Chapter Three- Change Takes Time (2017)
On Feb. 4, 2017, the Boston Bruins lost, 6-5, to the Toronto Maple Leafs on home ice at TD Garden.
Head coach, Claude Julien, did his postgame interview with NESN in the third-floor studio at ice level— exiting with a polite smile despite the gravity of the situation after likely being a bit surprised to find a remote broadcast intern waiting outside to collect some gear that needed to go back to the production truck parked outdoors.
He must have known.
He had been around the league long enough and went through it before with the Montréal Canadiens in Jan. 2006, as well as the New Jersey Devils the following season— despite New Jersey leading their division and maintaining the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at the time.
He was nearly fired from the Bruins if Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal had been won by Montréal.
Luckily for Julien, Nathan Horton scored a series clinching overtime goal and the B’s went on afterwards to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers in four games, Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games and Vancouver Canucks in seven games to capture the Stanley Cup that spring.
But after losing to Toronto on Feb. 4, 2017, something in the air signaled that a change was about to be made and the last of Julien behind the bench in Boston had just been seen.
The Bruins trailed, 4-1, midway through the second period before David Pastrnak and Torey Krug scored a pair of goals to go into the second intermission trailing, 4-3.
Ryan Spooner opened scoring in the third period— tying the game, 4-4, with Boston’s third unanswered goal at 10:06, but about five minutes later the Maple Leafs went ahead again, 5-4.
In the dying minutes of the action, Patrice Bergeron made it, 5-5, at 17:06, but about a minute later James van Riemsdyk put the icing on the cake for Toronto, 6-5, at 18:24.
The Bruins outshot Toronto, 41-26, and dominated faceoff win percentage, 60-40. The Maple Leafs went 1/2 on the power play to Boston’s 2/5 success rate.
It was the second straight loss in which the B’s gave up five or more goals in a season that looked like it was destined to repeat the recent history of 2015 and 2016— close, but just on the outside looking in when the playoffs would begin in April.
The Bruins were willing to do whatever it’d take to avoid missing the playoffs for three years in a row.
Apparently, management felt that the players had stopped listening to their old coach and would respond better with a shakeup behind the bench— even more so after Spooner and Frank Vatrano expressed similar statements that “the old coach didn’t really like me” in the immediate aftermath and once each player eventually was traded out of Boston.
Milt Schmidt was the last head coach in Boston to miss three consecutive postseasons before he was replaced by Harry Sinden after the 1965-66 season. The Bruins would not let Julien—their winningest head coach in franchise history— become the first behind the bench to do so since Schmidt.
On Feb. 7, 2017, while the New England Patriots were parading their fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy around the City of Boston, Bruins beat reporters scrambled through the crowds to get to TD Garden, Warrior Ice Arena or wherever the Bruins were that morning for the firing of Julien and subsequent press conference for then-interim head coach, Bruce Cassidy.
The Bruins were in 3rd place in the Atlantic Division at the time of Julien’s firing.
That was good enough to earn a divisional playoff berth in accordance with the National Hockey League’s playoff format, but Boston had let the last two seasons slip away by mingling with the bubble and the Ottawa Senators and Maple Leafs were in the hunt for home ice if any of them could somehow finish at least second place in the Atlantic Division.
Boston’s 2016-17 roster marked a crossroads for the organization as less and less of the 2011 Stanley Cup winning core remained on the team.
Dennis Seidenberg’s final two years of his contract with the Bruins were bought out prior to the season as John-Michael Liles was re-signed and the B’s had a plethora of bottom-pairing defenders in the likes of Liles, Adam McQuaid, Colin Miller, Kevan Miller and Joe Morrow all vying for basically the same job or two.
In addition, the Bruins considered Matt Grzelcyk and Rob O’Gara for roles down the road as the two defenders made their league debuts that season.
Charlie McAvoy ended his collegiate career by signing a professional entry-level contract with Boston near the end of the 2016-17 regular season with the expectation that he’d play for the B’s in 2017-18— finishing off the year with Boston’s American Hockey League affiliate in Providence to get his first taste of professional hockey.
Except the Bruins faced a ton of injuries down the stretch that meant McAvoy had to become part of the equation almost overnight in the middle of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Among their forwards, General Manager, Don Sweeney had brought in Dominic Moore for a fourth line center role in place of Maxime Talbot or Chris Kelly on any given night.
