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A masterful, successful...and surprising re-tooling

The Bruins are competing for Lord Stanley, but did anyone expect this so soon after the “retool” years?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Boston Bruins at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

In case you haven’t heard yet, the Boston Bruins are heading to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2013 and the third time since 2011. They’ve been one of the best teams the entire postseason, as they grinded through a seven-game series with the Maple Leafs in the first round, battled an energetic Blue Jackets squad in round two, and swept an up-and-coming Carolina team in the Eastern Conference Final. Their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final was not an easy one to secure.

Despite finishing the regular season tied for second in the NHL with 107 points, most people thought it would be a longshot for the Bruins to get this far. And quite honestly, I did too. Yes, I fell for the “No one is beating Tampa” motto that most hockey fans adopted at the beginning of this year’s playoffs. Then, I watched in amazement as Columbus tore through the Lightning in a four-game sweep of the President’s Trophy winners.

With Tampa eliminated, I still felt that even if the Bruins did make it to the third round, they’d have to face either Washington or Pittsburgh—the winners of the last three Stanley Cups. But, the Penguins suffered a sweep from the Islanders and Washington was shocked in double overtime of Game 7 against Carolina.

Did the Bruins get a little lucky? Sure. These first round upsets gave the Bruins some easier match ups, if you will. But, you can’t forget the fact that the Boston Bruins finished the regular season with 107 points. So, you can say luck was on their side, but at the end of the day, this team is good. Real good.

Looking back to the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, one would’ve felt that a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in the next five years was a crazy dream. A real crazy one. There were some real dismal moments during those two seasons of “retooling.” Players underperforming, the Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes deals, inconsistent coaching, the no-show in the 2016 Winter Classic, not to mention the two consecutive late-season collapses. At times, it felt like the team was completely wasting their core. It was frustrating.

Were the Bruins terrible those two seasons? No, I guess they weren’t. But they weren’t good enough, either. Things started to trend upward during the 2016-2017 season, but even then it felt like something was hindering their progress.

A midseason firing of longtime coach Claude Julien allowed the front office to hand the reigns to Bruce Cassidy, who coached the Bruins back into the playoffs. Despite an epic Game 5, the series against the Ottawa Senators in 2017 was super frustrating. But at the end of the day, the Bruins were back in the playoffs and looked like a good team again.

The 2017-2018 season was highlighted by the incorporation of young talent on the NHL roster, which paved the way for one of the more exciting seasons in recent years. The emergence of Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk, Danton Heinen, and the full-time arrivals of Sean Kuraly and Charlie McAvoy helped the Bruins considerably. They managed to win their first playoff series since 2014 but suffered a five-game loss to Tampa in the second round, ending an encouraging season.

Then came the 2018-2019 season. The Bruins were eager to build on everything they started the season prior, and it showed all year long. The core of Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Tuukka Rask had some of their best seasons in the league. The rookies of the previous season all progressed further in their development (although some might argue Heinen regressed, if you only look at the point totals).

Jaroslav Halak was the perfect backup for Rask, even though fans were disappointed in the decision to let Anton Khudobin walk last summer, myself included. Brandon Carlo took a big step forward after a so-so second season. Rookies performed when called upon, namely Connor Clifton, Karson Kuhlman, and Jeremy Lauzon.

Even trade acquisitions, which was one of Don Sweeney’s weak spots early in his tenure as GM, have become integral parts of the team. Charlie Coyle filled the hole at third-line center after a long search for internal candidates. Marcus Johansson has given the Bruins a versatile presence on the wing and is a useful option for the middle two lines.

By no means have the Bruins won anything yet. However, it’s interesting to look back on those two retooling years and compare it to today. Also, those two years could’ve been a lot worse when you think about.

Look at the Cup winners since 2010, excluding Washington. The Blackhawks won three Cups in six seasons. But since their last win in 2015, they suffered a seven-game loss in the 2016 playoffs, a four-game sweep by Nashville in 2017, and have missed the playoffs two years in a row now. Furthermore, a few baffling decisions were made over that span that put the retool at a standstill, highlighted by trading away Artemi Panarin.

Look at the Los Angeles Kings. They won Cups in 2012 and 2014 but have missed the playoffs three out of the five years since winning their second trophy. The years they did qualify, they didn’t make it out of the first round. The Kings look like they are nowhere near competing at the level they were at from 2012-2014.

The Penguins won Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, but have lost in the second and first rounds, respectively, in the two years since. Now, I’m not saying Pittsburgh is in a retool phase right now, but they could be facing one. Many pundits believe the Penguins roster will see some overhaul this summer.

While the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons were disappointing—and infuriating at times—the Bruins could’ve had it much, much worse. They could’ve blown it up completely. They could’ve stockpiled even more draft picks. They could’ve traded Patrice Ber—actually no, they wouldn’t have been dumb enough to do that. Instead, Sweeney and Co. stuck to their plan, which a lot of people questioned early on.

But now, it looks like that plan wasn’t so crazy when he first proposed it back in 2015: build young talent around a consistent core, emphasize speed and quick play, and reconstruct the team chemistry that was completely dismantled during those two wasted seasons. I definitely owe Don Sweeney an apology.

Since the beginning of the season, the Bruins have fired on all cylinders. The team chemistry has been superb and everyone’s contributed in their own way. Game after game, they showed their resiliency, consistency, and the will to play as a team. They’ve worked hard, and they’ll have to work even harder once the Finals begin on May 27.

You can argue about luck, you can argue about easy match ups, and you can argue whatever you want about the Bruins’ postseason success. One thing is for sure, though: this team looked like they were light years away from Stanley Cup Final berth just three seasons ago. But here they are, in the Stanley Cup Final, competing for their seventh Stanley Cup and Boston’s 13th title since 2001.

Two years of retooling turned into three straight postseason appearances and a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. Was it expected? Maybe not.

But is it accepted now? Absolutely.