Yes, it’s summertime, but let’s talk about the Bruins

It hasn’t been six months – roughly the length of an entire off-season – since the Bruins faded away. It only seems so. Hockey has been hot over much of the continent this spring but not in Boston.

Seemingly adrift in a prolonged sulk, the re-shuffled novices in the Bruins’ front office have been giving new meaning to the notion “out of sight, out of mind.” There’s been much ado about office politics, but otherwise, profound silence about what comes next or what they may have in mind about what to do on the ice and who to get to do it.

Do the Bruins have a game plan? Nobody knows, maybe not even them. Are they prepped and steeled to make the crucial choices and clever moves and likely painful decisions required to keep this team from careening completely off track and into a skid that could last upwards to a decade? Maybe only Charlie Jacobs has any clue. Heaven help us!
There’s no disputing the Bruins are clearly at a crossroads. But much as it has been deplored by the media and denigrated by Jacobs and his minions, last season was no disgrace. A 41-27-14 mark good for 96 points would have easily nailed a post-season berth nine seasons out of ten. Given the many things that went wrong, the deficiencies apparent from the start that never got remedied, the inevitable inroads of age and injury, the lousy luck that must have been central when you miss the playoffs by a mere game, some believe Claude Julien actually deserved a pat on the back, if Peter Chiarelli rather less so.  

There were also too many frantic fits and bumbling spurts, admittedly too many shabby breakdowns uncharacteristic of this team, historically, reference especially being  to the most damning indictment of all: that when they had a golden chance to rise to the occasion and save their season over its last 10 days – “gut-check time,” if you will – they quite simply choked, whimped out belly up, surrendering with nary a wail, let alone a curse. That, coming from your Boston Bruins, they of the black and gold always good for at least a snarl even in the most desperate of circumstances, was shocking!

And it was that complaint that most likely triggered the temper tantrum of embittered ownership, Clan Jacobs, consisting essentially of wily Patriarch, Jeremy, and his number three son, Charles.

As a result, we’ve had the canning of General Manager Peter Chiarelli, the elevating into a kind of prime-ministership the thinly qualified Cam Neely, the seemingly reluctant, or at least tentative, appointment of Don Sweeney to captain this leaking vessel as new GM, and the granting of what’s clearly a stay of execution to the coach, the same chap who led them to their first Stanley Cup in four decades, the honorable Claude Julien.

On second thought, one needs concede that as convolutions go on hockey teams this, so far, has hardly been trifling. But where does all of it leave them?

It’s the treatment of Julien that seems to me most intriguing. Were they waiting for him to beg, to say “please”? Clearly, if incorrectly, laying significant blame on him for the regular-season flop, they made him stew and sweat for seven weeks. Now, he gets to begin next season on probation. So the dangling of the man like some spare part off the waiver wire will continue.

Sweeney, lifting the veil of uncertainty on Julien in his first concrete act as GM, said there was no need to apologize. Nor did he see any need to clarify Julien’s standing or lessen the needless pressure on him to meet ill-defined criteria if he wishes to keep his job. Julien’s coaching skills may be subject to debate – that’s fair game – but few would dispute his proven character. He’s a hockey lifer of considerable and long standing. Such chaps know the drill and don’t complain. In the Bruins’ dealings with this decent man, these conditions are unreasonable.

Some of my learned and understandably cynical old friends on the hockey beat suggest that the re-configured front-office probably finds keeping Julien convenient, if only because if the team bottoms out in the short term – and many fully expect that – Julien will become their easy fall-guy, minimizing such blame as might otherwise fall on them. That could buy them a year. I’m hardly suggesting it’s the only reason they’re retaining him, but it could prove for them a worthy dividend, cynically or otherwise.

An even better reason might be the fact that Julien has a nice and quite unbreakable three-year, $7.5 million contract in his hip pocket, negotiated last fall with Chiarelli, and Jeremy Jacobs has never been in a hurry to pay anyone that kind of dough for doing nothing. One suspects Chiarelli, now perched in Edmonton where he has not been all that painfully exiled, is getting a fair amount of amusement out of the discomfort that all this now must bring to the Jacobs-Neely-Sweeney axis. The games within the game invariably prove the most delightful.

Sweeney and Neely have vaguely let it be known they are not great fans of Julien’s coaching style. They’d prefer he were less obsessed with defensive rigidity and conformity, less demanding that the players meet their responsibilities on defense when it comes at the expense of energies on offense. This has always been the way Julien has coached. He has always been an old-fashioned and overwhelmingly defense-minded coach. All of which was greatly acclaimed – even by the Bruins front office – when he brilliantly led this team to the Cup four years ago.

Sweeney & Neely apparently now suggest that he place greater emphasis on skating and shooting and fast-breaking through the three zones on wings of eagles while bringing greater pressure on the enemy end and being wildly entertaining just like that fleet and highly creative Tampa team currently  thrashing for the Cup.

Whoopee! Don’t we all just love that stuff?

But now that they’ve maneuvered their way into full control, Mr. Neely and Mr. Sweeney may shortly discover that such stuff is easier talked about than achieved, and if you dare go that route, you’d better have the right players, which the Bruins presently do not have. In hockey, as in most games, the style you play is dictated by your talent. There is nothing either monumentally revealing or particularly original about this statement.

Increasingly, it’s clear Chiarelli had to go. At first his firing seemed mainly a stroke of anger by Clan Jacobs, no strangers at playing hardball when sufficiently goaded. More and more, though, it’s clear that Chiarelli has left this team in bad shape. It’s burdened with ill-conceived contracts, loaded with no-trade provisions, and linked with misguided personnel options that now make the wheeling and dealing necessary to rebuild this team awfully difficult. There are other indictments, as doubtless you know.  

Yet none of this denies Chiarelli deserved credit for his earlier smart moves in making this team a gallant champion for a year and a mighty worthy contender a bunch more. Many are the teams in this league that might have gladly deemed his balance sheet sufficient to suspend disbelief, for at least one more year.

The more relevant question is, what of Sweeney and Neely? Are they equal to it?

I have no idea!  

Tactful and reserved, Don Sweeney has been around more than a quarter century without either offending many or creating much of an impression. A  Harvard man, he should have the requisite wit and wisdom, although he may discover it’s easier to unscramble a problem in quantum physics than divine whether a hockey player has the right stuff and how much he therefore deserves to get paid.

Briefly a truly great player, Cam Neely has much-deserved currency as one who bore a mean adversity notably well. But he’ll soon discover that second-guessing the action from the executive box a half dozen stories above ice level is a lot easier than having to do something about it.

Count me as hopeful but uneasy as I pull for those cool and swift Tampa Lightning to win the Cup. Thrillingly, of course!