Offseasons don't make or break teams, but they help to build them.
Since the Bruins' season ended on April 9th (95 days ago) we've been through the draft, and we're currently in the dog days of free agency. In fact, we're now already significantly more than halfway through the entire NHL offseason...the Bruins' first preseason fixture is on September 24th, in 74 days time. We are now closer to the beginning of the new NHL season than the end of the old one.
The trouble is...where many other teams are already looking solidly set for the new season or at least in the process of addressing their key issues if they haven't already, the Bruins are conspicuous this off-season by their lack of affirmative action.
Aside from the signing of David Backes on the first day of FA (a signing which seems to be being viewed with more and more cautious optimism as the days go by and the way it seemingly fits into the bigger Boston picture becomes clear) the only major B's move likely to have significant effect in the short term made this offseason has been the re-signing of Torey Krug.
Everything else is unknown...the only certain thing about the Bruins this offseason is...well, uncertainty, and the questions that come with it.
How will the Bruins address their (significant) defensive problems next season? Where is a solution to be found, and who will be tasked with providing it? Is this the year that players like Colin Miller are given the keys to their NHL career full-time rather than being tweeners? Can we expect to see exciting prospects like Brandon Carlo given a chance, as well as slightly more matured NCAA products like Rob O'Gara? Will the B's finally take the step forward into the transition that they need to make, particularly on defense?
What about offensively? Where does Backes fit? How will the club address the sudden logjam at center? What's the fate of David Krejci likely to be?
The key thing here is that the Bruins front office themselves, judging by their lack of action and scattergun approach so far this offseason, don't seem to have any idea themselves - and this state of affairs of a front office paralyzed by inaction has led to a team that, right now, simply doesn't know what it is.
Much has been made of "identity" and "culture" the past few days, particularly with Montreal GM Marc Bergevin referencing it as a key reason Chicago win (while presumably leaving aside them actually managing to develop high draft picks while throwing money at elite-level complimentary players and seemingly going all-in every deadline as other factors). Indeed, the Bruins have used that line themselves as justification for their reaching for Trent Frederic at #29 in this season's draft, which much being made on how he's a "Bruins' type player".
The thing is...this Bruins team doesn't HAVE an identity. Beyond some vague recollections of "grit" and "playing hard" it's a mish-mash...you have the likes of Bergeron and Marchand sitting alongside Pastrnak and Krejci. This team is a team that's supposedly built to win games through solid defense and skill with a defense that anything but either right now.
Even the signing of Backes has raised more questions than answers. Is he a premier center brought to add power size and a focal point to the second line, a complimentary RW to the skill and speed of others in the top six, or a luxury-tax of a 3rd line center? He's said he's happy to play any of them, but the fact the B's have invested a top-level contract on a player without really having a defined role for him to play, at least at the start of the season, smacks a little of poor planning.
Then there's the "top defenseman" question. Sure, the drafting of Charlie McAvoy was a clear signal the B's knew they had to stock the cupboard and increase the skill level on the back end. However, that doesn't help solve the problem right now - which means that the options this off-season were FA and trade.
The Bruins have let the best FA defensemen go to other teams, often for surprising little (see Demers, Jason). Aside from the ridiculous Jacob Trouba offersheet rumors, which are a whole different debate, we've heard confused talk of a disastrous move for Kris Russell in FA, an aborted move for Kevin Shattenkirk at the draft...and nothing else.
This is the equivalent for Bruins fans of staring at a raging fire in the middle of a city block, while firefighters either pass by without looking or stare at it uninterestedly. There is arguably no more pressing issue in the B's to-do list right now...and yet, it's simply not being addressed, either with open hunting for a trade partner (usually in the NHL, when a team is pursuing a player of the level of a top-pair defenseman, the "respected" insiders are all over it with almost daily reports on any new activity - around the Bruins, there's simply nothing beyond a few instances of rumormongering from the usual local suspects. That in itself is worrying).
