I was hoping to get a nice start on my NFL Draft grades today, but the events of last night have completely altered my plans. I could NOT let what I witnessed slide any longer than I already had.
Prior to last night, it was a relatively debatable topic of what the greatest choke job in all of sports was. Some would point to the Tampa Bay Lightning going on a record-breaking season in 2019 only to be swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Some fans will talk about the Atlanta Falcons’ infamous 28-3 lead in Super Bowl 51, or the historic 2016 Golden State Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers. You could even reasonably discuss older moments like Greg Norman’s disastrous final round at the 1996 Masters, or the Houston Oilers blowing a 35-3 lead to a Frank Reich-led Buffalo Bills team. All would have been good options to choose from.
After last night, however, that debate has ended.
Let’s put the Boston Bruins’ regular season in context. 65 wins and 135 points, both marks setting a new NHL record for most in a season. A legitimate MVP candidate in David Pastrnak, who would have won the Hart Trophy had Connor McDavid not blown everyone out of the water. A team that was deep in every aspect, with defense and goaltending being the best in the league. A Jack Adams Award-winning coach in Jim Montgomery. A pair of huge deadline acquisitions for an all-in push in Dmitry Orlov and Tyler Bertuzzi. Locking up their division, conference, and the league by early March and settling in for a quick and painless first round matchup.
All of this…only to blow a 3-1 series lead to a Florida Panthers team that was 43 points behind the Bruins in the standings. That’s another record, by the way; a final sordid cherry on top of an unmitigated disaster. When Jack Edwards, the most unabashedly biased commentator in all of sports, is struggling to comprehend the failure that he was forced to witness, there’s no defense that can be offered.
Even worse is the fact that this series shouldn’t have ended this way. There were multiple times in the last three games where the Bruins should have slammed the door shut on Florida. If Brad Marchand scores on the final breakaway in Game 5, the Bruins complete the gentleman’s sweep. The Bruins even came back from a 2-0 deficit in Game 7 to hold the lead until Florida tied the game in the final minute. Boston fans can give all the conspiracy theories they want about the TNT ticker spoiling Brandon Montour’s tying goal, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the Panthers were the better team in the final three games.
A lot of the blame does need to fall at Montgomery’s feet, as he was soundly outcoached by Paul Maurice. For context, the Panthers elected to go for a retread instead of then-interim coach Andrew Brunette, who guided Florida past the controversy of Joel Quenneville’s disgraceful exit and to the Presidents’ Trophy last season. Why did it take until the Panthers scored the first goal in Game 5 to put Patrice Bergeron back on Brad Marchand’s line? Why scratch Matt Grzelcyk for no particular reason in Game 6 only to watch his replacement in Connor Clifton turn the puck over ad nauseum? Why keep Linus Ullmark in the net in a pivotal Game 6 when the basic eye test and statistics showed a goalie who was clearly nowhere close to 100%? Jeremy Swayman not only had playoff experience, but he was far and away the superior goalie for the Bruins last postseason. Given the state of Jack Adams Award-winning coaches in the recent past, there’s a debate to be had that the trophy has had its meaning diminished, but that’s a topic for another time.
The sad reality for the Bruins is this: this was it. This was the last great shot they’ve had with this current core. For starters, look at Bergeron embracing Marchand before the two left the ice for the final time. The captain wasn’t a sure thing to be back this season but, after the tragic news of his father’s cancer and the revelation that he played in the Florida series with a herniated disc in his back, it wouldn’t surprise me if that emotional moment was Bergeron’s way of saying goodbye. What about David Krejci, who returned from his native Czechia to fill the second-line center role that the Bruins never properly filled? Does he potentially join Bergeron in retirement, or does he return home to enjoy the twilight of his career? The odds of him returning to Boston aren’t particularly great. Even Marchand is a valid cause for concern at this stage. He’s been a good player for the Bruins for a long time, but he’s coming off a rough season. He scored the fewest goals of his career since 2012-13 (a season that was cut in half due to a lockout), and will be turning 35 next week. The last two years of his contract could very well be his last in the NHL as well, but it’s a question on if he can justify his $6.125 million cap hit.
