Building a sustainable contender is the goal for all NHL general managers, but few are able to pull off this nearly impossible task in an era defined by the constraints of the salary cap.
As the world as we knew it appeared to crumble throughout the playoffs (we're looking at you, Tampa and Calgary) it's becoming glaringly evident that the Boston Bruins are built to last, rallying around their core six players from their 2011 title, finding market value in a series of cast-offs and bridging two regimes — the former of which came perilously close to crashing the entire enterprise.
Let's rewind the tape to June 11, 2011. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand score two goals each, as the Bruins defeat the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. An awestruck Zdeno Chara lifts the Cup, David Krejci marvels in his playoff-best 23 points, while Tuukka Rask basks in the celebration after sitting behind a red-hot Tim Thomas, who wins the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Now, speed the tape back up to the present.
Marchand, who has became the league's pest du jour, has evolved from a surprising contributor to an 100-point trigger man, capable of infuriating the league's best players and scoring at will. Bergeron continues to be the standard for two-way excellence, Krejci submitted a 73-point year and Rask reached the spectacular heights that Thomas did eight years ago. Simply, this shouldn't be happening, and while Chara declined, their ability to help round out this core and still contribute meaningfully has provided the Bruins with a bedrock of stability that is the envy of the league.
Eight years may as well be an eternity between Stanley Cup runs, however, and after the Bruins lost in the 2013 Final to the juggernaut Chicago Blackhawks, general manager Peter Chiarelli begun planting the seeds of destruction before being ousted in 2015. Tyler Seguin committed the apparent crime of thoroughly enjoying being a 19-year-old Cup winner, and Chiarelli and his staff sent him packing for an underwhelming package, whilst prioritizing Nathan Horton.
Don't believe me, just watch:
Chiarelli also traded the ever-reliable defenceman Johnny Boychuk for two picks in order to get out of a salary cap mess of his own creation — largely due to bonuses owed to Jarome Iginla, who played just one season with the club.
It wasn’t a full-on, Edmonton Oilers-sized disaster for Chiarelli, as he unearthed the undrafted Torey Krug, who is the transitional bridge between the Bruins' past and current cast of stars, and received excellent value with David Pastrnak (25th overall) and Danton Heinen (116th) in the 2014 draft. However, his late-stage disaster came to a merciful end in April 2015, after missing the playoffs.
The Bruins have now found catharsis in his replacement, Don Sweeney.
Boasting the core from the 2011 team, Sweeney realized quickly he had enough to work with to build a viable contender, while also having to clean up the toxicity left behind from Chiarelli's reign.
It wasn't always steady.
During his first draft with the team, Sweeney whiffed on two of three first-round picks, but did land Jake DeBrusk. An ordinary GM would be crushed by that poor conversion rate, but Sweeney responded by nailing his next two most important picks, selecting standout defencemen Brandon Carlo and 2016 first rounder Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins arguably have the strongest identity in the league, built around a game that is predicated on a mix of high-end skill and throwback physicality, and Sweeney has the acumen to find players to fit the mold.
A lot of Sweeney's excellent run to date can be boiled down to two notable categories. In a league that ought to be obsessed with finding added value, especially with young, bottom-six forwards, Sweeney — in tandem with head coach Bruce Cassidy — unveiled the undrafted Karlson Kuhlman, who can play top-six minutes when needed, and integrated previously abandoned players Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner, Joakim Nordstrom and Connor Clifton into the team's structure.
Sweeney also capitalized on clubs that without a pointed design and somehow stole Marcus Johansson from the tanking New Jersey Devils, picked up Charlie Coyle from the Minnesota Wild for Ryan Donato and a fifth-round pick. Both new Bruins are flourishing.
The second component is where Sweeney ought to be lauded (and probably cursed at in actuality, from rivals) is his phenomenal cap management. According to CapFriendly, only Johansson, Noel Acciari, and depth defenceman Steven Kampfer are slated to become unrestricted free agents this summer. McAvoy, Carlo and Heinen are restricted free agents and at least two of them — certainly McAvoy and likely Carlo — are expected to fit under the cap.
As for the core? Marchand is under contract through 2024-25, Bergeron, Rask and Krejci through 2021-22 and Chara through 2020-21, where it may spell retirement. Pastrnak is signed through 2022-23 as well. The only major decisions the Bruins will have to make are in 2021, where they'll examine DeBrusk (RFA), Kevan Miller (UFA), Coyle (UFA), and Krug, who should and will get the bag and not fumble it provided he remains healthy.
This is a nightmare scenario for the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, who have handled their youthful core's rise to prominence well to date, but now face a series of very tough decisions on who to retain (and how to handle Paul Marner, perhaps); the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are exceptionally well-balanced but likely blew their best chance at lifting the Cup again; and the young promising teams who are looking to eventually challenge the three-headed Goliath in the Atlantic (Montreal Canadiens, Florida Panthers).
With a cast of numerous players that have lifted the Stanley Cup before, a star at his zenith in Marchand, along with a series of value-added moves, astute cap decisions and a commitment to a defined philosophy, the Bruins aren't going anywhere. They've long been entrenched in the mix for the title, save for the transitory years between Chiarelli's madhouse finale and Sweeney's eminently rational regime.
It's bad news for the rest of the league and though nothing is promised in the NHL as we've learned, 2019 could be the start of the second wave that was forged by the 2011 champion and 2013 finalist.
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