At least one of the Bruins is finally willing to say on the record what was painfully obvious to anyone who watched Boston trudge through a wholly unsatisfying, uninspired -- and unsuccessful -- season.
Brad Marchand told CSNNE.com in an exclusive interview last week that the 2014-15 Bruins were a divided team, and there was definitely a schism in the dressing room. The break was between players working furiously to get the B’s into the playoffs, as they'd done every year since 2007-08, and those who weren’t on board with that effort. Marchand didn’t name names or point fingers at anyone in particular, but it’s pretty easy to do the math when you look at some of the roster changes over the summer.
“It was different,” said Marchand in a CSNNE television sit-down interview with teammate Torey Krug.
“In the past years, we were family, but for some reason this past year we were definitely a little bit divided, and had different cliques. It could’ve been because we had a lot of guys coming up in different times from Providence; they felt a lot more together, and it seemed like the older guys didn’t do a good job at integrating other guys.
“So it’s definitely a combination of things. This year we have to do a much better job collectively as a group to make sure we’re all on [the same page], and we’re a unit that will transfer over to the ice that will allow us to play better hockey.”
The issues with the Black and Gold started before the regular season began.
Fourteen months ago, the Bruins chose not to re-sign fourth-line enforcer, and high-character clubhouse presence, Shawn Thornton. They continued with the gut-punch trade of top-four defenseman Johnny Boychuk right before the beginning of the season.
The Bruins all knew salary-cap problems would force painful roster changes, but former general manager Peter Chiarelli made the wrong choice in trading Boychuk. It was a controversial move that ultimately cost him his job.
In hindsight, finding takers for Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell, and buying out Chris Kelly, could have created the cap room that would have allowed the Bruins to keep Boychuk, who desperately wanted to remain in Boston (and who ultimately signed a mega seven-year deal with the Islanders). Had the Bruins retained, and re-signed, Boychuk, they would now have at least one proven top-four defenseman in his prime. As it stands they have none, what with Dougie Hamilton having been dealt to Calgary.
But that's beside the point when it comes to team chemistry.
The departures of Thornton and Boychuk, a year after Andrew Ference was also allowed to walk, removed key “connective-tissue” players from the roster. Both were tough, good Bruins on the ice, and also served a key role in bringing together all corners of the dressing room. Perhaps because of the years both spent in the AHL, paying their dues, Thornton and Boychuk had a natural ability to make younger players, or players who would otherwise sense they were on the periphery, feel as if they were important and valued members of the team.
Many players remarked at how “quiet” the Bruins dressing room was between periods last year during times of high pressure. The Bruins even rearranged the locker stalls at both Ristuccia Arena and TD Garden in the middle of the season to change the dynamics.
But by the time the B’s played their game of musical lockers, it was way too late.
Milan Lucic openly admitted during the year how much he felt the Bruins missed Boychuk at the start of last season, and how it took the team months to get over the shocking move.
“I think we struggled [as a team] getting over the Johnny trade,” he said then. “I know I did personally because he was a really good friend of mine. What I learned the most . . . is that I can’t rely too much on other guys.”
Multiple sources indicated to CSNNE.com there was a divide between groups of younger and older players in the Bruins dressing room last season. The younger guys felt excluded from a group of established, influential veterans who were, in some cases, focused more on their own individual situations than the team's. And some older vets felt they weren’t getting enough from the young players who needed to step up to replace those who had left.
A poll of veteran Bruins players, if truth serum was involved, would probably reveal that many of them felt that guys like Hamilton and Reilly Smith weren’t willing to pay the price to win, and didn’t really want to be Bruins at the end of the day. Smith’s days here were essentially numbered when he choked hard in a March 19 must-win game against the hard-charging Senators: He finished with a minus-3 and got benched for his lackadaisical, careless play. His turnovers led to easy Senators goals in a late-season game the Bruins needed to win to squelch Ottawa’s momentum toward the playoffs, and it spoke volumes about Smith’s willingness to fight and battle under pressure.
