Here's the fifth of our five-part "Breaking Down the Bruins" series where we look at where the B's sit at the end of this season and where they're headed as they aim toward again vying for a Stanley Cup. Today, we look at the Bruins efforts at the coaching staff and the front office.
While it's certainly permissible, and helpful even, to nitpick here or there when it comes to the way the Bruins operation runs on a daily basis, it's long past time to put a little more faith in what Cam Neely, Don Sweeney and Bruce Cassidy are doing over on Causeway Street.
The Bruins have constructed a strong NHL roster with a healthy mixture of proven veterans and a wealth of young talent, and took a quantum leap off the bubble playoff to legitimate-contender status this season.
The 112 points certainly weren't a fluke, and neither were the All-World performances of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak as a top forward line that was the envy of the rest of the league. The B's have one of the NHL's best power plays and it was the best in the postseason, too, when it matters most.
BREAKING DOWN THE BRUINS
Couple that with an "old and new" top defense pairing of Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy, as well as a rookie class that included McAvoy, first-round playoff hero Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Ryan Donato, Sean Kuraly and Matt Grzelcyk, and the Bruins know they have a tremendous foundation to build upon. They still won't be facing much in the way of salary-cap strife for this upcoming season, and there are more young players on the way to supplement their depth and talent level.
These are all testaments to the frameworks put into place by Neely, the team-building skills Sweeney continues to develop along with his draft-and-development acumen, and the perfect coaching choice in Cassidy, who shows willingness to innovate and adjust while placing the players in systems where they can perform best. By and large the Bruins are in as good a spot in the management/coaching categories as they were in 2011 after winning the Stanley Cup, well before the fallow drafts and salary-cap problems began taking their toll on former GM Peter Chiarelli.
Credit the current group for creating a stable, healthy NHL organization that's definitely on the rise, but also one that should still be hungry and not all satisfied after losing four consecutive games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round despite taking a 1-0 series lead with a Game 1 victory. That point should be magnified by the way the Lightning is currently getting their butts handed to them in the conference finals by a big, strong and deep Washington Capitals team.
"We had set the bar for ourselves [with a 112-point regular season]," said Sweeney. "Our coaching staff had done a really good job. We felt we were a team that was prepared every night, a resilient group that came back. We just didn't find a way to elevate when we needed to the most. Give Tampa all the credit in the world; they deserve to move on.
"They beat us over the course of a series and did maybe some of the smaller things that I think . . . our hockey club [did] very well in the course of the year. So, (the playoff series with the Lightning was a) steep learning curve for [our] guys. When you have the opportunity to get there and move on, you have to value the fact that you just might not get back again."
So where does the "needs improvement" category fit into all of this?
Well, this was the season where the rubber really hit the road for the Bruins' choices in the 2015 NHL Draft. Matt Barzal is the odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy after a dazzling rookie season with the New York Islanders. Boston fans can give themselves an ice cream headache with the question "What if Barzal were Boston's second-line center during the playoffs?" . . . . which he might have been had the B's taken him instead of the underachieving Zach Senyshyn with their final first-round pick that year. Same goes for Kyle Connor, Brock Boeser and several others who exploded onto the scene this season as some of the best-and-brightest young players in the league.
Some will try to start a straw-man argument that the Bruins should have taken Barzal over another very good rookie, DeBrusk, but DeBrusk was a consensus first-round choice that nobody quibbled with. Senyshyn was seen as a reach even at the time he was selected, and he's battling consistency in the AHL while players drafted after him are making seismic impacts in the NHL.
So nailing the draft is something the Bruins need to do moving forward.
A second area where Sweeney continues to look for the right solution is at the trade deadline. He certainly was bold this year, accumulating depth at every position by acquiring Nick Holden, Tommy Wingels, Rick Nash and Brian Gionta (while surrendering valued assets like Ryan Spooner and defense prospect Ryan Lindgren). The depth came in handy when injuries and attrition hit during a grueling stretch near the end of the regular season, and provided them with options during the playoffs.
But let's be honest: Nash was the biggest gun the Bruins acquired and he proved to be a big, soft disappointment who didn't finish off nearly enough of his chances while sticking to the perimeter for the most part. The lack of scoring depth proved to be the B's ultimate undoing in the second round, and Nash was specifically brought in to provide offensive punch for the second line.
While Sweeney gets partial credit for making big moves and doing what he thought was best at the deadline for a Cup-worthy group, it is, as the GM himself likes to say, a results-oriented business.
Clearly, Sweeney will get another swing at trades and signings this summer. The Bruins still badly need a frontline left-shot defenseman and a powerful, productive right winger who can provide the production the B's hoped they'd get from Nash.
Finally, Cassidy admitted he learned a few things with his own playoff experience this year.
"Absolutely," he said. "I look back at [the Tampa Bay] series. We had a day of travel and a Sunday game at 3 o'clock. What was the best use of that day? Should we have practiced, or should we not? Is rest more important? Is there something in there that we need to do?
"You start working backwards. What do you say between periods? What do you say going into that overtime in Game 4 after we kind of let a lead go away? There was a call there we thought could have gone our way. How do you get the players back? There are always things you look back on. What can you do better?
"I look at [Game 7 against] Toronto . . . I thought we handled that situation well. We were behind, and we got the guys refocused, and we came out and played a hell of a [third] period to get to the next round.
"There are a lot of different things. [Going into] Game 5 we were up 3-1 against Toronto. What could we have done differently to close out that series at home in that game? There are a lot of things that are outside the coach's control. The players go out and play, and calls are made or not made, etc. There's always things we'll look back at. I thought it was a great learning experience for me to be in a Game 7, and to come through on the right side of it. [It's a] great learning experience to get behind, and not come through against Tampa. So those are things we're going to reevaluate."
Certainly another of those things was Cassidy getting a little conservative with his lineups during the postseason. Cassidy opted for Wingels on the second line in Game 6 against the Leafs in Toronto, and the offense scored just a single goal in a loss that forced a seventh and deciding game. Then in Game 4 against the Lightning, Cassidy made a gutsy call by placing Donato in the lineup. But he also pushed Gionta into that game as well, and it ended up being Gionta who had Tampa Bay's game-winning goal go in off his skate in overtime while failing to win a battle in front of the net.
Still, those are basically nitpicks for a team that has a metric ton of good things going. Sweeney has put together a resilient, skilled and multifaceted group that won a lot of games this season and should continue doing so for a long period of time. Cassidy earned his Jack Adams nomination by guiding the Bruins to 112 points this season, and navigating through injuries and adversity . . . including a gutsy decision to bench a struggling Tuukka Rask for four games in the middle of November. That bold call proved to be the turning point of the season, helped the B's finish second in the Eastern Conference, and was Cassidy's first trademark move in a season where he made a lot of the right ones.
The Bruins are in ideal spot for the present and the future. Neely, Sweeney and Cassidy deserve a ton of credit.