The tough call the Bruins face with Zdeno Chara

Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. (Elise Amendola/AP)

EDMONTON — They are a declining power, these Boston Bruins, the prime example of a team running out of gas under the National Hockey League’s cap system.

It’s not their fault, really. It’s just the way things work now.

From a Stanley Cup winner in 2011, to a Cup finalist in 2013, to clinging to eighth place in the East in 2015. The Bruins are now ‘that team,’ wondering if there is a way to turn around the trend, some strategy that so few others have discovered.

Wednesday, the Bruins are in Edmonton to face a 29th place Oilers team that returns home from a six-game Eastern road trip to play its seventh game in 12 nights. Boston’s top prospect — goaltender Malcolm Subban — is up and ready for his first NHL start. In past years this one would have been a no-brainer.
Today? Not so much.


Watch Boston vs. Edmonton live on Sportsnet, Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET.


“I haven’t sat down and talked to (GM) Peter (Chiarelli) yet, to see how we’re going to move forward,” head coach Claude Julien said Tuesday. He would have made this call in his sleep even a season ago. “I think it’s important that we make a decision as a group, because of where we are. Whether we have out best goaltender, the guy we’ve been riding, or whether we go with Malcolm.

“It needs to be a group decision here.”

This is where the Bruins are, calling an organizational meeting over whether to give Subban a start on guaranteed win night. Why? Because guaranteed win night does not exist anymore for Boston, who watched a 3-0 lead evaporate Monday evening in Calgary, after a 5-2 loss at Vancouver three nights before.

The Florida Panthers are just two points back in the East, and suddenly these two points in Edmonton hold much more value than having a peek at Subban in his first NHL game. The road trip ends with visits to St. Louis and Chicago. The Bruins HAVE to win in Edmonton.

So the question becomes, even if Boston hangs on to make the playoffs, then what?

Zdeno Chara turns 38 in March, and has become to the Bruins what Jarome Iginla was to the Calgary Flames: that ageing superstar whom the Bruins need to make the playoffs for the next couple of seasons, but whose value will then slip to the point where any trade return on him is negligible.

History shows that the Calgary Flames should have dealt Iginla two years before they did. Instead, the Flames missed the playoffs in both of Iginla’s final two seasons in Calgary, then settled on two middling prospects — Ben Hanowski and Kenny Agostino — and a first round pick (Morgan Klimchuk) in a trade from Pittsburgh.

Of course, Chiarelli’s dilemma runs deep. There isn’t a GM in hockey — and he’s one of the best, IMO — who would submit to this obvious trend and deal Chara now. Not with a playoff spot still a very real possibility.

But the decline has begun, and here’s why we are mighty sure that the Bruins are not Detroit, a team that has bucked the trend: Look at the Bruins drafting record since 2007, and you’ll find the answer to why their opponent tonight has fallen on such hard times. It’s why Calgary is rebuilding. It’s why the Canucks are no longer an elite contender. And it’s why the Maple Leafs are as bad as they are.

Boston, an organization that once drafted and developed extremely well, has hit the skids on that front since 2007. The year before, in 2006, Boston drafted Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand, who have played a total of 1,215 NHL games. From 2007-2012 (we won’t count the past two seasons), the 37 players drafted by the Bruins have played a grand total of 960 games. Tyler Seguin, now in Dallas, accounts for more than one-third of those games.

There is a dearth on this roster between the age of 26 and 20. Torey Krug, Reilly Smith and Dougie Hamilton are all good players, but not enough to fill the void. Then Johnny Boychuk was dealt for a pair of second round draft picks, and this summer Chiarelli will be in cap jail again — but now with an eighth place team that doesn’t scare anybody anymore.

The trade deadline is looming, and the Bruins could use a right-winger and a Top 4 defenceman. But they’ll have to decide — and this is the crucial question, isn’t it? — whether it is wise to further borrow from the future with draft picks and prospects, to buttress a lineup that is merely holding on today.

They’re in Edmonton Wednesday and it’s going to take an organizational meeting to decide whether to start the backup.

Doesn’t that answer the question?