"If you have no expectations, you can’t be disappointed."
Those wise words were once said by me, talking to my computer screen right now, thinking about the 2015-2016 Boston Bruins.
This is not a season preview. To write a season preview, you have to have a decent understanding of where a team stands heading into their first game. After a whirlwind of an offseason – one that saw Peter Chiarelli fired and sent packing to Edmonton, Don Sweeney taking over duties as GM and/or Cam Neely’s hand puppet, key pieces such as Dougie Hamilton and Milan Lucic traded and a slew of new faces being brought into the organization – the Bruins head into tonight’s season opener against the Winnipeg Jets, and the question of what exactly this team is capable of accomplishing this season remains unclear, at least in my eyes
Around this time last year, we were talking about a Bruins team that was heading into their opener as reigning President’s Trophy winners and – despite the subtraction of a talented and beloved defenseman in Johnny Boychuk – were still expected to finish near the top of the Eastern Conference. That went well!
Despite finishing with 96 points, the Bruins missed the playoffs and, thus, were labeled as a major disappointment. Hampered by injuries, underperforming key pieces and - if you believe the media reports that surfaced this summer – guys who weren’t great in the locker room, last year’s team never got their crap together or looked like a team that would be able to hang with the league’s elite.
As a result, changes were made. Hamilton was traded for a less-than-stellar return just mere weeks after Sweeney promised he would make a concerted effort to keep talented young star players around (I MISS YOU TYLER SEGUIN), which was certainly a disheartening beginning to the offseason. Immediately after that trade became official, fans learned of Adam McQuaid’s new deal while already on their way to the liquor store.
A little encouragement came when the team got a very solid return package from the Kings in exchange for Milan Lucic, but then Sweeney proceeded to make three consecutive draft picks in the first round – which one would assume wasn’t exactly the front office’s master plan – and took two guys who were considered significant reaches. Then, as the cherry on top of the proverbial turd sundae, Sweeney gave Philadelphia a third-round pick for Zac Rinaldo. ZAC RINALDO.
Things were looking bad. Like, outrageously bad.
Then, amidst many fans already calling for Sweeney’s head (who’s got two thumbs and was one of those fans? THIS GUY), something miraculous happened – he started being not so terrible. He brought in the cream of a terrible free agent forward crop in Matt Beleskey, re-signed Ryan Spooner to a very affordable deal, as well as traded for good ol’ local boy Jimmy Hayes while dumping Reilly Smith, who rode the coat tails of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand harder than your mother rides – ah, never mind, I forgot I’m not writing for Days of Y’Orr anymore.
Sweeney dug himself a huge hole to start his tenure as GM in Boston, but at some point he stopped throwing dirt on himself and started to climb out. At least a little bit. Enough to convince fans to put away their pitchforks long enough to wonder what he had up his sleeve.
I don’t think Sweeney accomplished everything he wanted to in his first offseason as Bruins GM, but the question is - if he did make the moves he wanted to, what would those have looked like? Would they have come from the Jekyll who turned Lucic into two first round picks, Colin Miller and a prospect while signing Beleskey and Hayes at good value? Or would they come from the Hyde who undervalued Dougie, overvalued McQuaid and thought Rinaldo was worth anything more than a fart in the wind? It’s something I’ve thought at length about this offseason, and the scary thing is…I still have no idea which guy sits behind that desk.
But, for better or for worse, this year brings a very different Bruins team, one that seems to be in a weird phase somewhere between rebuilding and retooling. Much of their "core" (Bergeron, Chara, Krejci, Marchand, Rask) remains in tact from years past – and it’s a pretty excellent core, but they’re surrounded by question marks.
The addition of Beleskey headlined the offseason positives, but there’s still a question as to whether he can be a consistent offensive force, or if he’s just a guy who happened to get very hot at the right time in his career. Hayes isn’t as good as good as his younger brother, Kevin, and may be overhyped because of the "Boston kid" angle, but he may be a good fit for this team and find a higher ceiling at home.
Another guy that remains a mystery is Brett Connolly, a former lottery pick who was acquired at the deadline last year. We didn’t get to see much of him last season thanks to a broken hand suffered in practice (THANKS A LOT, SEIDENBERG) but he’s got a great shot and has shown flashes of what he was expected to be, but he’s remained largely inconsistent and disappointing thus far in his career. If he can put it together regularly, he’ll go down as Chiarelli’s last good move here in Boston.
Uncertainty aside, this group of forwards somewhat excites me. I think there are plenty of valuable pieces that can be mixed and matched until chemistry and production are mined. At some point, I expect consistent lines to come into focus, hopefully reducing the night-to-night shuffling from Claude. Plus, Gregory Campbell no longer centers the fourth line.
The biggest concern remains the defense, which – even with a healthy Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg – may have only one legitimate top-four defenseman heading into the season. The loss of a potential franchise defenseman in Dougie is hard to overcome and, instead of signing someone like, say, Cody Franson to help partially fill that hole this offseason, Sweeney has elected to give some of the system’s younger defensemen a shot at earning a spot.
While they have plenty of guys who will be worthy of keeping an eye on – Joe Morrow, Zach Trotman, and Colin Miller in particular – defensemen typically take longer to develop and become reliable impact players on the blue line, so this experiment could be a bit of bumpy ride.
The guy with the most to prove on defense – and maybe on the entire roster – is Torey Krug. While talented offensively, a great quarterback of the power play, and a noted leader in the room, the biggest gripe surrounding Krug is that he’s sheltered defensively. Now on a one-year deal, he’ll have to show that he’s capable of being a top-four, two-way guy before he earns a long-term extension to stay here. If he does that, not only will he get paid, but he’s also probably next in line to receive an ‘A’ on his sweater.
So, while I have no idea what to expect from this year’s Bruins team, there are more than a few questions I’m eager to see answered throughout the season. For whatever reason, lots of people seem to think that this roster, as currently constituted, can’t compete for a playoff spot. While I don’t necessarily agree with that, I do think they’re worse than last year’s team, mainly because the defense appears to be a huge tire fire and the offense, while probably good, isn’t THAT good.
With that being said, it’s hard to imagine this year’s team running into the astronomical levels of crap luck that last year’s did, and the East is insanely top-heavy this season. There are a handful of teams that have similar level of concerns and weaknesses that are expected to be on the playoff bubble by spring – and they don’t have a goalie as good as Tuukka Rask - so I don’t see why the Bruins can’t be among them. Gun to my head, I’d say best case scenario is they finish as the 7-8 seed, sneak into the playoffs, and probably get bounced in the first round by a team much better than them.
Or they’ll totally suck the big one, finish with a lottery pick, and we’ll all be dreaming of Auston Matthews by season’s end. I really don’t know.
Either way, I’m just glad real hockey is back and I can stick my ‘Fire Sweeney’ and ‘Fire Neely’ pitchforks back in the closet. For now.