This is the fifth and final installment of a five-part series about the breakdowns that doomed the team this season, and what must change for the Black and Gold to once again get moving in the right direction.
Casual Bruins fans probably thought they were getting a Shawn Thornton-type player when Boston traded a third-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Zac Rinaldo last summer.
Instead it was a deal that was a win in the ledger of Flyers GM Ron Hextall from the very second it was approved by the NHL’s central registry. Hardcore hockey fans knew the Bruins-Rinaldo marriage had little chance of ever working out.
Rinaldo is a physical player who likes to wildly throw the body around. He has above-average skating ability and is fearless, as evidenced by the much bigger, stronger players he tangles with on a regular basis. But there's no comparison between a cheap-shot artist like Rinaldo and a genuine enforcer like Thornton, who struck a tone of intimidation with opponents whenever he was in the Bruins lineup. Thornton gave the B's an air of toughness and courage, and was one of the unquestioned leaders in the dressing room, able to command both respect and accountability.
Thornton's final year in Boston wasn’t without its challenges, given the lengthy suspension he received for knocking out Brooks Orpik at center ice and the needless water-bottle-spraying incident with P.K. Subban in that season's playoffs. But one thing is certain: Thornton would never have watched Adam McQuaid get train-wrecked from behind on a dirty hit by Washington’s Zach Sill, and then simply skate to the bench. That, however, was the reaction of Rinaldo when Sill hit McQuaid this season.
Rinaldo explained his non-actions by saying he was tired at the end of his shift and wary of getting in trouble with the league. He left it to Patrice Bergeron to grab hold of Sill, even though that sort of retaliation is exactly what the Bruins were expecting from Rinaldo when they brought him to Boston in the first place.
It was similar to the hesitation 6-foot-6 Jimmy Hayes showed at times as the opposition pushed around his linemates, or took runs at other Bruins players while he was on the ice. Hopefully Hayes learned that he needs to knock that indecision out of his game if he’s going to be effective here.
But it all speaks to a bigger issue: The change in the makeup of the Bruins, and the need to get back to a tougher, more intimidating style of play.
During their seven-year playoff run, the Bruins earned a reputation as one of the hardest teams to play against in the NHL. Players like Thornton, McQuaid, Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara, Nathan Horton, Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk had size and strength, and were hard-hitting and tough when it was called for.
Very few teams messed with the Bruins. If they did, there was a good chance it would explode into a back-alley brawl . . . like the night when virtually all the Bruins went to war with Sean Avery, Steve Ott and the rest of the Dallas Stars:
It didn’t matter how those teammates felt about each other off the ice. It was no secret that Ference and Mark Recchi had their differences early in their time in Boston, stemming from things that were happening within the NHLPA. But that didn’t stop Ference from jumping to Recchi’s defense when he got smashed in the open ice by David Backes:
That should be the standard for any Bruins team when opponents start to take cheap shots, simply because it makes the B's much more difficult to handle. There were too many nights last season when the Bruins simply didn’t want to battle out on the ice. Not coincidentally, there were also too many nights when they buckled under the bright spotlights of big games.
"We’ve shown some positive stretches and things that we’ve done well . . . " said Chara. "But when times were [there] to fold up or respond, we always kind of find ourselves taking steps backwards. That was one of the things that was disappointing, and frustrating."
Those things might happen a little less if they returned to the previous standard of intensity, engagement and urgency.
That might be easier said than done, but it all starts with the players the Bruins are bringing into the fold.
Matt Beleskey is a prime example of a callback to those previous B’s teams: The kind of hard-hitting, high-energy gamer who would have fit in perfectly with the Stanley Cup-era squads. While the Bruins seemingly missed on Hayes and Rinaldo, they hit -- in the best way -- with the free-agent signing of the hard-nosed, no-nonsense Beleskey. He changed momentum in games with massive hits thrown on the ice, led the club in registered hits last season, and showed up in many of last season’s big-game disappointments when so many others did not.
The Bruins simply need more players like Beleskey, and who preferably can also play the game at a similarly high, or even higher, level.
Torey Krug is often the smallest guy on the ice, but never stops fighting against XXL-sized opponents while refusing to give in on any level. He even dropped the gloves with the massive Chris Stewart, the very definition of courage (with perhaps a little insanity thrown in for good measure).
Noel Acciari is another young player who energized the fourth line toward the end of the regular season with his fearless style of play. He's unafraid to throw violent but clean hits against even the biggest of opponents while bringing energy and thump to the lineup. He didn’t quite get the hang of the offensive game at the NHL level during his brief audition, but the hope is that will change with a little more experience.
Players like Beleskey and Acciari speak to the Bruins’ acknowledgement that regaining their traditional identity is important, and it’s something they did intermittently last season.
“I still think we have room to improve in that area," said president Cam Neely. "I believe the group [last year] was a closer group; they enjoyed playing for each other and working hard for each other. I thought . . . aside from a couple stretches, we were a team that showed more passion probably than the year prior. But it’s still an area we need to improve upon.”
Most importantly for Neely, general manager Don Sweeney, coach Claude Julien and the Jacobs' ownership group is the need to understand how important their fan base feels about that style of play. The loyal Bruins followes can forgive quite a bit if they feel their team is hustling, working hard and fighting for each other at every turn.
That’s the bare minimum the Bruins should be striving for next season. A lot of good things could start happening if they get back to those basics.