The former left for the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia for 2016-17, while the latter suffered a season ending injury after fracturing his left femur on Nov. 3, 2015, in a game against the Dallas Stars—limiting Kelly’s 2015-16 campaign to just 11 games and two goals in the process.
Despite amassing 7-21—28 totals in 80 games in 2014-15, there were no guarantees Kelly would return to his former self given his age (35) in 2015-16, and the extent of his injury.
Besides, Sweeney really needed to spend the $3.000 million cap hit that Kelly’s contract carried until it expired after the 2015-16 season elsewhere in the organization.
Tim Schaller and Riley Nash were a pair of replacement level bottom-six forwards that Sweeney added to his forward group while players like Danton Heinen, Sean Kuraly, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Austin Czarnik, Peter Cehlárik and Anton Blidh would get their first taste of NHL action while guys like Spooner and Vatrano sorted themselves out among recent newcomers, David Backes and Matt Beleskey, somewhere in the top-nine forward group.
That’s right, 2016-17 marked the first season of Backes’ five-year, $30.000 million contract that he signed with Boston on July 1, 2016.
He would go on to play in 74 games that season and yield 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists) in his most productive season in a Bruins uniform as Backes’ career decline only furthered from year-to-year thereafter.
Though for one season, Backes was a welcome addition in helping guys like Kuraly learn how to carve out their own full-time spot on the roster and give Boston further depth in the bottom-six— specifically where Backes often impacted the third line.
Kuraly’s unrelenting performance in the 2017 First Round landed him a favorable role for 2017-18 and beyond in Boston, meanwhile, Backes’ entrance from the beginning of the 2016-17 season timed out well with Beleskey’s decline.
In 2015-16, Beleskey had a career-high 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists) in 80 games in his first season with Boston in the first year of a five-year deal worth $3.800 million per season.
Though he fell short of his career-high 22 goals in 65 games with the Anaheim Ducks the season prior, Beleskey’s stock remained stable given his surprise rise in notoriety courtesy of his eight-goal performance in 16 playoff games in 2015, as the Ducks went all the way to a Game 7 loss on home ice in the 2015 Western Conference Final to Chicago.
Boston, of course, missed the playoffs in 2016, so Beleskey would get another chance at postseason fame and glory the following year in 2017, when— after 49 regular season games— he was limited to eight points (three goals, five assists) due to injuries that led to a disjointed 2016-17 campaign.
In three postseason games with Boston in 2017, Beleskey was a minus-two. He had no points.
Backes, on the other hand, managed to score a goal and record three assists for four points in all six games of the series loss against Ottawa.
Meanwhile, Moore, Schaller and Nash each looked comfortable in their regular season appearances with Boston.
Moore only played one year in a Bruins uniform before moving on to Toronto for 2017-18, but in all 82 games with the B’s in 2016-17, he had 11-14—25 totals.
After making $900,000 on his one-year contract with Boston, Moore was able to earn himself a $100,000 raise and make a cool $1.000 million on a one-year deal with the Leafs for 2017-18.
Schaller likely wasn’t destined for much of an NHL career before signing a one-year, $600,000 contract with Boston on July 1, 2016.
It was a low-risk, high-reward sort of deal— if there was any reward to be had at all stemming from an undrafted player out of New Hampshire (the state, not the university as Schaller went to Providence College) who, in 35 games with the Buffalo Sabres over two seasons from 2014-16, had only had two goals and three assists (five points) in that span.
In his first year with Boston, Schaller amassed 7-7—14 totals in 59 games played and earned another one-year deal to stick around in a Bruins jersey—this time at a $775,000 cap hit on July 5, 2017.
In six games in the 2017 playoffs, Schaller had one goal and followed that up with two assists in 11 postseason games the following year in 2018, after amassing a career-high 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists) in 82 regular seasons with Boston in 2017-18.
He then cashed in on a two-year deal worth $1.900 million per season with the Vancouver Canucks on July 1, 2018, only to score 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in 100 games with the Canucks and Los Angeles Kings by the time the contract expired after 2019-20.
