Neely, Sweeney have Bruins moving in new direction


Neely, Sweeney have Bruins moving in new direction

WILMINGTON -- Cam Neely knew things might get a little "rocky and bumpy" for the Bruins during the first few weeks of transition to a new management structure. And they did.

Neely, the team president, and new general manager Don Sweeney appeared inexperienced when some attempted big moves fell through on draft weekend. They got less than they probably should have for a 21-year-old prime asset in Dougie Hamilton, and their Friday night machinations -- which included trading Milan Lucic to the Kings -- to move up in the first round, where they could have landed a young franchise defenseman like Noah Hanifin or Zach Werenski, failed. In an odd twist, the Bruins never interviewed or spoke with Hanifin prior to their concerted attempts to package assets for Arizona’s pick, with which they would have selected the Norwood, Mass., native.

That brought a firestorm of criticism that the Bruins didn’t have a long-range plan in place, a notion exacerbated when they sent a third-round pick to the Flyers for cheap-shot artist Zac Rinaldo, of all people.

But they rebounded with impressively strong moves in the July 1 opening of free agency.

They signed the most coveted forward on the market, Matt Beleskey, to a team-friendly $3.8 million-per-season contract, and traded soft winger Reilly Smith to Florida for a big-bodied power forward in Jimmy Hayes. You put all the moves together, along with the four-year contract awarded to Adam McQuaid, and you begin to envision a team that will be much harder to play against than last season’s marshmallow soft crew.

As it stands now, after signing D-man Matt Irwin last week to a one-year deal, the Bruins have 12 forwards and 7 defensemen ready for NHL duty, with goalie Tuukka Rask backed by one of several young netminders under their control. They also have roughly $4 million in cap space, so the suddenly cap-flexible Bruins can also now pounce on any deals that arise from cap-strapped teams, the way the Islanders were able to pick up Johnny Boychuk (from Boston) and Nick Leddy last September. If, say, Brent Seabrook becomes available in a Chicago fire sale, the B’s would presumably have the ability to move.

“If we have any opportunities come up, we now have the flexibility to act on them,” said Neely to “If something happens now all the way through training camp where we feel we can improve our club, we have a better chance of adding without saying, 'Okay, now who do we have to subtract?'

“When you’re in a position where you have to move someone in order to acquire someone else, you’re really at a pretty big disadvantage. Anytime you’ve got some [cap] space, it’s a good thing. I’m looking forward to looking at some of the young 'D', and seeing if they can embrace the opportunity. But by no means are we closing the books and saying this is what we’ve got [for a roster].”

There are still major needs, of course.

They have no ready replacement for Hamilton, and don’t have a top flight puck-moving defenseman capable of playing top minutes and quarterbacking the power play. They tried to sign Mike Green, but were outbid by the Detroit Red Wings. But the Black and Gold have been very active in trades and free agency, which is something that wasn’t always the case over the last few years under Peter Chiarelli, and Neely says fans, media and outsiders should be starting to understand Sweeney's strategy.

“Don had a plan that we talked about, that we presented and we really thought we could accomplish,” said Neely. “We knew that it might be a little rocky and bumpy, and we also knew that it would entail [free agency]. There would be plenty of opportunities to second guess (prior to all the moves being made), but we also know that people don’t really know what’s going on inside the four walls [at the Bruins offices], and the conversations that are happening.

“We felt like we had to clean up our cap problems, and get out from under that. We needed a chance to add without subtracting all the time. I think what Don was able to accomplish on July 1, whether it was signing Matt Beleskey or trading for Jimmy Hayes, really assured people that there was some kind of a plan. We weren’t tuned into [the criticism], but we could certainly feel it and were prepared for it.”

Neely spoke about more balance among the four forward lines than recent editions of the Bruins had enjoyed, and a collective effort to improve the B’s scoring (they finished 22nd in the NHL in offense last season). While one would hope it’s a little more complicated than Beleskey and Hayes mathematically replacing the 41 goals scored by outgoing players Lucic, Hamilton and Carl Soderberg, Neely trusts in Sweeney to make these improvements happen.

