Since their devastating loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, the Bruins have struggled to return to playoff form, advancing past the first round on once until last night. Their Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens saw them down a path that ended with two consecutive seasons of playoff-less hockey, the first time that occurred since the 05-06 and 06-07 dark years, followed by a first-round defeat to an upstart Ottawa Senators team last year in six games.
Despite injuries playing a large role, the roster was turned over and the Bruins brass started on what many termed a soft re-build with a new permanent Head Coach, an emphasis on playing with more pace and an infusion of youth into the locker room. The general consensus from most around the team, in the sports bars and on the airwaves was that the Bruins might compete for a wildcard spot if things broke their way, but they certainly weren’t going to be contenders. Not a chance.
Fast forward to April, fresh off a Game 7 for the ages against another team in the midst of a notable youth movement, and it’s hard not to see the Bruins with a real shot at advancing past the 2nd round for the first time in what must feel like an eon for Boston sports fans accustomed to winning year in and year out.
The signs of growth have been there all season, for those paying attention: it’s in the way Bruce Cassidy handled his young players masterfully, in watching the way the veteran leaders bought into the youth movement, and certainly in the way the team whom no one expected to be this good proved so many wrong, winning game after game.
Around this time last year, it wasn’t exactly a fiery hot take to question if the two men atop of the Bruins masthead might not make it through another year. While Don Sweeney has more recently been praised for his work as the Bruins General Manager, Cam Neely has often been the target of ire from fans and media alike, sometimes deservedly so.
However you may have felt about either in the past few years, it’s hard to deny that they have found a way to accelerate this rebuild, re-tool or changing of the guard. In emphasizing the importance of speed, youth, and skill, the Bruins have cut a year, maybe two off of what many thought their timeline would be before competing in the playoffs.
And sure, career years from established players, coupled with surprising growth from the kids has been a critical component, but those players have been set up to succeed within an organization that seemingly found it’s stride again after years of mixed signals.
It isn’t just on the ice that the front office has earned their stripes, they have scored key wins in the negotiating table with star players in David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, signing both to very team friendly deals, especially in light of the albatross deals handed out by the guy who used to sit in Sweeney’s office. They have been quick to cut players who aren’t working out, as seen in the Jimmy Hayes and Matt Beleskey moves, and made moves at the deadline that while not without criticism, shouldn’t hamstring the team in future years the way many modern GM’s have.
Above all, they have succeeded in perhaps their toughest task: cleaning up a disaster of a cap left by Peter Chiarelli. With all the success the Bruins youth have found, more money must be allocated to each player’s eventual next contract, and for the first time in what feels like a long time, the Bruins find themselves in a position of strength with cap space to keep their players, and flexibility to make moves for now or the future.
So while you are celebrating the Bruins return to form, make sure to take a second to acknowledge the hand two former Boston players have had on the team, this time in a suit and tie instead of skates and sweaters. The Bruins may lose against a worthy opponent in Tampa Bay or they may continue proving their few remaining doubters wrong, anything can happen in the playoffs. From where I’m sitting, no matter what happens this season has been a success for a team that many thought would never even make it this far.