Nash, meanwhile, was originally drafted 21st overall by the Edmonton Oilers way back in 2007, but didn’t suit up for an NHL team until the 2011-12 season, when— by that time— he was a member of the Carolina Hurricanes after the Oilers traded him to Carolina for a 2010 2nd round pick (previously acquired from Ottawa, Edmonton selected Martin Marincin) on June 26, 2010.
He never had more than 25 points in a season and made his way into being a full-time bottom-six forward by 2013-14, with the Hurricanes.
After parts of five seasons with Carolina and 81 points in 242 games, Nash signed a two-year deal with the Bruins on July 1, 2016, worth $900,000 per season— a quarter-million dollars less than what his cap hit was with the Canes in 2015-16.
In 81 games with the B’s in 2016-17, Nash had 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) for respectable numbers in his role among the bottom-six and as a penalty killing forward.
Then, in 76 games with Boston as a 27-year-old in 2017-18, Nash broke out with a career-year setting career-highs in goals (15), assists (26) and points (41) in 81 games before cashing in on a three-year contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets worth $2.750 million per season on July 1, 2018.
The thing to notice here is that Sweeney had begun to develop a trend in Boston.
His larger acquisitions in free agency were rather shortsighted, while his replacement level deals were rather tremendous in extending the value of a dollar.
If only he could find the right way to negotiate a trade to emphasize proper value in the addition of a rental or a more long-term player at the trade deadline— or avoid making the mistake of being bogged down by eventual albatross contracts like Backes and Beleskey in the first place.
Regarding Spooner and Vatrano, the two players were quickly reaching their final chance at making a lasting impression in Boston.
Spooner was Boston’s 2nd round pick (45th overall) in 2010— drafted with the Bruins’ own 2nd round pick in the first of two draft years where they benefited from selections acquired from Toronto in exchange for Phil Kessel.
Whereas Boston packaged Tyler Seguin in a seven-player deal with the Dallas Stars on July 4, 2013, and Jared Knight didn’t pan out despite being drafted 13 spots ahead of Spooner (Knight ended up being traded to the Minnesota Wild on March 2, 2015), Spooner was held to a higher standard of making a good impression in the eyes of both Boston’s coaching staff and fans— even though Seguin, Knight and Dougie Hamilton (the 2011 1st round pick acquired in the Kessel trade) were the actual results of sending Kessel to Toronto.
Hamilton was jettisoned to the Calgary Flames for draft picks on June 26, 2015, in one of Sweeney’s first moves.
Spooner fell victim to the notion that anyone from the 2010 draft should already be a full-time NHLer by the time the immediate products of the Kessel trade tree were flipped.
The Bruins were in transition and it was time to show up or be shipped out.
Spooner made his league debut in 2012-13, but didn’t crack the roster for a full season until 2015-16, when he amassed 13-36—49 totals in 80 games as a promising candidate for Boston’s future center depth in the post-Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci era someday.
In 2016-17, Spooner’s stats slipped to 39 points (11 goals, 28 assists) in 78 games.
The following season, he had 9-16—25 totals in 39 games and was included in a larger deal leading up to the 2018 trade deadline with the New York Rangers (this is what we refer to as foreshadowing for Part Four, fun fact).
Vatrano, meanwhile, was the last piece of the puzzle that previous General Manager, Peter Chiarelli, had his hands on in Boston—signing the undrafted forward from University of Massachusetts to a three-year entry-level contract on March 15, 2015, and making his NHL debut the following season.
He amassed 11 points (eight goals, three assists) in 39 games while David Pastrnak turned more heads with 15-11—26 totals in 51 games with Boston in 2015-16, after recording 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) in 46 games the previous season despite Pastrnak being drafted earlier that summer (25th overall in 2014).
A precedent was set—that in the long-term Boston might not be able to sustain Vatrano and Pastrnak and that they would need to choose between one of the two players.
That if, for example, Vatrano was a late bloomer the Bruins would not be able to be patient enough with Sweeney’s three-year plan to get back to Stanley Cup contention, while Pastrnak had shown flashes of potentially franchise changing play.
In all, the Bruins struggled with a constant state of being in-between.
They were neither a true contender, but they also weren’t likely to fall out of playoff contention and could benefit greatly from— even if it was ultimately all too brief— an appearance in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After all, Boston lost to a team that ended up one goal away in double overtime in Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Final from defeating the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and advancing to their first Stanley Cup Final since 2007, but fate would not have it in the cards for the Senators as it were.