“I think he’s done a fantastic job," Neely said. "I know it wasn’t easy for him, but you wouldn’t notice it or know that it affected him or bothered him. He kept with the plan he’d put in place, and his work ethic is second to none. His knowledge of the game and players . . . he’s put a lot of time in. I’m not surprised with how he’s handled it, but it was quite an introduction as a new GM.”

With the removal of Chiarelli from the Causeway Street offices, Neely has now emerged as the most powerful voice in the organization. Both he and Sweeney absorbed some shots early on, but anybody who watched them as players -- Neely as a Hall of Fame power forward, Sweeney as a 15-year veteran defenseman -- knows that dusting themselves off and rebounding on July 1 was almost a foregone conclusion.

The waves of initial criticism are over, and now Neely and Sweeney -- who've shown they're not afraid to execute big, bold moves -- are building a team in their image. 

Losing streak revealing a Bruins flaw that could be fatal if not addressed

Losing streak revealing a Bruins flaw that could be fatal if not addressed

TAMPA  – The problems are many when a team has lost five in a row as the Bruins have.

It wasn’t a desperate Bruins dressing room in the aftermath of their 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night at Amalie Arena, nor should it be. The B’s still hold an eight-point lead in the Atlantic Division despite being in the throes of their first losing streak of the season.

As Tuukka Rask said succinctly afterward, “We hate to lose, but we’re not going to go 80-3 or whatever it was that [Brett] Ritchie said.”

A strong, winning effort against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night would salvage a rough trip and get the Bruins spinning in the right direction in short order.

That’s not really the problem.

The issue with the Bruins is the same old problems that cropped up against the St. Louis Blues last June in the Stanley Cup Final and two years ago in the second-round series against Tampa Bay. The flaws are springing up again with a series of heavy, intense playoff-style games against quality opponents.

When the Bruins go up against opponents such as Colorado, Washington and Tampa Bay, the offense gets one-dimensional and the effort to score becomes challenging if the special teams are playing at a dominant clip. 

Bruce Cassidy sounded the alarm about it after watching another loss to Tampa Bay where the Bruins scored just enough to lose. There wasn’t enough going on offensively aside from the "Perfection Line" accounting for a first-period lead and a late, desperate goal from John Moore.

“The top line again was creating. We’re just not getting anything from the middle of the lineup in terms of offense,” lamented Cassidy. “You need four lines to produce for you in this league on a regular basis. It might not be [on Thursday]. It might be Saturday, but you need some offense to sort of balance things out. We need some guys to get going here a little bit. [They need] to at least find their opportunities and then they’ll go in. I’m not sure they’re even finding their opportunities yet, so that’s step one that they are chasing.”

Can Cassidy put his finger on what the issue is with the middle lines?

“Some of it is inside. You start playing some good teams that are fast, Colorado, Washington and Tampa Bay. It’s almost like playoff hockey in December. A lot of those guys in that room have lived it and they know what it’s about,” said Cassidy. “Make a decision, do you want to play that way or not? Then some of it is self-inflicted where we won neutral zone face-offs, and harmless kind of plays where it doesn’t get in, we turn it over and then take penalties against a potent power play. Is it the PK? Well, it’s a great power play and we really didn’t help ourselves in those situations.”

Cassidy is spot-on about not enough from the supporting players in the kind of games the B’s will be in the postseason. Jake DeBrusk finished with zero points and had zero shots on net in two of the three games against Colorado, Washington and Tampa. Danton Heinen had zero points and a minus-4 in those three games with five shots on net. Anders Bjork picked up an assist in the loss to Tampa Bay, but managed just two shots on net in the three games against the Avs, Capitals and Lightning. Brett Ritchie has zero points and a minus-2 in the three games since coming back from injury. Even David Krejci has no points, a minus-1 rating and just two shots on net in those three games.

The dilemma facing the Bruins is this: Is this just a preview of what’s going to eventually doom them in the postseason if nothing is done about it?