In Hamilton’s case, reports that he was unanimously disliked are more hyperbole than truth; the young defenseman had a couple of friends on the team. But he was never really a good fit for the Boston market, for the team, or for the identity of the Bruins. He read and heard -- and took to heart -- absolutely everything that was written and said about him (and a lot is written and said in this intense media market), wasn’t nearly tough enough, and didn’t seem all that interested in working on becoming the dominant two-way defenseman his skills indicate he can be. Instead he seemed most focused on power plays and points and becoming a great offensive defenseman, rather than a dominant all-around player.
Despite it all the Bruins made five different contract offers to keep him, given his elite talent and Boston’s inability to immediately replace him. Ultimately it was Hamilton who chose to leave Boston for Calgary, and his actions spoke louder than his words: He didn’t want to play for the Bruins anymore.
Pay close attention to the comments of the leader types on the Bruins this fall, and the theme is unmistakable: The Bruins veterans appreciate the incoming players who “really want to be” in Boston. Matt Beleskey left money on the table to sign a five-year deal with the Bruins, and Jimmy Hayes is a dyed-in-the-wool Bostonian with the genuine Dorchester accent to prove it. Both showed they wanted to be members of the Bruins, and aren’t regarded as “soft” players in any way, shape or form.
The other side of that coin: Some of the players jettisoned this summer, in a bit of dressing room and on-the-ice housecleaning, really didn’t seem like they wanted to be here.
One of the biggest criticisms of last year's Bruins, both on and off the ice, is that they were soft, didn’t handle adversity very well, and were no longer a difficult team to play against. Without question, that has changed by subtracting Hamilton, Smith and Carl Soderberg, and adding Beleskey, Hayes and Zac Rinaldo.
The general sense around the team from the moment Boychuk was traded for draft picks was that last season had been sacrificed to the salary-cap gods, and that they didn’t have enough ammunition to compete for the Stanley Cup. Removing Cup hopes from an established group of veterans with championship pedigrees wasn’t a good move, and it revealed cracks below the surface.
Some of it came from the players. There were not-so-private complaints, for instance, from some about carrying AHL players on their lines at the start of last season.
And some of it came from the front office, which seemed to make reactionary, panic moves instead of following a reasoned, well-thought-out strategy. Take the example of the injured David Krejci, who was pushed back into the lineup before he felt he was ready to play. Krejci lasted all of one game -- against Edmonton on Nov. 6 -- before being put back on the shelf, and was never truly healthy enough to help the Bruins in the way he had in the past. Another was skipping the cellar-dwelling Oilers as the team that goalie Malcolm Subban would make his NHL debut against, and instead throwing him to the wolves on the road in St. Louis. It proved to be a (predictable) epic fail for Subban and the Bruins. He was pulled in the second period after allowing three goals on three consecutive shots, and the Subban misfire was basically a microcosm for Boston’s epic fail of a season.
By the end of last year, the players who'd carried the team faltered under lack of unified support and limped to a 5-5-4 record in their final 14 games, losing all three must-win games to close out the season. The axe was already hanging over Chiarelli’s head by that point, and his players' inability to finish strong sealed his fate.
“It was really tough,” Marchand said to CSNNE.com about last season. “In our group, with the team we have in this organization, we expect guys to come in every night and be prepared to lay their bodies on the line. The majority of the guys wanted nothing more to be in the playoffs last year and even if you have one passenger, that’s enough to ruin your chances.
“We didn’t have all [the] guys going. It was very disappointing. It put a lot more pressure on guys that already had a lot of pressure on them. You’ve got to look at the guy beside you and know that he’s going to the job, and you’re going to do the same.”
Last season was the first time in nearly a decade that the Bruins didn’t have that kind of unified accountability in their dressing room, and there was uncertainly whether the proverbial “guy next to you” would be able to get the job done. The Bruins have already made major structural changes over the summer to address last season’s situation, and the hope is the team’s identity will be radically different this season.
It will truly need to be different if they're going to reunite the dressing room and bust back into the playoffs after a one-year hiatus.