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Look, I get it.
The Bruins missed the playoffs, and based on team CEO Charlie Jacobs's threats earlier this season, someone had to pay the price. Peter Chiarelli put together the team, so it was him. Claude Julien also coached the team, and so when the new GM is hired, it might be him as well.
And it probably will be.
Because what the team's failure this season — the first in eight years without playoffs in Boston — really did was allow team president Cam Neely to seize just a little more power for himself. And he did it ruthlessly.
Recall: He was hired as vice president of the Bruins prior to the 2007-08 season, and promoted to his current role in 2010. That's a full season after Chiarelli took over (he came to Boston just before the draft in 2006) and a few months after Julien was hired (June 2007). For Neely, these guys were never “his guys,” even though they won the Cup four years later, and did so with a team largely built on the ideals of capital-B capital-H Bruins Hockey. They were physical and gritty and skilled and responsible all at the same time, in much the same way the Bruins of Neely's early 90s were. And the Boston tendency to fetishize these virtues across all aspects of sport and life really took root for Chiarelli.
Thus the ludicrously generous contracts to guys like Chris Kelly and Dennis Seidenberg and Gregory Campbell and Dan Paille and Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid; not good players, to be sure, but guys who embody what Bruins Hockey is all about. Thus the undeserved cult hero status bestowed upon unimpeachable power forward Milan Lucic. And obviously, thus the Tyler Seguin trade, which came because he wasn't Bruins Hockey enough. Informed speculation is that the fallout from that disastrous swap — i.e. getting four nickels back for a quarter and calling it good, to the detriment of the team's offense that, wow, who could have guessed, now looks to have been incredibly short-sighted — played a role in Chiarelli's ouster. At least insofar as it provided Neely with an excuse, even if the kind of playing philosophy he espoused (and still espouses) was at the heart of the deal, and even if he, as team president, was in the room for the decision and likely had to sign off on it.
(And please, spare us the Bruins-peddled perspective that Seguin was “never going to score with the Bruins,” too, because Seguin had 99 points in 129 games getting middle-of-the-lineup minutes over his final two years in Boston. This is well-trodden ground at this point, but the main reason the Bruins saw fit to trade Seguin was that he rather unluckily scored one goal on 70 shots in a Cup run that failed because Zdeno Chara was injured, the fourth line got way more minutes than it should have, and Chicago had a truly amazing team. The partying was just an excuse for the team and local media to shiv Seguin before throwing him overboard; Party Boy Brad Marchand didn't suffer nearly as many slings and arrows, mainly because that 2011 team ended up being “champians.”)
Put another way, Chiarelli mismanaged the cap — on purpose for the 2013-14 season, mind you — and simultaneously tore down part of what made those Bruins teams of 2011 and 2013 so dangerous: If your club features Tyler Seguin on the third line, you are deep to a ludicrous extent. Now, this is the hockey equivalent of a first-world problem (“We have so many good players we can't pay them all!”) and that was understood in Boston. But missing the playoffs with a cap-limit team was always going to be unacceptable, even if it was foreseeable for all the reasons listed above.
But what got Chiarelli fired, beyond the dealings with the cap and not squeaking into the eighth seed through 82 games, is that he tried to move away from Bruins Hockey. Guys who are objectively bad were being forced out of the lineup in favor of players who might actually make a positive difference on the ice — remember Julien complaining that he had to use Ryan Spooner, who ended up forming a potent trio with Lucic and David Pastrnak, instead of people he wanted to dress? — and his big acquisition at the trade deadline was skilled, speedy forward Brett Connolly. He told Campbell and Paille they would not be asked back. And Shawn Thornton deservedly got the same treatment last year. That's not Bruins Hockey, but it's the NHL Hockey predicated on speed and goalscoring that's evolved in the years since Boston won the cup.
Why is that so horrible? Witness Neely's quote from near the beginning of the mealy-mouthed, try-to-say-nothing presser held at TD Garden on Tuesday: “We got away a little bit from our identity that we had in the past. I don’t think we were as hard a team to play against as we like to be and were in the past. I thought that got us some success.”
