wings beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008.
2 Cap Problems
If Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli thought he had cap issues before the season, he better be buckled up for what's coming this summer.
As it stands, the Bruins are nearly $2.4 million dollars over the NHL salary cap thanks to cap penalties carrying over from last season. They're able to keep their roster full for now, but Chiarelli eventually have to make some moves to get the Bruins back under the cap ceiling.
The Bruins created some breathing room by moving Johnny Boychuk, and while it hurts in the interim to move a Top 4 defenseman for nothing that can help in the present, the Bruins didn't have much of a choice. Chiarelli can wait until the summer to get some dollars off the books, as Greg Campbell, Adam McQuaid, Daniel Paille, Carl Soderberg and Matt Bartkowski will all be UFAs in July - but Chiarelli will also have to re-sign Reilly Smith to a new RFA deal, not to mention the big raises Dougie Hamilton and Torrey Krug will be getting as they also becomes RFAs.
The main issues here, of course, is the guys who don't have expiring deals. Chara, Rask, Dennis Seidenberg and Patrice Bergeron are all locked up long-term, with Lucic and Marchand up for new deals in a few seasons. While that core has been productive, they've only managed to win the Bruins one championship during their perceived "window of opportunity." Rask has shown to have confidence issues at times, Chara is aging and Seidenberg, while solid, is not the first name that comes to mind when you think of top-tier defenceman.
1 The Seguin Trade
The Bruins were handed a franchise player on a silver platter and for a team that has done practically everything right for the past 15 years, they completely screwed this one up.
Tyler Seguin was considered a generational talent coming out of junior. The Bruins gave up one scoring dynamo (Phil Kessel), who they considered one-dimensional, for the shot at molding another (Seguin), with significantly more upside. Instead of being the Bruins top-line center, though, Seguin is now tearing it up for the Dallas Stars.
It's understandable that a team wants players to toe the company line, but sometimes general managers need to understand that boys will be boys. Reports out of Boston were that Seguin was more worried about the Beantown nightlife than the Beantown hockey team, and that it led to his being shipped out of town. Seguin is not the first to be lured in by temptation, and certainly won't be the last.
He's seemingly smartened up, because he's currently third in league scoring with 28 points and first in goals with 17. The Bruins biggest issue this season has been putting the puck in the net, as they sit tied for 21st in goals per game (2.48). The Bruins highest point-scorer so far is Patrice Bergeron (who is known more for his two-way play than his point-producing ability) with 16 points (good for 55th in the league). Reilly Smith and Loui Eriksson, the two main pieces the Bruins got in return for Seguin, have combined for 7 goals and 22 points this season.
At a time when the Bruins could use an offensive dynamo, all they can do is wish they hadn't given away the one they already had. Not only would Seguin have provided Julien with a bonafide superstar up front, Chiarelli would have been able to move an older center, like Bergeron or Krejci, for a much bigger return. Instead, the Bruins moved a huge asset when his value was at its lowest for an aging 25-goal scorer and a couple of unknown commodities.
If all these factors mixed together is not a recipe for "closing the window of opportunity," I don't know what is (besides having Mike Milbury run your organization).
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