If you think the Bruins are choking by turning in a stretch that’s brought their record to 12-7-0 under Bruce Cassidy, it means you believe that they’re the quality of team that should win at the pace they were on prior to the slump. That 12-3-0 pace would be 131 points over an 82-game season, making them the second-greatest team of all time, behind the 1976-77 Canadiens and neck-and-neck with the 1995-96 Red Wings.
Get ready, because this take might knock you over: I do not believe the 2016-17 Bruins are the second-greatest team of all time.
In fact, they’re not the second-greatest team in the NHL this season. Or their conference, or their division, for that matter. What they are is maybe the sixth, seventh or eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference. They’re probably good enough to make the playoffs. They’re not so good that their place in the postseason should be assumed.
“But they were in the playoffs before this slump!” you cry. “They were good enough.”
Sure, but they were in the playoffs as part of an unsustainable run. Pretty good teams can go on good runs, just like pretty good teams can go on bad runs. The teams that only go on good runs aren’t pretty good; they’re really good, great, etc. Expectations of a great team are being placed on a pretty good team. It’s every bit as much of a misunderstanding on your part as it is a “choke” on theirs.
My Big Dumb Friend Mike calls this reason-based view nerdy. Fine, then do you know who saw this coming? Nerds. While one group said pretty good teams finish with anywhere from decent to disappointing results, the other printed Cup tickets after a win streak and is now losing its mind after a losing streak. That sounds exhausting for that second group.
Is there an intangible aspect to it? Of course, but if they games are harder in March than they are in October, then wouldn't a worse team fare worse in them? And if the games are harder in March than they are in February, why are you using February games to justify your expectation that they should win in March? You heard it here first: Felger is now, to borrow an overused cliche of his, twisting himself into a pretzel. He'll always be my buddy, though.
At any rate, the losses are frustrating, even if they are games a pretty good team could conceivably lose:
- March 16: The second night of a back-to-back on the road, playing a good Oilers team in Edmonton.
- March 20: Toronto, like them, was towards the bottom of the pack of playoff teams and also needed a win to keep their pace.
- March 21: The second game of a back-to-back, with Ottawa playing for seeding.
- March 23: A bigger game for Tampa than it was for the Bruins, as they needed a win to stay within arm’s reach of a the second Wild Card.
Make no mistake: These are all games the Bruins went into thinking they had to have. Every point is precious to them at this part of the schedule.
Great teams usually win their must-wins. Pretty good teams don’t. Hell, the 2013 Bruins were good enough to reach the Stanley Cup Final and they couldn’t win their must-wins to claim the division down the stretch.
To question the guts of this team is to miss the point. Do you really think Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Zdeno Chara are a bunch of softies? Did you miss what they did in 2011 with a proper supporting cast?
And that’s the bigger point, and why Don Sweeney correctly chose not to invest at the trade deadline: The supporting cast of this team has not yet properly been built. In fact, it's so far from being completed that they weren't even one or two big pieces away.
It’s going to take a couple more years. Most likely, the Bruins will keep their core going into next season and continue to supplement it with Sweeney’s picks, with Charlie McAvoy, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and others hoping to help become that next Bergeron-Krejci-Lucic group that provides a longterm backbone for the roster.
I don’t hate Sweeney’s direction right now. I would have tried for a shorter deal with David Backes (or not signed him), but Sweeney’s got enough guys in the pipeline that could set the team up going forward. Next year’s team should be exciting, even if it won’t be a sure-fire Cup contender.
There’s value in this team getting into the playoffs, even if they were to get bounced early. David Pastrnak, Brandon Carlo and the other Bruins’ youngsters would get postseason, while the team’s veterans would be able to head into next season with tangible proof of progress being made. My guess is that they get in.
If they don't, yes, it will be frustrating given how close they’ll have come. Yet it won’t be for lack of trying, and won’t be for lack of [insert fun sports term for “testicles”] as much as it will be made out to be.
This team was never a lock to reach the postseason. It was expected to contend for the postseason, which is what it's doing. The team's current standing shouldn't be that big of a surprise.