Building Back the Bruins is a five-part series in which we'll examine the slow, difficult process of turning the team back into a perennial Stanley Cup contender. Today in Part 5, we look at where the Bruins are at right now, and when they might truly be ready to contend for another Cup.
When Peter Chiarelli took over a downtrodden Bruins franchise in 2006, he had a five-year plan to turn things around. As it worked out, the B's won the Stanley Cup exactly five years after Chiarelli was named general manager.
Even though Chiarelli wasn't subsequently able to sustain what had been built over the first five years -- which wound up costing him his job -- the success of that plan was a good example for Cam Neely, Don Sweeney and the new management team to follow, especially since they had an admittedly better group in place when they took control two seasons ago.
BUILDING BACK THE BRUINS
- Part 1: Basking in the Fountain of Youth
- Part 2: The improvement of Don Sweeney
- Part 3: Strengthening their core was key to B's revival
- Part 4: Cassidy a key part of this season's improvement
- Part 5: When will B's emerge as a true Cup contender?
Chiarelli inherited a bunch of bottom-dwellers still reeling from the franchise-altering trade of Jumbo Joe Thornton. Sweeney, by contrast, took over a team that had an aging core group, salary-cap issues, and a barren player-development system. Those B's “bottomed out” by missing the playoffs by a point in two straight seasons. Now they look like they’re pointed upward again after pushing back into the postseason this spring.
The good news is that Sweeney, Neely and Co. aren’t just satisfied with a first-round taste of the playoffs and know there's more to do before the Bruins are true contenders again. A left-wing running partner with David Krejci is a necessity, and a top-4 left-shot defenseman who can skate with Charlie McAvoy next season is another vital need. They're also looking at an overhaul of the third line.
So the Bruins are under no illusions. They know they have significant work to do this summer, even if they’re not likely to chase any big-ticket items in free agency.
“It’s been challenging,” said Neely. “I know how competitive this city is and how successful some of the other teams have been, and we certainly want to be that successful. I knew what we were signing up for and it’s hard to relay that information to your fan base because they want results now. And I get that. They’re coming to watch us play and they’re expecting a good performance from our team.
“So I knew where we were headed. It just wasn’t going to happen overnight. I think now with some of the players that are stepping in this year it’s given some hope -- not only to us, but also to the fans -- of where we’re headed and what the future looks like because of it.”
How long, exactly, is it going to take before the B’s are once again perennial playoff participants and threatening to win Atlantic Division crowns on a yearly basis? How many more seasons should it be before they're considered a power in the Eastern Conference, as they were for a solid six-year stretch from roughly 2008-2014?
The core group of Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, David Backes and Tuukka Rask are mostly (with the exception of Chara) still in their prime years, and could be for at least a couple of more seasons. Couple that with the 19-year-old McAvoy, 20-year-old David Pastrnak, 20-year-old Brandon Carlo, and perhaps another prospect or two who pops in training camp, and next season should provide an interesting mix of experience and youth on another playoff-worthy roster.
Realistically, however, the Bruins won't be a legitimate Cup contender team until McAvoy becomes a No. 1 defenseman capable of playing big minutes and leading the team's back end. Boston can’t, and shouldn’t, expect that from him next season in his true rookie year no matter how talented he might as a transformational young player.
“In the last few years, we’ve identified some guys that we think can grow with us," said Sweeney. "We got a bit of a quick snapshot of [McAvoy] that might continue . . . I think that’s still a moving target to some degree.”
The offseason plan is obviously still in flux, and it sounds like there’s a fairly good chance the Bruins might be leaning more toward utilizing youngsters like Jake DeBrusk or Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson to plug some of the roster needs rather than investing heavily in trades or free-agent signings. That would be a way for the Bruins to show patience and trust in the game plan Sweeney put together a couple of years ago for rehabbing the franchise, and give their new general manager the exact same five-year window that Chiarelli had.
There’s every chance that in another two or three seasons -- with Pastrnak, McAvoy, DeBrusk, Jakob Zboril, Zach Senyshyn, Carlo, Jeremy Lauzon and Anders Bjork all fully developed as NHL players -- the Bruins will be a well-rounded, talented group prepped for another arduous, inspiring journey to the top of the Stanley Cup mountain.
And, at the end of the day, that’s the name of the game, isn’t it?