It's pretty obvious now that this was the Boston Bruins' “going for it” year.
All the evidence you really need in that regard is the fact that they did everything in their power to squeeze themselves under the league's very tight $64.3 million salary cap, put in place to artificially depress player costs following the most recent lockout. The prime example here is Jarome Iginla's one-year deal, which carried a too-low salary of just $1.8 million, but was laden with huge and easily achieved bonuses that brought his total cap hit to a total of $6 million if all were achieved.
In essence, Peter Chiarelli pushed-all in on this iteration of the Boston Bruins as being the team most likely to win a Stanley Cup, and while obviously we can sit here today and say it didn't work out, it probably was the right bet. These Bruins won the Presidents' Trophy for having the biggest point total of any team in the NHL over 82 games, and you don't do that by accident. You might be able to make an argument that the Bruins weren't the actual best team in the NHL this season, given the overall strength of the Eastern Conference and so on, but they were without a doubt one of the top two or three. Chiarelli's bet that this team could win it all was a relatively sound one.
The NHL's record books are littered with “best” teams that didn't win a Stanley Cup — there's a “Presidents' Trophy curse” for a reason, after all — because the best team doesn't always win.
That's what happened Wednesday, right? Boston ran into a goodish team playing its best hockey of the season, backed by a positively molten goaltender who was already one of the absolute best at his job on earth even on bad days.
They ran into bad luck, lots of it, along the way as well. Carey Price wasn't giving them much, but when he did, they hit the post. Thirteen times. The Bruins only scored 16 goals in the entire series.
But because Chiarelli decided this was the year in which the team was best positioned to win a Stanley Cup, next year's version of the team is going to suffer. All the bonuses in Iginla's contract, and a few of the guys on entry-level deals (Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton) pushed the Bruins over the cap ceiling by Capgeek's reckoning and as such, the overage will be deducted from the Bruins' own limit next season.
So right now, it appears the Bruins' actual payroll against the cap was just north of $67 million, about $2.7 million over the actual limit. As such, if the salary cap is $70 million next year, the Bruins could only spend $67.3 million against it as a penalty for going over this season. The Chicago Blackhawks famously had to do this when they won their first Cup in recent memory, and that's what necessitated the trades of Brian Campbell, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, among others.
Now the Bruins face a similar conundrum. They already have $63.6 million committed to 19 salaries next season, and have a ton of free agents to re-sign (Iginla, Krug, Reilly Smith, Justin Florek, Jordan Caron, and Matt Bartkowski are those who seem most likely to be sought again). While some of those guys are restricted free agents who play supporting roles and will therefore have lower cap hits going forward, the fact remains that they have a small amount of money to spend — and dead weight to clear off the roster to squeeze everyone in — to get all that done.
That means hard decisions are on the way. The media in Boston is already starting to talk about this, and the knives are clearly being sharpened for another Caesar-at-the-Senate shiv fest because this time they have a number of playoff underperformers instead of just Tyler Seguin, and there's a serious cap crunch going on.
The primary target at this point seems to be Brad Marchand, who carries a cap hit of $4.5 million and is for some reason largely seen as being a product of Patrice Bergeron's all-encompassing greatness more than, say, his own unique talent. He was fifth on the team in scoring this year, and one of only three Bruins to crack 25 goals (and carried a corsi share of 59.8 percent in the regular season, which you'll note is very good).
However, he also didn't score once in the playoffs, and the Bruins lost, and there were all those rumors earlier this year that they'd move him after the scoring drought to start the season combined with the fake ring-kissing and Cup-raising in the loss to Vancouver. Even as a 26-year-old who's scored at a 25-plus goal pace in each of the last three seasons, he seems rather a likely candidate to get shipped out of town if that's going to be the move.
Boston's problem offensively wasn't limited to just one or two guys, or even a line, though. They tried to score by committee again, and again it wasn't enough given what the Canadiens presented to them. Krug led the team in playoff scoring, with 10 points in 12 games. Bergeron had nine, three more guys had seven.
That's not good enough, and while it's easy to say, “They should have held onto Seguin” — and by the way, of course they should have — he did return Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith and even Matt Fraser. The problem goes deeper than Chiarelli's pathological need to offload iffy defensive forwards who have skill for miles, like Seguin and Phil Kessel, in a never-ending search for “jam!!!” and into the fact that scoring by committee just doesn't work in the playoffs.
Even when they won the Stanley Cup, Krejci rather improbably set the playoffs on fire with 23 points in 12 games, including 12 goals. To some extent, you need guys who can do that: Put a team on their back and just win a game. The Bruins' roster is bereft, and now they're actually facing a cap penalty that's going to further limit their ability to add a player like that.
But the Bruins might have much bigger problems than Marchand or even David Krejci and Milan Lucic's inability to score in the postseason this year. They also must consider that the defense on which their success in recent years has been built doesn't seem like it's going to hold up much longer. Yes, having Dennis Seidenberg in the lineup for these playoffs would have likely helped tremendously, but supposing he was, a D corps of Zdeno Chara, Dougie Hamilton, Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Bartkowski, Krug and Kevan Miller is a significant step down from what we're used to seeing from this team.
That's especially true because of how tough it is to ignore the deterioration of Chara's game in two consecutive postseasons. Remember all that talk about “What's wrong with Chara?” against the Blackhawks? There should have been similar questions asked this year.
It's not his fault and he's not getting outplayed, per se, but he's clearly just worn down by the end of the season. While this was his best year in a while, it's two straight suboptimal playoffs, and maybe that's just the result of his being 37 years old and never particularly fleet of foot. So Chiarelli has to ask: What happens next year, or the year after, when Chara's still making big money (more than $6.9 million against the cap) and you can set your watch to fast teams smoking him to the outside?
There are some good young D on this team, but none of them are Chara, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Not yet. Statistically, probably not ever.
This is not, however, to say we're watching the demise of the Bruins. They're still going to be very good, perhaps even great, again next year. Probably the year after that as well. The window isn't closing, per se, but it isn't not-closing either. Making rash decisions about personnel, like the Seguin trade, isn't a reasonable approach at this time, but it's certainly the temptation. After all, we're now really having a discussion about whether Sidney Crosby is actually better than Jonathan Toews (and yes, of course he is), just to illustrate how far this kind of post-elimination mania can drive people.
Chiarelli bet big and lost this year. He'll pay for it next year. And by then, the time to bet big again might be coming to a close. But he has to be smart going forward when re-equipping his team for another attempt at the Cup. He surely can't double down on his more recent mistakes and expect different results.