Speaking of cap hits, the Bruins have locked themselves into a tough cap situation this summer. The expected salary cap of the 2023-24 NHL season is expected to be $83.5 million, only going up by a million over last year’s. The Bruins, however, won’t be enjoying that extra wiggle room; due to Bergeron and Krejci hitting incentives in their contracts, the Boston has been hit with an astounding $4.5 million overage penalty. According to CapFriendly, this would leave the Bruins with a shade over $6 million once the penalty is taken into account. Locking up David Pastrnak this season was a good move, but that’s not nearly enough money for the Bruins to extend Swayman, keep at least one of Bertuzzi or Orlov, or even bring back Bergeron and/or Krejci if they choose to come back. In other words, the Bruins will be forced to cut off a decent piece or two from this unit, but who? Will Jake DeBrusk finally see his trade request saga come to a conclusion? Do the Bruins view Grzelcyk as expendable and ship his expiring contract out (reuniting with former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy in Vegas, perhaps?) Can the Bruins manage to convince someone with a larger salary like Taylor Hall to waive his no-move clause, or convince a team to take the remaining four years of Brandon Carlo’s deal? Boston is going to be in for an offseason of change, whether they want it or not.
Even worse for the Bruins is the fact that this has only been the worst choke in a recent history filled with far too many of them. Counting this season, the Bruins have won three Presidents’ Trophies in the last ten years, and have never gotten past the second round either time. Go back to 2009, when the Bruins were the top overall seed in the playoffs, only to lose to the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round by way of an overtime goal from Scott Walker (that goal is his only one in the playoffs, by the way). How about being reverse swept by the Philadelphia Flyers the following year, capping it off by blowing a 3-0 lead in Game 7? The Bruins missing out on their second Stanley Cup in three years by way of two goals in 17 seconds to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of the 2013 Final? The collapses in 2015 and 2016 that resulted in the Bruins missing the playoffs? Having a favorable road to the Finals in 2019 only to be bested by the St. Louis Blues? This has become far too much of a repeated occurrence than Boston fans would care to admit.
So who or what’s to blame for all of this? It’s hard to blame it on players due to how quickly a roster can change every few years. Coaching? Can’t say that, with Cassidy being fired in a power move this past offseason only to land on his feet in Vegas and be the voice the top seed in the West needed in the Golden Knights’ locker room. To correct a string of failures, the constants have to be looked at, and they point to a harsh but necessary conclusion.
If the Bruins want to fix this disaster, Don Sweeney and Cam Neely need to be the first sacrifices. End of story.
Neely is turning into the hockey version of Scott Frost; a face of the heyday of their organizations that have tainted their own legacies. Neely has overseen many of these failures, but his most damning moment came from this season. Remember Mitchell Miller? The scumbag who admitted to physically and psychologically abusing a black, disabled classmate at their Ohio school? A month into the record season, Neely and the Bruins organization decided it would be a good idea to sign Miller to a contract. Despite their being no substantiated evidence suggesting Miller felt apologetic about the incidents, the Bruins turned a blind eye to the whole ordeal. The contract was rescinded just a couple days later after massive public backlash, but the ugly truth of Neely, the Bruins organization, and hockey culture as a whole had already been brought to the light. Neely didn’t help his case with a cliched press conference about how they “should’ve done a better job” when the reality of Miller’s situation only needed a bare-minimum amount of digging. This recent failure can reasonably be considered karma for trying to give a second chance to someone who clearly didn’t deserve one, and a Neely ouster would be the final twist of the knife.
As for Sweeney, there were Boston fans who were angry for the team choosing to keep him over Cassidy. With some of the decisions he’s made during his time as general manager, it’s easy to see the reason for the frustration. For every Pastrnak deal, Sweeney has made terrible free agency decisions like David Backes and John Moore. Deadline moves like the one that brought Ondrej Kase to the team backfired tremendously. However, there’s one moment that Bruins fans have held over Sweeney throughout his entire tenure: the 2015 Draft. The Bruins had three first-round picks that year to help restock their farm system. The picks were used to select Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk, and Zach Senyshyn. Out of these three players, DeBrusk is the only player who became a regular on the roster. Zboril is locked as an eighth defenseman, while Senyshyn was forced to sign a PTO with New Jersey this past offseason. The next three picks in the draft? Mathew Barzal, Kyle Connor, and Thomas Chabot: all three turning into prominent players for their teams. The Bruins could have also used one of the picks to select Brock Boeser or Travis Konecny, as well. Somehow, it gets worse; in exchange for a fifth-round pick the next year, the Minnesota Wild used Boston’s fifth-round pick that year to select a Russian forward by the name of Kirill Kaprizov. Wonder where that guy is now?
The fact of the matter is that the Bruins can’t be complacent in the face of this failure. The records of this season are tainted, hollow, and meaningless. With the cap constraints caused by overages and the potential necessity to alter the core, the Bruins need to embrace tradition to make good on Pastrnak’s prime years. If that means a bloody regime change and sacrificing pieces to fill needs and restock the farm system with quality talent, so be it. The real failure of the season will be if Boston pretends that nothing is wrong here. It’s a shame that this era of Bruins hockey will be remembered as one that should have accomplished so much more.