An amazing takeaway from this season, really. That's what the Bruins were lacking? “Identity?” Being “hard to play against?” Hockey buzzwords that have never really meant anything, and certainly don't mean anything now? Being “hard to play against” in hockey basically means “hitting people a lot,” which necessitates not having the puck. And the Bruins didn't have the puck this season nearly as effectively as they did in the past. Why? Because they specifically sought the “identity” Neely says they don't have; teams are, here in 2015, actually hard to play against when they control possession. The Kings, despite missing the playoffs, bear the reputation of being “hard to play against” because they are dominant. Chicago is hard to play against. The Islanders are hard to play against. Tampa is hard to play against.
But because the Bruins went and constantly doled out deals in service of being hard to play against themselves, they ended up not-being that very much at all. Guys like the fourth line were relied-upon too much this season, and have been for years. Seidenberg led Bruins defensemen in ES TOI per game. They had to be handled this way because of the financial investment in those players (in that they couldn't be scratched, traded, or demoted).
And, while the early part of the Neely quote above is notable for its myopia, he added a second part that went under-reported because everyone was too busy laughing to notice it: “Our transition game probably needs some improvement, so getting the puck out of our end and through the neutral zone. I think we’ve got to find ways to create more offense.”
This sounds forward-thinking. It is, in fact, not. Because if you're going to reward guys like Kelly and Campbell for things like blocking shots and backchecking, you're also rewarding them for not being able to get the puck out of their own end. These are guys who don't necessarily blow coverage. They're often right where they ought to be, which is a virtue of a sort. But what they don't do is get the puck from the opposition; they instead shift around their own zone and, if they do somehow find themselves with the puck on their sticks along the boards, they sure as hell don't get it out of the zone in time to do anything but gain the red line and dump the puck in so they can get to the bench. At least, not often enough to call it worth the money.
But that's as much a coaching problem as a personnel acquisition problem, and Claude Julien certainly isn't blameless. Chiarelli gave him all the toys, but he's the one playing with the broken Ninja Turtles instead of the Playstation 4. Which is what makes this revelation deep in a Fluto Shinzawa piece on the firing — that Neely wanted to fire Julien mid-season and was told he couldn't — so interesting. The next GM, the one Neely hand-picks instead of being handed — will have the ability to fire Julien, and that's “up to him.” But that new GM's philosophy will necessarily be in line with Neely's if he wants the job, so Julien might as well pack up his office now and save himself the time a month or two from now.
Because what Neely wants is power to make hockey decisions for his club in a way he was prevented from doing before. With Chiarelli, and all the success he could point to when making any decision that popped into his head, out of the way, Neely is free to pursue a more Bruins Hockey to whatever end comes about (likely bad).
And this is something that Neely has known was going to happen for some time, because he specifically cautioned Chiarelli against using any significant assets, such as a first-round pick, to bolster the team's chances at the deadline. On some level, that's reasonable. He made his GM dance with who he went to the dance with, and if that was unpleasant, well, it was based on his decisions. But at the same time, telling a GM that he can't improve the team to likewise improve its chances of making the postseason, then firing him for not making the postseason, doesn't seem all that fair.
But equitability isn't what Neely was after. He wanted a larger role in the day-to-day decisions related to the hockey club (apparently because being a highly paid executive and beloved Hall of Famer isn't enough for some people), so now he's going to go out and get a yes-man, and will probably insist that lackey call him “Mr. Neely” and “sir” a lot. Preferably in rapid succession. And he'll be free to keep extending guys like Kelly in perpetuity, and probably reward Milan Lucic for a nice raise.
Oh yes, the team will continue to pursue “identity” and Bruins Hockey, because Neely thinks (wrongly) that's what's going to make them successful again, with a zealous fervor unto the ends of the earth. Like Ahab chased the great white whale.
That ended pretty well for all aboard the Pequod, right?
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