So why did the Bruins fire Julien and slide Cassidy into the interim head coaching job in Feb. 2017?
Because it did two things.
First, it woke up a team that had begun to over rely on bad habits and/or outdated systems. Whether it was veteran complacency and meritocracy not giving the younger players a fair shake or simply Julien’s time to go as Boston’s opponents began to really figure out and foil his plans, it didn’t matter too much.
The team looked to be barely above or just below .500 on any given night in 2016-17, from the eye test to all the data in the world.
Second, it set Sweeney’s plan fully in motion.
Whether the Bruins made significant forward progress to close out the 2016-17 calendar, Boston would continue overhaul roster components and player development with an added emphasis on getting youth into the lineup and seeing what they really had in an alignment with Cassidy’s full-throttle ideas.
Sometimes you play a younger player not with the goal in mind of keeping that player forever, but marketing what that player could be for another team and in trying to acquire the right piece for your team in the present—this would be the key to Sweeney’s trade deadline moves in 2018 and 2019— coinciding with his overarching three-year plan at getting another chance in the Cup Final (albeit a year behind schedule if it came down to 2019, technically).
With moves made behind the bench less than a month from the 2017 trade deadline, what was going to be available that year anyway?
Boston encountered numerous injuries as they went down the stretch into the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but no one could’ve predicted that they’d be forced to rely on McAvoy well ahead of schedule.
Still, how might have the Bruins roster looked different if they were the ones instead of the Flames trading for Michael Stone on Feb. 20, 2017? The Arizona Coyotes received a 2017 3rd round pick (78th overall, later traded to Edmonton, which the Oilers used to select Stuart Skinner) and a conditional 2018 5th round pick if Stone re-signed (he did, so Arizona got the pick, but later flipped it to the New Jersey Devils for Scott Wedgewood).
Stone would have at least provided Boston with a top-four defender for the time being, but Sweeney’s three-year plan wasn’t set on handing out draft picks unless the player in return was a top-notch rental or a surefire long-term roster component.
There was too great of a chance for Stone to fall short or somewhere in-between.
Anyway, Patrick Eaves was traded by Dallas to Anaheim for a conditional 2017 1st round pick on Feb. 24, 2017. The Stars received the pick (29th overall), but flipped it to Chicago to move up in the draft and take Jake Oettinger 26th overall instead that June, while Chicago settled on Henri Jokiharju.
Eaves, meanwhile, went all the way to the 2017 Western Conference Final with the Ducks before losing to the Nashville Predators in six games.
Ben Bishop and a 2017 5th round pick went to the Los Angeles Kings from the Tampa Bay Lightning for Peter Budaj, Erik Cernak, a 2017 7th round pick and a conditional 2017 draft pick on Feb. 26, 2017.
Bishop had a cup of coffee with the Kings before signing with the Stars that summer, while Cernak, of course, became a pesky part of the Lightning and has two Stanley Cup rings since the deal in 2020 and 2021. More on him and the Bolts later, though, as they relate to the Bruins (more foreshadowing for Part Four!).
That same day Martin Hanzal and Ryan White became members of the Minnesota Wild in a trade with Arizona, while a day later the Maple Leafs acquired Brian Boyle from the Lightning for a prospect and a 2017 2nd round pick.
Also on Feb. 27, 2017, Boston University product, Kevin Shattenkirk didn’t get a homecoming to his college town in Boston, as he was packaged with Pheonix Copley from the St. Louis Blues to the Washington Capitals for Brad Malone, Zach Sanford (a name that would become familiar to Bruins fans for the wrong reasons in 2019), a 2017 1st round pick (27th overall later flipped to Philadelphia, where the Flyers selected Morgan Frost) and a conditional 2019 2nd round pick if Shattenkirk re-signed in Washington (he didn’t).
In lieu of missing out on Shattenkirk, the following day the New York Rangers acquired Brendan Smith from the Detroit Red Wings for a 2017 3rd round pick and a 2018 2nd round pick on Feb. 28th— the same day Chicago reunited with Johnny Oduya in a deal with Dallas— sending Mark McNeil and a conditional 2018 4th round pick to the Stars in return.
Prior to the actual 2017 trade deadline on March 1st, Sweeney held a makeshift pre-trade deadline press conference in a copy room the size of about a closet in the press box of TD Garden.
