Give Boston Bruins president Cam Neely credit. He seems to fully understand just how important this upcoming offseason will be for the Bruins, and just how much thought, honesty and frank discussion will need to happen these next few months putting together a strategy.
The facts are simple and undeniable. The Bruins have been an excellent regular season hockey club over the last three years that has racked up points and posted a 143-58-33 over that significant period of time. They’ve also proven they can beat up Eastern Conference tomato cans like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes should they meet them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But when it comes to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Bruins have won just twice in 10 games during the postseason, and they’ve been totally shut down during 5-on-5 play while lacking the size, strength and depth to push close to the Lightning net. At the other end of the ice they’ve shown little ability to neutralize Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat among others.
Worst of all, the Lightning core group is younger than the Bruins' with Victor Hedman, Point, Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy all in their twenties, and the old man of their group is Steven Stamkos at just 30 years old.
The Bruins are old timers by comparison with Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask all in their thirties, and only youngsters like David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy boasting the kind of young legs that Tampa Bay has in abundant supply.
“We’ve got some guys that have played a lot of good hockey for us, a lot of years for us. Their careers are somewhat winding down and we have to really take a hard look at where we are as an organization. Can we compete for a Stanley Cup and if we can, what do we have to do to our roster to do that?” said Neely.
“We have to really be honest with ourselves in assessing our team and assessing our players in the organization. See where we think we really are going to be. We have to be as brutally honest as possible about where we think we’re going to be in the next couple years, and we have to react accordingly to that.”
There’s really no avoiding the matchup given the current divisional playoff format where teams like the Bruins and Lightning will meet in the early rounds of the playoffs year after year, and Boston will have to go through Tampa Bay if they want to make a Stanley Cup run. It’s as simple as saying “The Stanley Cup road goes through Tampa Bay” when it comes to the Bruins’ prospects over the next few seasons.
This means the Black and Gold brain-trust has some very difficult conversations headed their way in the coming weeks. The Bruins need to get younger, bigger, stronger and deeper as an overall group to truly compete with Tampa Bay, and they need to do it while dealing with a flat salary cap over the next three seasons amidst the COVID-19 economic reality.
Neely acknowledged all this while admitting heady subjects like the B’s Stanley Cup window will be candidly discussed while putting together an offseason game plan.
“We’re going to start [in] December, January, now we’re talking another four, five months off. How are we going to play? How are we going to react to that? What does that season look like? There are all these questions still unanswered right now,” said Neely.
“That doesn’t mean that we can’t take a hard look at our roster and our organization and see where we should be going for this next year or two. That’s what my message has been, ‘lets really take a look and see where we’re going to be’. Can we compete for the Stanley Cup and if everyone feels we can compete for the Stanley Cup, what do we have to do to get back to that final twosome and have a legitimate shot to win?”
That’s a much different tone than in year’s past for the Bruins and could portend some roster-shaking moves this offseason. The NHL roster may already be in flux by virtue of free agent Torey Krug looking for a big payday, but it could absolutely go beyond that. Jake DeBrusk is 24 years old and has averaged 20 goals per game over his first three NHL campaigns, but he’s also put up a paltry two points in 10 games against the Lightning in the playoffs over the last three years.
Given that DeBrusk is primed for a big raise as a restricted free agent and the interest he holds on the trade market, that’s the kind of asset that could allow the Bruins to remake their NHL roster a little bit moving forward.
It goes beyond DeBrusk, however. There could be a real push to move 34-year-old David Krejci headed into the final year of his contract with the Bruins, and a no-trade clause allowing him to be traded to half the teams in the league.
With young forwards like Jack Studnicka, Trent Frederic, Anders Bjork and Zach Senyshyn all pushing for NHL jobs and new forwards like Ondrej Kase getting assimilated up front, the Bruins are gauging whether they have the internal talent ready to withstand some significant roster turnover.
The most important aspect to all of this? It appears the Bruins are ready to have real conversations about their current core group and the very real window closing on their Cup changes. They don’t necessarily have to strip it all down like the New York Rangers did a couple of years ago when they hired Jeff Gorton for a massive rebuild of the Blueshirts organization, but it’s also very clear something needs to give if the Bruins are going to ever get past the Lightning in the next few seasons, and that means big changes need to come.