Boston Bruins: Plan B

Rask's Vezina win had as much to do with his team as his ability. (Harry How/Getty)

Despite seemingly annual roster tumult, the Boston Bruins remain a perennial Cup threat. Here’s how.

When a recently dealt player thrives in his new environment, lazy logic dictates that his former club must be living with an ocean of regret for miscalculating his potential. But Peter Chiarelli didn’t need Tyler Seguin’s fat stat line as a Dallas Star to tell him what kind of player he traded. That’s why, even before the Boston Bruins GM dealt Seguin, it looked as though the water torture had begun. The glimpse came courtesy of Boston’s in-house TV series Behind the B, and showed a strained Chiarelli candidly debating the idea of trading a 21-year-old second-overall pick with the team’s hockey operations department. It was a discussion defined by folded hands and smiles that form a tight seal over teeth. “He’s another 35- to 40-goal scorer,” Chiarelli said to anyone who wanted to pick up on that worrisome thread. The man who did, director of player personnel Scott Bradley, has been with the Bruins for more than 20 years. He reminded Chiarelli that the team has had to make hard calls on young talent before, and those decisions turned out pretty well. “It’s knowing your player and their value and when to move them,” Bradley calmly stated. “We were good on [Andrew] Raycroft, we were good on Phil [Kessel].”

That kind of vision and fortitude has allowed Boston to stay ahead of the curve as a league power despite being dealt some tough hands. Chiarelli and his staff may stress about trading young stars, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it when they feel it’s the best course of action. By having a clear understanding of what their team is about and which types of players fit their mould, the B’s have been empowered to cast off high-end talent that never quite harmonized with their organizational anthem, while mining undervalued pieces from other franchises, who shine upon donning black and gold. It’s a good thing, too, because without that unflinching confidence, it’s very easy to imagine how a talent exodus triggered by a variety of circumstances could have sent the B’s spiralling down the standings. Instead, their granite foundation has the club positioned perfectly for another Stanley Cup run.

Chiarelli was hired in May of 2006, about six months after former Bruins GM Mike O’Connell traded a 26-year-old Joe Thornton, who was in the middle of an MVP season, to the San Jose Sharks for three backup singers. In the sense that Thornton was an all-world talent leaving Boston, the move was a harbinger of things to come. The circumstances, however, were different than what Chiarelli has faced. It was the organization’s decision to move “Jumbo Joe,” while Chiarelli has often been playing a tough bounce coming at him.

Just weeks after Chiarelli was hired, the B’s drafted Kessel fifth overall. That summer, the GM accelerated a franchise reboot by signing Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard to big free-agent contracts. Savard led Boston in scoring in his first three seasons with the club, averaging just over 87 points. Then Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins laid a predatory head shot on Savard that ultimately cost the Bruin his career and jarred Cooke into reforming his.

Kessel, meanwhile, developed into a front-line scorer who led the B’s with 36 goals in the final season of his entry-level deal. He’d also decided that he couldn’t operate under restrictive coach Claude Julien and wasn’t interested in continuing his career in Boston. Chiarelli and his staff could have dug in and engaged in a staring contest with the kid, but they swallowed hard and swung a deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Along with young blueliner Dougie Hamilton, that transaction famously brought Seguin to Massachusetts, and though he wasn’t a model of consistency, he paced Boston in scoring as a sophomore. By his third year, his speed and hands had set him apart, but he’d also developed a reputation as someone who played soft and partied hard. While the Bruins could have opted to give Seguin more time to mature, the rift seemed to be growing beyond repair. Faced with a salary-cap crunch, Chiarelli dealt away another burgeoning talent, this time to the Stars.

Even the man at the centre of the Bruins’ best moment in 40 years wound up causing the team grief. One season after his Conn Smythe Trophy performance led Boston to the 2011 Cup—its first since 1972—goalie Tim Thomas decided he was sick of answering questions about politically charged messages he wrote on Facebook. He packed up the two Vezina trophies he’d won as the league’s best puckstopper and left both the team and $5 million on the table.

To put that in context, most people felt sympathy for Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman when he had to rid the club of some essential support players following the Hawks’ 2010 Cup. But imagine if captain Jonathan Toews—the playoff MVP that spring—walked into Bowman’s office a year later and said, “Yeah, I think I’d rather play in a band.” Would the Hawks be back in the Cup final a couple of years later—as the B’s were—if they’d lost their post-season hero?

Boston was able to absorb the loss of Thomas because it had Tuukka Rask—acquired by Chiarelli in exchange for Raycroft during his earliest days on the job—waiting in the wings. And if that looks like a no-brainer in hindsight, remember that Raycroft was only two years removed from being named rookie of the year when Boston swapped him for a skinny, teenaged Finn.

Instead of waiting around to see what became of Raycroft, Chiarelli parlayed him into a prospect with higher upside. Rask, along with Chara and centre Patrice Bergeron, form the spine of this club. Securing Rask has been key in helping the B’s remain contenders, but other moves have paid dividends, too. Getting Dennis Seidenberg, Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell in a pair of deals with the Florida Panthers was vital to Boston’s Cup win, as was plucking Johnny Boychuk from the Colorado Avalanche. Horton was a known entity when he arrived in Boston, but the Bruins zeroed in on overlooked aspects of those other players and banked on their ability to play bigger roles within their system. When Horton—who scored two game-seven winners en route to the Cup—informed the Bruins he wasn’t going to re-sign last summer, Chiarelli inked Jarome Iginla to a one-year deal, and the top line hasn’t missed a beat.

And for all the talk of Seguin’s success, the swap with Dallas has by no means blown up in the Bruins’ face. Loui Eriksson, the headliner coming east from Texas, has been sidelined by concussions this year, but could still be the type of low-key, reliable scorer this organization loves. And Reilly Smith—a 22-year-old who had all of 40 games’ worth of NHL experience and was viewed by outsiders as an afterthought—is the latest player to unlock his potential in Boston. Smith has been a second-line revelation, scoring at nearly a 30-goal pace. Rookie Torey Krug was signed as a free agent out of Michigan State in 2012 and looks as though he will be providing an offensive spark from the blueline for years to come. And 28-year-old Swede Carl Soderberg, obtained from the St. Louis Blues for Hannu Toivonen in a long-forgotten 2007 deal, has been a valuable third-liner in his first full NHL season.

All those peripheral pieces are necessary to complete the Bruins’ puzzle, because the team’s template for victory involves winning a lot of close shaves. Some high-end clubs operate like a lion that shreds its prey to pieces; Boston is more like a python that wraps itself around an opponent and never stops squeezing. That makes for some awfully tight hockey games. The Bruins’ past three first-round series were each decided in overtime of game seven. In 2012, they lost the last of seven straight one-goal games to the Washington Capitals. The other two years, huge victories over the Canadiens and Leafs sent Boston on its way to the Cup final. It’s almost certain the New Englanders will participate in more of those excruciating tilts this spring, and it’s a huge credit to Chiarelli and his staff that despite tough circumstances the team remains as well-equipped as ever to win them.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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