Last week, a friend and I had an animated discussion on Bruins’ GM Peter Chiarelli’s offseason plan. While I was ambivalent, he was dismayed – the Bruins, fresh off a championship victory in June, should be greater players in the free agent and trade markets. Anything less than going all-out for another Cup, with so much of their core returning, was failure .“This wait-and-see crap,” my friend grumbled, “is a dangerous game to play.”
So much praise has been heaped on the reigning GM and management team that those caustic words sound almost foreign to my ears. A Boston fan griping about one of their beloved pro sports franchises? Unheard of, absurd! Of course fans in North America’s sporting Mecca are completely satisfied with seven championships (spread across four clubs) in less than ten years and will give their celebrated franchises all the leeway in the world…
All kidding aside, his concerns are being echoed by a very vocal minority of informed Bruin fans. With some significant losses from the B’s main roster and what some perceive as inadequate replacements, the defending champs appear less than bulletproof. Even if they’d returned all 21 playoff starters it’s not as though our beloved Bruins rode roughshod through the regular season and postseason en route to their first championship in almost 40 years.
The Bruins, as Hab fans will no doubt remind us, stole through three playoff rounds (outside of an unexpected sweep of Philly) and barely, perhaps just barely managed to hoist that revered 35 pound icon of glory. Few inside or out of the hockey world gave the B’s more than an outside shot at lifting that fabled piece of postseason hardware. Who can blame them – with an offense that seemed to stutter despite totaling the fifth-most goals in 2010-11, an anemic powerplay and a team which coasted, not thundered to an 8-6-4 mark to finish the regular season, the Bruins’ were anything but a sexy pick. The fact that they won earns them and management all the credit in the world, but doesn’t silence those completely valid concerns going into the 2011-12 season.
The 2011 free agent market wasn’t exactly teeming with talent, so the Bruins management decided to take a step back and pass on opportunities to pick up players like James Wisniewski, Christian Ehrhoff, Simon Gagne, and Eric Cole among others.
The two-headed monster of low supply and high demand would appear to validate Chiarelli’s restrained plan. With exorbitant dollars and term handed out to even the borderline talents in the 2011 free agent pool, his restraint seems vindicated: Six years and $33 million for Wisniewski, Ten years and $40 million for Ehrhoff, Six years and $27 million for Ville Leino? It’s enough to make NHL accountants cringe.
But some of Chiarelli’s words at the start of free agency raise concerns about the team’s motivation: “We knew that there’d be some money flying around, so we had to be kinda strategic… we don’t have to jump in… plus we have some other players to sign as the summer progresses and as the year progresses, so we have to be cautious that way, too.” Additionally, and AP report paraphrased Chiarelli’s worries about the future of the cap: “Chiarelli said he expects the salary cap to come down because of the problems in the North American economy…”
With an NHL payroll in the bottom-half of the league including Marc Savard’s $4 million value the Bruins are quite set for the upcoming season. Even counting Savvy’s likely-bound-for-LTIR cap-hit the B’s have nearly $8 million dollars in cap space to start the season (after taking into account their reported $1.13 million in 2010-11 bonus penalties). Next year, an additional $16 million comes off the payroll, so how much does he think the cap will come down by – and how much does he think the B’s two primary free agents in 2012 (Krejci and Tuukka Rask) will cost?
Without a doubt the B’s management has more information at their fingertips than me, but I can’t help but feel that if this is their impetus for a quiet summer, their judgment is flawed. The B’s are quite safe from cap purgatory unless Rask/Krejci (and the as-yet unsigned Brad Marchand) command a ludicrously inflated amount. Even in the unlikely event that the B’s future payroll is above a future decreased salary cap with a new CBA upcoming, it would be unlikely that such an event comes without salaries being cut globally across the board, sparing the Bruins the guillotine of a forced sell-off/buyouts.
While it’s debatable to what extent these players would have improved the Stanley Cup Champs, in light of the two-man ‘exodus’ which ensued (Michael Ryder signing with Dallas and Tomas Kaberle taking his talents to Raleigh) the Bruins now had several significant holes in their roster. Whether these gaps can be filled with calling up youngsters from Providence or juniors – or through the relatively minor additions of Joe Corvo and Benoit Pouliot is uncertain.
