The task of burying the Bruins varies little from year to year although it becomes even more disconcerting to realize that the annual moment when we ceremoniously pull the plug comes earlier and earlier as the seasons roll by and their slide into abject mediocrity stretches over a decade. Have they reached bottom? Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.
In retrospect, the illusions of this rather joyless season were frightening. You may recall that some blustery off-season moves and an aggressive public relations campaign stoked considerable hype. That it was taken seriously now seems -- in the flawless 20/20 vision of retrospect -- particularly amusing.
By Thanksgiving it was clear that making the playoffs would be a struggle. An abysmal slump right after the holidays exposing the teams’ deep flaws affirmed that. They were dead -- in practical terms -- by mid-January. Inept, grossly inexperienced, and probably more than a little scared, the new, Ivy League inspired management team reacted with a series of blunders that will make rebounding next season fairly impossible.
The official thumbs-down from this corner was issued about six weeks ago, when it became clear that their strikingly faint-hearted play was no mere passing malaise. A frightful performance down the stretch in March -- low-lighted by a dispirited 2-8 run in “make or break” time -- dragged the last of the diehards to the distressing conclusion that this is a bad team with little promise.
So, that’s it in a nutshell, folks; a concise summary of your 2006-07 Boston Bruins cut savagely to the quick. It’s a bad team that displayed very little grit while performing almost disgracefully when the money was on the line thereby dishonoring its tradition and colors and it could well get worse.
How’s that for openers? Tough to swallow, is it not? And please understand this much. The Bruins have always been special in this corner. One takes no pleasure in heaping abuse upon them. But the time for playing patty-cake on this subject is over.
Where to begin? How about at the top.
The ownership of the Boys from Buffalo was tolerable while Harry Sinden was in his prime and uniquely able to manipulate the hardened, irascible and stingy owner. Now Harry is gone and Jeremy Jacobs has installed his wet-behind-the-ears, number three son as the resident overseer. Draw your own conclusions.
In their first major hockey move in 31 years taken without Harry holding their hand, Team Jacobs selected an utterly unproven Harvard boy with only a skimpy two years of experience at the concrete hockey operations level as general manager. While it seemed odd at the time, there was a certain mystery about Peter Chiarelli and the Harvard thing muddled the matter further. After only nine months on the job it’s clear he wasn’t ready. The choice may prove to have been disastrous.
There is no evidence Chiarelli has a plan or a modus operandi or a philosophy or even a clue. Seemingly shy with the hint of the reclusive in his personality (to the degree he has revealed one) he has made no effort to share his thoughts. So we can only judge him by his acts which include all those feverish, illogical, fairly pointless deals that he made during the season.
The better examples include:
Trading a young, sturdy, swift, forward in Brad Boyes who had 26 goals and 69 points as a rookie for an undersized and light-hitting defenseman, Dennis Wideman, a potential waiver-wire pick-up. Dealing a massive 23 year old defenseman -- Milan Jurcina -- who a year ago was said to have a huge upside, for a fourth round draft choice? Dumping his best trading chips, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau -- two of his tougher, most physical players -- for a pair of soft and smallish journeymen? Yes, I understand that Boyes was slumping and Jurcina seemed confused by the new defensive scheme and Stuart was a contract problem, none of which justifies the firesale. There were other moves; none of them any more impressive with the net effect of making this team smaller, less physical, older, less aggressive, and less skilled offensively while no better on defense. So, why? Rival GMs must rub their hands in glee when Peter comes calling to do business.
Overall, Chiarelli gets a “D” and is spared a failing grade only because this was his maiden voyage. Having gone to Harvard, he should understand about all that stuff.
And then there’s the coach. Choosing Dave Lewis was Chiarelli’s first big decision. Recall it was Jeff Gorton who handled the free agent and draft transactions while Chiarelli was still in that limbo imposed by his former employer, the Ottawa Senators. Doubtless Chiarelli consulted and approved but it was Gorton who did the most important off-season nitty-gritties. So the first major decision Peter had to make on his own was to pick the new coach and he blew it. The Bruins are stuck with Dave Lewis for three more years at a million bucks a pop.
A badge-carrying, NHL lifer, Lewis is a gentleman who has an apparently well-deserved reputation for being amiable and decent. He seems to have charmed the media, which is neither difficult nor important. He handled himself with dignity on the job but his leadership was confused, his tactics obscure, his methods strange, and when it mattered most his team quit on him, always a damning indictment of a coach in any game.
I mean to be charitable here so I’ll simply note that in every walk of life some chaps are head coach material and some should remain assistant coaches. Lewis could not cut it as headman in Detroit, where the Wings had the NHL’s best talent. After two years of bombing in the playoffs, they fired him. He had nowhere else to go. He was in no demand. Yet Chiarelli felt compelled to give him four years at heavy dough, an amazing contract especially by Bruins’ standards. He would never have squeezed that out of Harry. Might the Jacobs Boys, buy him out when and if they recognize a terrible mistake was made? Surely, you jest.
This is neither the time nor the place to sort out all the personnel questions, which task Chiarelli (shudder) will engage shortly. There are a ton of them.
He has to find a goalie. He’s a great fellow and a fine backup who spilled his guts for them and ends the season totally drained but there’s no way Tim Thomas carries you to the playoffs. Now, they’ll apparently give up on another promising goaltending prospect -- Hannu Toivonen -- much as they did with Brian Raycroft. How long can you keep doing that? They have to pray that Tuukka Rask, the 19-year-old Finnish phenom they got for Raycroft, is the real deal. Talk about déjà vu all over again, as Yogi would say.
Up front they only have Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, the exciting Phil Kessel, and Marco Sturm, who they felt obliged to overpay, to build around. There may be some life left in Glenn Murray and P.J. Axelsson, but only if they stay healthy, which they failed to do this season. The rest are drones. They have no major prospects. The defense corps, which looked so promising a year ago, is loaded with doubts. In my judgement, Zdeno Chara is a significantly overrated disappointment with an albatross of a contract whom they are stuck with for a long time. And that ain’t good.
So, another dreary season ends on a heavy downer. There’s no light at the end of this interminable tunnel. After three decades it is time to acknowledge that it won’t change until the Boys from Buffalo pack their carpetbags and go home. Fat chance!