BOSTON -- Wednesday’s press conference with Bruins upper management and ownership didn’t provide a lot of definitive answers as to how the team plans to address missing the playoffs for the last two seasons.
Perhaps even more problematic, it seemed to raise even more questions.
One thing the annual end-of-season presser did accomplish was making clear Cam Neely’s role within the B’s hierarchy. The Bruins Hall of Famer is the head of the hockey operations department as club president, and the buck stops with him. Longtime Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs went so far as to say that he defers to Neely on all hockey decisions, and that it’s fully up to Neely to use anything and everything at his disposal to get things moving back toward perennial playoff status.
It felt like there's zero danger of Neely losing his job anytime soon, even after a couple of failed seasons, and Jacobs himself made clear Neely will get a long run in his efforts to turn things around. It only makes sense, given that Neely didn’t have final say on hockey decisions during Peter Chiarelli’s tenure as general manager, and his multiyear plan with new GM Don Sweeney is the beginning of their putting their full imprint on the team.
Last season wasn’t a roaring start, but Neely and Sweeney will get their due time to figure things out.
“You’ve got a cap environment, and you’ve got to maximize your dollars,” said Jacobs. “We spend to the cap, and we’ve got to manage it. That’s really what it comes down to, strong management at this point. They need to bring in the youth and make sure that they’ve got room for all of this. It’s results-oriented, and I think you’ll see it from the very start of next season. You will fail in the process, certainly. You’ll see failures and successes. You take advantage of your successes, and you deal with your failures.
“I’ve felt right along [there’s a playoff mandate], but sometimes you don’t meet your expectations. You don’t perform as you’d like to, but that’s just human nature. It’s not my decision. My decision is hiring Cam, and seeing that he was the ability to perform. It’s providing the environment for him to perform in. He’s my leader right now, and I ride with him. He’s the personality that I’m looking forward to seeing, and he’s got a clear deck right now to [turn things around]. He had a difficult year last year, but it wasn’t unanticipated in my mind. They said it would be rocky, and it was. And it was disappointing in the end, wasn’t it?”
Sweeney’s plan was mentioned rather prominently, and pointedly, by Neely during the press conference in illustrating the bumps in the road Boston management expected while making significant changes. But also prominent was the sense that there'd be understanding and patience from the guys who sign the checks
“I concur with Cam that there were some listless moments [in 2014-15] when the team, in my opinion, really for lack of a better term, didn’t have the heart that we had seen in years prior, and that came back [last season],” said CEO Charlie Jacobs, Jeremy's son. “I think some of the youth that [Sweeney] was able to inject into our roster reflected some enthusiasm that we frankly hadn’t seen in a while and it was refreshing.
“Mind you, that doesn’t mean we’re not all sitting here disappointed about the outcome. But it was a change, and I think by and large it changed for the better.”
The biggest takeaways, however, encouraging one,. In fact, the press conference felt exactly how last season played out: Some good intentions and a few decent ideas sprinkled with decent moments, but a lack of clear, focused movement in just one direction combined with some very bad execution at other points.
The failure to move up in the draft to nab Noah Hanifin after trading away Dougie Hamilton was a killer. The Zac Rinaldo trade continues to be a head-scratcher. The assets wasted at the trade deadline (trading for rentals and holding onto Loui Eriksson) betray an organization that should have had a more realistic assessment of last year’s group.
The term I heard many times in hockey circles last season when speaking with agents, scouts or other hockey execs was “half-pregnant”: the Bruins had one foot in a rebuild, and the other foot in an effort to continue competing for the playoffs with a core group of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask and Zdeno Chara, among others.
Jeremy Jacobs crystallized Neely’s philosophy when talking about how much the Bruins envy Detroit’s ability to qualify for the playoffs in 25 consecutive seasons . . . including this one, ahead of Boston.
“I’ve been watching Detroit and they’re . . . you don’t understand, or I don’t understand, the issues that they have in front of them," he said. "They are a great team and have been for a very long time, and they’ve got some wonderful stars there. But . . . you do pay a price for age and all and bringing in the youth. What you admire though is their evolution versus the revolution and so far as that’s concerned you admire the fact that they’ve been on a consistent course. I think we admire that, and I think Cam is playing a similar role [to the Red Wings] now.”
Whether or not it’s a carbon copy of what the Wings are doing, Neely was clear in referencing it as “Donnie’s plan” every time he mentioned the ultimate disappointment of last season. The danger of that plan is that the goal becomes being just good enough to get bounced in the first or second round of the playoffs, but never good enough to make the long, arduous climb to the Stanley Cup finals.
From an outside perspective, it seemed like Neely was distancing himself a bit from last season’s strategy, which failed to execute one of its top goals in securing a top, young defenseman talent. It also seemed like Neely was still at a loss to understand exactly what happened in the final 13 games of the season, when the Bruins crashed, burned and ultimately found themselves missing the playoffs by a point for the second straight season.
“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about since our season ended," Neely said. "It’s hard for me to understand how we got to where we were with 13 games remaining and not being able to close it out. So for me it’s a combination of maybe some of the will, you know, the will to win, the will to compete. Maybe it’s some of things we could’ve done differently tactically. I think it might be a combination of those things, but I wish it was as easy as saying, ‘This was the exact problem.’
“It’s [on] all of us really. I mean from me, myself, Don, the coaching staff -- all of us. But like I said, the plan that Don put in place wasn’t a one-offseason fix, you know? It’s not easy during the course of the season to make deals to try and improve your club, but a lot of things happen in the offseason. So we’re going to get to work this offseason.”
The responsibility part of it is fine, but it also feels like some of the lack of urgency since the end of the season is tied into a lack of understanding exactly what happened in the season’s final weeks. That’s the kind of self-examining diagnosis that needs to happen in the president’s office, and those reverberations need to be felt throughout the organization. Yet the coach and the core group will be coming back again after two late-season implosions in a row, and fired defensive assistant coach Doug Houda is the only one paying the price -- so far -- for last year’s issues.
It’s difficult at this point to see how history won’t repeat itself, barring an unforeseen major shake-up to the way that Neely and Co. are doing business on Causeway Street. Maybe the youth will be served next season, supplementing a core group that once again forges into a hardened playoff contender. Maybe the team’s tendency to look overwhelmed in important games will go away with time, experience and maturity, and the Bruins can slap on a couple of transformative pieces that make this Black and Gold machine hum again.
But it feels like there is a lot of hoping going on with the Bruins right now rather than decisive, confident action about what needs to be done. And that’s a place where Neely needs to set the tone at the very top of the Spoked ‘B’ pyramid.
That’s something that didn’t feel like it was happening after a lot of empty talk at TD Garden looking outside the playoffs.