Pouliot, to this point Chiarelli’s lone NHL-level extra-organizational signing, is a big question-mark. His uneven play and reportedly inconsistent work ethic clash with his tremendous physical gifts and solid skill level. His relatively cheap $1.1 million retainer and largely untapped potential make it a low-risk, high-reward buy for the Bruins. However, penciling in the big ex-Canadien to the B’s top-9 is a risky proposition, and leaves more than a few B’s fans scratching their heads.
Corvo may be even less fondly recieved by the Boston faithful than his Krejci-throttling ex-Hab teammate: He was convicted earlier in the 2000s of assaulting a woman in a Boston nightclub a crime, for which he served no prison time. Aside from the juridical, there are questions about his physical play (which some find lacking), his ability to fit into a responsible defensive system like Boston’s, and the fact that he’s not a pure puck-moving defenseman – something a Kaberle-less B’s team is now without.
Assuming Marchand eventually re-signs, (despite the delay, both sides have been saying all the right things about wanting a deal to get done…) I envision the Bruins’ opening-day lineup looking like this:
Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton
Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-______
______-Tyler Seguin-Rich Peverley
Daniel Paille/Chris Kelly-Gregory Campbell-Shawn Thornton
Zdeno Chara-Johnny Boychuk
Dennis Seidenberg-Joe Corvo
Andrew Ference-Adam McQuaid
Potential fill-ins to the open slots include the aforementioned Pouliot, Chris Kelly (though he seems much more suited to fourth-line duties), or one/two members of the B’s nearly-overflowing well of youths. But we’re talking about the defending champs here. They have the opportunity to contend for more titles in the very immediate future – should they be counting on teenagers and early-twentysomethings to get them back to the top?
Recall also, that the Bruins got significantly above average statistical seasons from Milan Lucic, Shawn Thornton, Dennis Seidenberg and Greg Campbell … and solid outputs from Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton and David Krejci (not to mention Brad Marchand’s stellar rookie production level) – essentially none of the B’s core had a down statistical year in 2010-11. To add to that, the Bruins’ were one of the least wounded teams of last year, near the very bottom of the man-games lost to injury list – something they can only pray will happen again in 2011-12. All these “ifs” are seemingly pointing, perhaps, to the B’s having a tenuous grip on the Northeast Division heading into the future.
But there’s reason to believe in Chiarelli’s method: Stanley Cup Championship notwithstanding, he is the architect behind several masterful deals in recent years which successfully rebuilt this franchise, and created a youthful core in Boston and beyond that is the envy of the NHL.
If Jordan Caron or another of Boston’s several rookie wunderkinds manage to burst onto the scene like “Marshmont” of last year, Chiarelli will once again look like a genius. Caron, Max Sauve, Jamie Arniel, Ryan Spooner and Jared Knight all appear nearly ready to make the leap into major-league play.
The production lost to injury, exodus and regression to the mean might also be readily replaced by the continued growth of last season’s rookies, Tyler Seguin and Marchand and perhaps the emergence of another of the B’s blue-chippers. Playoff performances from Marchand, Krejci, Horton and Bergeron would seem to indicate that this franchise could be an absolute offensive juggernaut – if all went as planned.
Counting on all those suppositions is that peril which Bruins’ management has chosen to lay with. For all the burdensome financial challenges they could have faced – now they must deal with the possibility that their wariness may jeopardize the club’s immediate future.
The Cup was won as a result of an inhuman effort from Tim Thomas, several timely offensive outbursts and a prodigious amount of good fortune and karmic happenstance. It was not seized so much as delicately retrieved, like the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol from Raiders of the Lost Arc – the B’s escaping with it just before the walls of the temple come crashing down.
Let it be known that this analyst doesn’t begrudge the Bruins’ championship management team their right to make some tough and dangerous decisions. They’ve earned that much. But unless the Bruins’ are again Fortune’s favored sons, it could be a challenging year in the Hub of Hockey
Bob is a Boston Bruins Correspondent for The Hockey Writers. He lives in the Boston Metro Area with his wife, Amanda and their five-year-old son, Cormac.