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 we look at the injection of youth into the lineup and where things are headed in the future.
One stat that tells quite a story for the Boston Bruins: A whopping 11 players suited up for their first Stanley Cup playoff game in the B's first-round series against Ottawa. That inexperience is one of the reasons Boston was ousted in six games, but it also speaks to a youth movement that helped the team make the playoffs for the first time in three years . . . and is gaining traction.
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?
The 11 picks the Bruins made in the first and second rounds of the last three NHL drafts have replenished the prospect cupboard, and this was the season they began to see dividends. David Pastrnak busted through and helped carry the Bruins offense in his third season. Brandon Carlo developed into a bona-fide, top-4 shutdown defenseman while essentially making the jump from junior hockey to the NHL with minimal minor-league grooming. And Charlie McAvoy hopped onto the moving train in the playoffs and left zero doubts he'll be the team's No. 1 defenseman a couple of years down the line. The ability to average 26 minutes a night in the playoffs, to move the puck with skill and poise while looking for offense and playing in every situation, made all those comparisons between McAvoy and Drew Doughty seem more reality than fantasy. It also fueled hopes the Bruins have found the answer to their biggest organizational need. (Now he just needs to go out and do it for training camp, 82 regular-season games and the playoffs next season as a true 20-year-old rookie. No problem, right?)
And this is all in addition to hard-hitting fourth liner Noel Acciari (undrafted free agent out of Providence College), Game 5 hero Sean Kuraly (acquired in the Martin Jones trade to San Jose), Tim Schaller (minor-league free agent) and young veterans like Ryan Spooner, Colin Miller and Frank Vatrano.
Clearly the youthful transfusion of energy, enthusiasm and -- most importantly -- talent, replentished the team's talent base after so many fallow drafts under Peter Chiarelli. It's making a difference both in the points column and in the salary cap world, as the younger, less-expensive players provide their own version of cap relief.
"I feel really good about [the direction of the team]," said captain Zdeno Chara, who, at 40, is old enough to be a father to young D-men protégés like Carlo and McAvoy. "I mentioned that after [Game 6] that the way that the younger players really stepped up this season, especially in the playoffs, it's a great sign for the team and the organization, obviously.
"There is a lot to look forward to in the upcoming season. It's something for sure that the scouting team and the management can be very proud of. There's so much talent in the room that is coming up."
It's all a credit to the Bruins scouting staff, to general manager Don Sweeney's plan to rebuild the prospect chest by making deals for draft picks, and to the three draft classes headed by top scout Keith Gretzky before he left to take an assistant GM job under Chiarelli in Edmonton. It remains to be seen how instrumental the Great One's brother was in the efforts to rebuild Boston's prospect base, but in any case we saw the first wave of young talent crash into TD Garden. Several more should follow.
Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs said very accurately at the end-of-the-season press conference that the B's have "a significantly different profile in terms of who we have in prospects than we did say 24 months ago."
"[Sweeney's] work ethic is second to none and he thinks not just short term about the team, but also long term when he sat down with us and kind of laid out what he thought was a vision of how to get our team back to where we want to be, and in a sustainable period of time," said Bruins president Cam Neely. "Having said that, he also said there would be some bumps along the way, especially early, and there have been.
"Would everybody like to look back and make different decisions? Yeah, we all would. Don's no different. But, the overall package for me, with Don, is I think he's done a really good job of directing certain people in the organization to what we're looking for. Where the team is right now and where it looks to be going, I think the future is bright [for the Bruins]."
Now Sweeney and the Bruins look to push harder in the regular season and postseason. Just getting back to the playoffs is no longer good enough.
"I don't think just putting a young player in the lineup for the sake of just describing the fact that you want to play young players is the right thing to do," said Sweeney. "They have to be young players in order to do that, they deserve the opportunity and take advantage of the opportunity. They have to push another player out of a job. I've always felt that way, a team that's deep enough that you have internal competition and those players to push other players out of the way because they're ready. I think we're moving in that direction."
So what's the bottom line?
Next season, players like Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Jake DeBrusk, Zach Senyshyn and possibly Anders Bjork may push their way into the picture for a team that could use a few more good forwards. The Bruins need to continue to get better at asset management when it comes to NHL trades, and they need to use caution when it comes to overpaying aging free agents after giving five years at big money to David Backes last summer.
But one area where Sweeney has already shown to be a hockey mind worthy of his Harvard degree is in the area of drafting and player development. It took a few years for that piece to take hold after Sweeney and Neely assumed full control of the team. They survived the bumpy ride for the last couple of seasons, and now have the rickety, still-in-need-of-repair Bruins ship pointed in the proper direction for the first time in three years.
The youth movement is arguably the biggest reason behind Boston's surge forward this spring. And there's no sign of let-up in that area.
As Timbuk-3 once infamously said, for the Bruins "the future's so bright, you got to wear shades."