The Boston Bruins looked like a team capable of going on a deep run in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
They were arguably the best team in the NHL from the April 12 NHL trade deadline to the end of the regular season. The acquisitions of Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar and Mike Reilly helped transform the Bruins into an elite 5-on-5 team. The goaltending to end the regular season also was fantastic. In the first round against the Washington Capitals, the B's lost the series opener and then won four consecutive games.
Round 2 against the New York Islanders started off similarly well for the Bruins with a 5-2 victory in Game 1. Charlie Coyle scored a great goal to put the B's 1-0 in Game 2 against the Islanders, and at that point it looked like the B's might cruise into the semifinal.
But the opposite happened.
The Bruins lost four of the next five games, including the last three of the series, culminating in a lackluster performance in a 6-2 season-ending loss in Game 6 on Wednesday night. It was the Bruins' first three-game losing streak of the entire season.
The Bruins' veteran core of Patrice Bergeron (age 35), Brad Marchand (age 33), David Krejci (age 35) and Tuukka Rask (age 34) is not young. Krejci and Rask can become unrestricted free agents this summer. Hall and Reilly can hit free agency, too.
The 2021 playoff run could've been this core's last real chance to win a second Stanley Cup title.
"That core is getting older in one year to the next and it's disappointing that way, you know, that you have a good team we have, you have opportunities and you know they don't come that often," Bergeron said. "Especially later in your career and you want to make the most of it. You take it a year in time and we'll see what happens.
Marchand also lamented the earlier-than-expected playoff exit.
"It's disappointing," he said. "We expected a longer run in this room. We felt like we had a group that could go really deep this year. I think the biggest thing that I learned of coming from being a young guy to an older guy is, and Bergy mentioned it earlier, that opportunities where you have a good team where you really feel like you have an opportunity to win, they don't come along very often. And I think the older you get you realize how hard it is to win a Cup and to get there and what it takes. I just think that's the biggest thing is you can't take any opportunity for granted. Which is why, again, this is a tough one to lose because we really felt that we had a good group to make a good run this year."
Since the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season when Rask took over for Tim Thomas as the starting goalie, the core of Bergeron/Marchand/Krejci/Rask has led the Bruins to the playoffs in seven of nine seasons. That span is highlighted by two trips to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and 2019. The loss to the Blues in 2019, which saw the Bruins lose three of four games at home including a 4-1 defeat in Game 7, was a massive blown opportunity. There's no way the Bruins should've lost to that Blues team.
Despite the successes the team has enjoyed over the last 10 years, winning zero championships since 2011 and advancing past the second round just twice is still pretty disappointing when you consider the talent this roster has had over that span.
There are a lot of reasons why the team hasn't won a Stanley Cup post-2011. Bad drafting is probably the main one.
It's tough to find multiple players the Bruins drafted from 2007 through 2013 who made a huge impact for a prolonged period. Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton were very good players for Boston drafted in 2010 and 2011, respectively, but neither guy lasted more than three seasons with the B's before being traded. Matt Grzelcyk, a third-round selection in 2012, is the only player drafted during that span still making a meaningful impact for the team.
More recent drafts have also failed to produce young talent on cheap, controllable contracts required for success in the salary cap era.
The Bruins had three first-round picks and three second-round picks in a loaded 2015 NHL Draft. It was an opportunity to set up the franchise for an amazing run and add multiple young stars to the core of Bergeron, Krejci, Rask and Zdeno Chara. The B's whiffed on all three first-rounders, and then the Islanders took star center Matthew Barzal immediately after Boston reached for Zach Senyshyn at No. 15. Brandon Carlo is the only second-round pick from that 2015 class who should have a long-term future with the team.
After 2015, the only players drafted by the Bruins with real star potential are Charlie McAvoy and maybe Jeremy Swayman. McAvoy is a Norris-caliber defenseman and Swayman could be the No. 1 goalie as soon as next season. Two impact players from the last five drafts is really bad.
So, it wasn't a surprise when The Athletic and ESPN ranked the B's prospect pool 31st and 30th, respectively, before the season. With very few talented prospects, the Bruins don't have a ton of great trade assets to go out and fill holes on their roster. They also don't have the young players ready to replace Krejci, Hall and Reilly next season if they leave in free agency.
The Bruins could -- and probably should -- run it back in 2021-22 by re-signing Hall, Krejci and Rask. They have around $22 million in salary cap space. Carlo needs to be re-signed, too, but he's a restricted free agent. If those guys come back, the B's will again be one of the league's top 10 teams. But unless major changes are made -- and there aren't a lot of avenues for that to happen given the lack of tradeable assets and prospects -- it's hard to see this veteran core competing for another Stanley Cup.
So if this is it for the Bruins' veteran core as a real Cup contender, B's fans might look back on this 10-year run and feel more disappointment than joy. That would be totally understandable given how much talent and potential the team had over that span.