By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Bruins president Cam Neely is not dodging the uncertain future facing the franchise.
On the heels of their second-round exit at the hand of the Lightning, 15 months removed from coming up short in Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, and with their most important players rapidly approaching their mid-30s, Neely knows the B’s core that’s carried the team for over a decade is operating on borrowed time.
If time hasn’t already run out, anyway.
“We’ve got some guys that have played a lot of good hockey for us, a lot of years for us,” Neely, who first oversaw these years as vice president prior to a promotion in 2010, began. “Their careers are somewhat winding down and we have to really take a hard look at where we are as an organization.”
To Neely’s point, the Bruins bringing the same band back for another run will see the team try to go on a 2021 Cup run with 35-year-old one-two at center with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. The Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak combo will be 34 and 36 respectively, and Brad Marchand will be 33. Now, this isn’t ancient by any stretch, but there’s significant tread on those tires, and they’re more worn down every grueling run. (Oh, and Zdeno Chara wants to return to a 15th season in a Boston sweater, and if he does, the 6-foot-9 captain would be 44 when the 2021 playoffs begin.)
It’s raised legitimate questions about this team’s window (an emotional Krejci acknowledged that the team maybe has a couple of years left to win another championship), and with answers that will require the front office to come face-to-face some deep, uncomfortable truths.
“Can we compete for a Stanley Cup? And if we can, what do we have to do to our roster to do that?” Neely asked. “We have to really be honest with ourselves in assessing our team and assessing our players in the organization. See where we’re going, where we think we really are going to be. I mean, we have to be as honest, as brutally honest as possible, about where we think we’re going to be in the next couple years and we have to react accordingly to that.”
The truth is that the Bruins, who were the Presidents’ Trophy winners prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that paused and subsequently canceled the regular season, are hardly operating from a position of strength, too.
Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie were deadline busts, Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork have yet to develop into consistent middle-six scoring threats, and there’s almost nothing guaranteed beyond the NHL pipeline. The Bruins are impressed with Jack Studnicka (he’s ahead of their original timeline), sure, but nobody knows if first-round picks Trent Frederic, Zach Senyshyn, and Jakub Zboril are NHL players. Their most recent first-round pick, 2019 first-round pick John Beecher, isn’t likely to jump into the NHL picture before this core’s window slams shut in a thunderous way.
The help wanted sign is very much in the window on Causeway, and with Neely stressing the need for more even-strength shooters after a postseason that saw the B’s shoot a woeful 5.4 percent at five-on-five.
“I think we’ve got to try to produce a little more five-on-five, especially in the playoffs,” Neely admitted when looking back on a failed in-bubble postseason run. “We didn’t really generate enough chances five-on-five and when we did, we had a tough time burying them. I think getting inside the dots in the offensive zone was a little challenging for us. It’s attributed to the fact that [the Lightning] also have a really good set of D back there and also, like I said, that we refused to shoot the puck to get their D turning. And then when we did shoot the puck, it seemed to be high and wide and out very simply. We didn’t really have those second and third opportunities that we were having during the regular season.”
But money’s tight, the market’s short on worthwhile investments, and the 2020-21 season comes with its own set of questions.
“We’re going to start [in] December, January, now we’re talking another four, five months off,” Neely acknowledged. “How are we going to play? How are we going to react to that? What does that season look like? There are all these questions still unanswered right now. That doesn’t mean that we can’t take a hard look at our roster and our organization and see where we should be going for this next year or two.”
Now, the Bruins have been afforded the luxury of being a powerhouse in a relatively blah division, and that should remain the case next year, too. But Neely isn’t sleeping on the stockpiling of picks you’ve seen from Detroit and Montreal, and what teams like the Panthers are trying to do. He knows competition is coming, and that the B’s need to be ready for a more difficult path.
“That’s what my message has been: Let’s really take a look and see where we’re going to be,” Neely reaffirmed. “Can we compete for the Stanley Cup and if everyone feels we can compete for the Stanley Cup, what do we have to do to get back to that final twosome and have a legitimate shot to win?”
With the truth to that being a potentially brutal gut-punch to a core that’s still chasing a 2011 high that turns 10 next year.