I’ve covered the Arizona Coyotes for over a season now, but I didn’t start off with them. Quite the opposite; growing up, I was a Boston Bruins fan.
The Bruins made a bold move when they traded away Joe Thornton in order to build around Patrice Bergeron — and nearly a decade later, it’s worked in their favor. While they may be on the decline, Boston has a Stanley Cup that the San Jose Sharks do not. It’s no longer a matter of opinion — the departure from the Thornton era was a successful move on the part of the Bruins’ administration.
Where teams like the Detroit Red Wings have perfected the art of being sustainably good, though, the Bruins are on the unlucky wrong end of a couple of miscalculations — and it’s costing them not only this season, but likely the next one, too.
The worst part? These aren’t mistakes you can fix.
Where did the mistakes start?
The Bruins couldn’t have known it at the time, but taking on Jaromir Jagr was likely the biggest mistake they could have made.
Short-term loans in pursuit of the Stanley Cup, for the most part, are high-risk gambles. Sometimes they work out; other times, the team falls short and watches a pricey veteran skate away. They lose the opportunity to bring on someone who may be a long-term asset in hopes of tangible results then and now; in the case of Jagr, it was a poor gamble. The team didn’t win the Stanley Cup, and he signed elsewhere in the offseason.
They made a similar mistake when they signed Jarome Iginla.
A one-year contract is, arguably, nicer than grabbing that short-term loan at the trade deadline — and although many were wary of adding Iginla after he chose to head to Pittsburgh that previous spring, he produced positive results while he was in Boston.
Signing a well-established veteran of Iginla’s age is not unlike dealing an asset in anticipation of a short-term fix, though. Iginla’s contract was relatively cheap, but his bonuses weren’t. Had he underperformed, the team would have walked away with future cap space but a mediocre season — and when he performed well but the team fell short of the Cup once again, the bonus overage penalties the team suffered from his additional salary left them financially strapped the following season.
Is this a trend in Boston?
In order to keep good players, teams have to be willing to appease them — and not unlike the Chicago Blackhawks (who have signed Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for the next decade) and the Los Angeles Kings (who are stuck with netminder Jonathan Quick for just as long), the Bruins inked some contracts that are hurting them now in order to retain good players at the time.
Eight players on the Bruins are skating out with trade restrictions. From third line center Chris Kelly (whose annual cap hit is three million) and Brad Marchand (who holds relative power over where he’s dealt) to fully protected players like Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask and Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins are extremely limited in who they can deal and where they will go. Many of their stars from the 2011 Cup-winning roster are making money equivalent to their skill sets from the year they signed their extensions; as they age and get injured, the team is stuck paying for players that no longer deliver.
This isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to Boston, but it’s one that’s affecting them this season more than others.
Marc Savard no longer counts against the cap during the season, but he counts over the summer — and he doesn’t come cheap, despite no longer skating with the team. David Krejci and Milan Lucic are a pricey duo as well — and while they’re lethal together, they struggle apart. This makes Krejci’s lingering injuries this season a double whammy — not only does the team lose his production when he’s off the ice, they lose a large chunk of Lucic’s, as well.
Chara is still a good bit better than most of the defensemen around the league, but he’s no longer a weapon that ensures team dominance while he’s on the ice. Kelly is a third liner at best, and Rask is a harsh reminder that Vezina-quality goaltending from the same netminder more than a handful of times over his career is extremely rare.
Add in the fact that the team’s only tradeable pieces are their cheapest pieces — ensuring that a transaction made to improve the lineup will involve increasing salary — and it’s small wonder the Bruins look like a shell of their former selves.
Can this be fixed?
The Bruins were a team everyone watched during the offseason, hoping to see what kind of moves they would make to fit under the salary cap. The only move they were able to make, though, was a salary dump — Johnny Boychuk was dealt to the New York Islanders, and the team brought on draft picks in return.
Don't like that Johnny Boychuck trade at all. Chiarelli has spotty draft record and losing talented D-man for 3 picks, no players. #Bruins
— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) October 4, 2014
This should have been when fans knew — the team is only doing down from here.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; while the Red Wings are strangely good year in and year out, few teams are able to maintain playoff rosters for such long stretches. The Bruins are a high-spending team, and it means they go through cycles. Until some of their salary is phased out, the team physically cannot get much better — not because they’re making the wrong moves now, but because they’ve taken risks in the past that they’re paying for in the present.
At best, the Bruins can try and draft inhumanly well this summer. They can try and trade up at the draft for pick guaranteed to produce an NHL-ready player, such as Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin or even Mitchell Marner.
They can also cross their fingers and hope that the salary cap will go up more than anticipated, although that doesn’t seem likely. If the cap increases enough to free up some room, the team can lock in their pending restricted free agents (such as Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, and Reilly Smith) without sending players away to free up the money for it.
The way things stand right now, though, the Bruins roster is paying the price of a Stanley Cup — and until the current veteran players have all but phased out, they’re unlikely to see things get much better.