Loui Eriksson's contract negotiations were handled in a similar manner - at no point did the Bruins' front office really seem interested in doing a deal, if media reports are to be believed...there was much talk of "conversation" but at no time did you get a sense of real, summit-level negotiating.
Compare that to the actions of other teams like Tampa and Florida. The Panthers, for example, went full-out in FA and used the assets of cap-space that they had to improve, locking down young stars like Vinny Trocheck and Aaron Ekblad and loading up with Keith Yandle and Jason Demers on the blue line to address their perceived shortcomings and pressing contract issues. Tampa, too, addressed their biggest questions fast with the re-signing of Steven Stamkos (even as Stammergeddon loomed, there was always evidence the Lightning were negotiating hard to keep their man...compare with the Bruins' lacksadaisical approach on Eriksson) and also the locking-down of Victor Hedman and other RFAs. These are teams that see their problems and potential issues, and act decisively to solve them as early in the offseason as possible.
At this point, no doubt, we'll hear the response of "this stuff takes time". The issue that is being brought up is not that deals are taking time to do, but that there appears to be no impetus to actually do them from a front office that is at best dragging its feet on solutions to pressing problems and at worst wilfully ignoring them in the hope they might go away.
This is a mindset that is good for nobody - it means that confidence from the fanbase is eroded, players are unsure of just where their roles will be and what direction the franchise is heading, and coaches are unable to prepare for a season that'll involve seeing youngsters integrated because they don't know what type of player they'll be expected to work with.
It's also a bad situation because, simply put, it's static. Static teams don't progress. They don't take opportunities. When GMs aren't sure of what the overall approach is, then their moves are inconsistent, and could be forced by panic or pressure - especially if they're trying to play a game of brinkmanship.
It's a bad situation when you're forcing your fanbase to hope that you're just being slow and not actually asleep at the wheel.
This isn't the first time we've levelled this charge. In fact, here's what I wrote in an article from April 2015, on the last days of the Chiarelli Era:
The Bruins also look like a team unsure of what it actually is...the swagger and confidence of previous teams has just not been there this year...a kind of malaise has settled over the TD Garden...a feeling that "well, we're good enough and things will work out, so why take any risks?"
This time round, though, despite the ranting and raving of sports media in Boston, despite all the old narratives being hashed out again and again, there's an inertia that implies that the Boston organisation are asleep at the wheel.
Then, a few weeks later, we wrote this about Sweeney's first draft:
...nothing Don Sweeney has done so far points to a quick turn-around. Indeed, if this is the style of management to come then B's fans should be worried.
The ship is drifting in Boston already, and management appear not to have their hand on the tiller.
Granted, this was easy to change with "well, it's early..."
We're over a year later now, though, and it appears that nothing has changed. Those sentences could easily have all been written about this draft, this offseason.
This moment in time.
We're now 14 months into the Don Sweeney Era...an era marked by underwhelming drafts and baffling decisions with first round picks, mismanagement of assets whether it be by trade or FA, and a Bruins team going nowhere fast.
This appears to be reflected in the way the front office are viewed. In a Hockey News survey of how confident fans were in their teams' front office, the B's were third-last in the NHL overall and never rated higher than fourth from bottom in any category...only Marc Bergevin in MTL and Jim Benning in VAN inspire less confidence. That is NOT good company to be in. For comparison, by the way, the two top teams were...those we mentioned earlier - the Panthers and the Lightning.
The Bruins management is unpopular, uninspiring and right now, unmoving. Good decisions like the drafting of Charlie McAvoy seem to be the exception, rather than the rule...and made as much by luck and accident as good judgement.
It needs to get with the times, fast, and start making some serious affirmative action to address problems. Right now, the entire tenure of Sweeney and Neely is full of questions and concerns, with very few answers.
If we're asking the same questions, raising the same concerns and still wondering where the solution is come the start of the season, then it's worrying.
If we're still asking them come December, then that, frankly, is unforgivable.