Certainly, the Bruins weren’t playing their best in the loss to Colorado, but the efforts against Washington and Tampa Bay were more focused and had the kind of urgency that Boston has played with most of the season. And it still wasn’t enough when push came to shove and underlying flaws came forward for a team that’s a little small, a little short on real scoring depth against quality teams and beatable going up against big, deep teams with a physical defensemen corps. 

One would hope that Don Sweeney and Cam Neely were watching closely the past week and took these losses for what they are. The Bruins are showing that they are going to need some help when things get tough in the postseason and that they could use at least one more viable source of offense among their top-six forwards.

They have a bunch of talented kids up front who have shown a propensity to disappear when things get tough against the hard teams and that isn’t going to help the Bruins much this spring. There’s enough of a sample size now to predict that isn’t going to change when it comes to DeBrusk, Bjork, Heinen and Ritchie. The Bruins need to do something about it ahead of the NHL trade deadline.

Whether it’s kicking the tires on Taylor Hall, or a more realistic target such as Los Angeles Kings right wing Tyler Toffoli, the Bruins have shown the past few games that they need some outsource things for help up front if they want to finish what they started last spring.

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Bruins mired in losing streak: 'I don't think we've sucked'

Bruins mired in losing streak: 'I don't think we've sucked'

TAMPA BAY – The Bruins have dropped five games in a row for the first time this season, including four straight regulation losses, as their lead in the Atlantic Division has shrunk to single digits for the first time in weeks.

The latest setback was a 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on Thursday night that gives them losses in three of the first four games on a road trip ending this weekend against the Florida Panthers. The Lightning scored a pair of power play goals and once again, it looked like the B’s just didn’t have enough to get over the hump in the third period after they’d come up just a little short against Washington the previous night.

The offense has slowed with just 20 goals over the last nine games since blowing up for eight scores at the Bell Centre, and the power play has been a shadow of its former self while injuries forced the Bruins to tinker with the personnel. The penalty kill was the problem against the Lightning with Tampa Bay scoring on two of their three power play opportunities. Meanwhile, the B’s are getting very little offense from anybody aside from their top line once again.

The Bruins have enough veterans that they aren’t going to hit the panic button particularly given where they are in the standings, but some results are becoming necessary soon before it spirals out of control.

“It sucks to lose. We hate to lose here. But we’ve played decent. You’re not going to win them all. Obviously, you’re not going to go 80-3 or whatever it was that [Brett] Ritchie said,” said Tuukka Rask, who allowed three goals on 31 shots in defeat. “You don’t want to lose too many games in a row and you’ve got to put a stop to it. It’s been a tough road trip, but we’ve got one more game left and hopefully we can finish it off on a high note.

“We have experience and we’ve been through a lot. We recognize when we suck and when we don’t. I don’t think we’ve sucked. It’s just a matter of getting a couple of bounces, getting a lead and then playing with it. For the most part it’s just playing the right way and then you lose some of these tight games.”

The good news is that the Bruins have played much better against better opponents in Washington and Tampa Bay over the last couple of games after playing down to competition like Ottawa and Chicago in the games prior to that. But the losses aren’t going to turn into wins until they execute with a little more precision in certain instances where penalties, special teams play and a lack of secondary offense hurt them in a big way.

“We gave up two goals tonight where we’d won neutral zone face-offs. Harmless kind of plays where the puck doesn’t get in, we turn it over and then we take penalties against a potent power play,” said Bruce Cassidy. “We didn’t help ourselves in those situations. These are instances where guys need to be better, make the right play and execute.

“Even late in the game we have a chance to tie it up on a backdoor pass and we don’t execute. The power play was disappointing. We don’t execute. Some of it is that we’re playing to what we’re capable of, or what we think we’re capable of.”

Given that Florida is one of the teams most closely chasing them in the division and their Atlantic lead has almost been halved over the course of this current road trip, one would expect the Bruins are going to dig deep for a winning effort against the Panthers on Saturday. If not, then this continues to become the worst losing streak the B’s have experienced in a couple of seasons where they’ve previously managed to steer clear of the extended losing stretches.

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