He didn’t say much other than that the Bruins likely weren’t going to make that big of a deal as the market wasn’t there. If anything, his primary objective was to add without subtracting and maybe do so by bringing in a forward, but he wasn’t exactly sold on making a trade in the first place.
On March 1st, the Red Wings sent Thomas Vanek to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Dylan McIlrath and a conditional 2017 3rd round pick, where after amassing 38 points in 45 games with Detroit, Vanek had just 10 points in 20 games with Florida and missed the playoffs.
Dwight King was shipped out of Los Angeles for Montréal in exchange for a conditional 2018 4th round pick. King had 15 points in 67 games with the Kings before the trade and only had one more point (a goal) in 17 games with the Canadiens afterward, then left for Europe that summer.
The Kings dealt King to make room for Jarome Iginla at a retained price from the Colorado Avalanche for a conditional 2018 4th round pick if Iginla re-signed with Los Angeles.
Los Angeles missed the postseason and with his gradual decline in production, Iginla waited until July 30, 2018, to formally announce his retirement— going the entire 2017-18 season without a contract.
P.A. Parenteau and Kyle Quincey weren’t names that stuck out to Sweeney’s desires, while Valtteri Filppula and Mark Streit required just a touch of too much brokerage to fit in fair trade value or cap hit against the ceiling.
Instead, Drew Stafford’s $4.350 million salary would do from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for a conditional 2018 6th round pick that’d upgrade to a 2018 5th round pick if Boston made the playoffs and a 4th round selection if they managed to make it to the Second Round with Stafford playing in 50% of the games in the process.
Stafford brought his 4-9—13 totals in 40 games with the Jets to the Bruins and amassed eight more points (four goals, four assists) in 18 games with Boston down the stretch— contributing two goals in six games in their First Round loss to Ottawa as well, thus surrendering a 2018 5th round pick to the Jets.
Winnipeg drafted Declan Chisholm 150th overall in 2018, and signed him to a three-year entry-level contract on May 31, 2020— making his league debut in 2021-22 with the Jets.
Could the Bruins have realistically tried to get elite-level talent at the deadline or at the very least a top-six forward? No, but they could try to get someone and maybe sneak out of the First Round.
That someone was Stafford and the Bruins didn’t make it past the Senators in the First Round.
His return on investment, thus, didn’t amount to much and Boston let him walk in free agency, but the B’s weren’t good enough to reach the Final in 2017, anyway.
Sweeney knew the answer wouldn’t come from relying on what was familiar by reacquiring someone like Iginla in the final year of his career, but rather that Boston required a multi-faceted approach from the time he was hired that he had to navigate in what he thought he knew (replacement level signings like Moore, Nash and Schaller) and what he was willing to learn (stemming from the influx of in-house youth and overhauls in McAvoy, Grzelcyk, Kuraly, Noel Acciari, Vatrano, Pastrnak, et al) down the line.
At some point he would have to sell off bits and pieces that would either become too expensive to fit in with what Boston was already operating with or simply couldn’t cut out a role in a Bruins uniform.
A younger player could make their own spot as part of Boston’s long-term core or serve as an understudy for long enough to replace someone else.
If neither looked like an option, that player became expendable.
Sweeney would also have to confront his mistakes and shortcomings (namely, Backes and Beleskey), but be willing to adapt on the fly and work to flip those players a la Jim Rutherford’s longtime style as a General Manager in Carolina and Pittsburgh— especially in his days with the latter that kept the Penguins as a competitive team from year-to-year.
It was all part of the plan.
After all, it took Chiarelli a few years of tinkering as the Bruins reignited the fiery passion of a hockey town in 2008’s seven-game series loss to the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal to winning the Cup in 2011.
For now, the emphasis was more on getting Boston’s system updated to Cassidy’s standards on the ice after the team wobbled around about an 86-point pace at the time of Julien’s firing back on Feb. 7, 2017, to making the playoffs as the 3rd seed in the Atlantic Division with a 44-31-7 record and 95 points— beating the Leafs by virtue of a tiebreaker, given that Boston had 42 regulation-plus overtime wins to Toronto’s 39.
Cassidy’s crew was about to become very familiar with the Maple Leafs after losing in the 2017 First Round to Ottawa, while Sweeney had more work cut out for him for 2017-18.