On the most recent episode of the Down the Frozen River Podcast, @connorzkeith expressed the sentiment that the Boston Bruins have been wasting the prime of their core group of players– not including David Pastrnak, or really anyone since the 2014 NHL Entry Draft currently on the roster.
Rather, Connor suggested that the Bruins were once a dominant team of the early 2010s with a core group of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask that’s still very much left intact from their 2011 Stanley Cup championship, but that they’ve been wasting the arc of the aforementioned players’s prime.
Luckily, Down the Frozen River has an in-house Boston historian and I am here to set the record straight. This is DTFR Overtime and what I’ve thought about after recording the last podcast.
Hockey is a game of inches and odd puck bounces. It’s a collective game of skill with an over-reliance on luck. Whatever you believe, you better believe in the Hockey Gods. It’s only fate, destiny and just a game at the end of the day, right?
The business of hockey has played a huge part in impacting the game of hockey as we know it– impacting teams and how rosters are constructed, directly through the introduction of a salary cap as of the last full-season lockout in 2004-2005 and indirectly, through many other external factors (family, injuries, et cetera).
It was because of league expansion in the 1970s and because of the rival World Hockey Association (WHA) that Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Derek Sanderson and the Bruins didn’t nail down a dynasty. Of course, the Montreal Canadiens also played a part in it in 1971, 1977 and 1978, but the B’s lost star goaltender, Gerry Cheevers, to the Cleveland Crusaders of WHA from 1972 through 1976– right after winning the Cup in 1972 and during Boston’s appearance and subsequent loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1974 Stanley Cup Final.
Cheevers alone wasn’t the only difference maker in a Bruins uniform that left the black and gold for the higher paying WHA.
Sanderson jettisoned Boston for the Philadelphia Blazers in the summer of ’72 for a $2.600 million contract that made him the highest paid athlete in the world at the time, though he went on to only play in eight games with the Blazers due to injury and returned to Boston after the WHA’s 1972-1973 season on a $1 million deal. From 1972 through 1974 with the Bruins, Sanderson only played 54 out of 156 games and was sent down to the Boston Braves of the American Hockey League before being traded to the New York Rangers in June 1974.
John “Pie” McKenzie, a gifted point scorer known by his unconventional nickname left the Bruins for the WHA’s Blazers as a player-coach after the 1972 Stanley Cup Final and never returned to the NHL. McKenzie finished his playing days with the New England Whalers in 1979.
In the 1980s and early 90s, injuries and the emergence of the Edmonton Oilers as a top team in the National Hockey League plagued the primes of Ray Bourque, Brad Park, Cam Neely and the Big Bad Bruins.
Boston lost the 1988 and 1990 Stanley Cup Finals to the Oilers. Boston lost the 1991 and 1992 Eastern Conference Finals to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Boston Garden itself was closed in 1995– and then Boston missed the playoffs in 1997 for the first time in 30 years.
Good teams aren’t meant to remain on top forever.
There’s a reason why the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in all professional sports.
Claude Julien, the winningest coach (419 wins) in Bruins franchise history– having surpassed Art Ross‘s 387 wins mark with the team during his tenure in Boston– led the black and gold to two appearances in the Stanley Cup Final and one President’s Trophy (just the second in franchise history during the 2013-2014 campaign).
In 2011, the Bruins rode the backs of Nathan Horton, Marchand and Tim Thomas‘s insanity in goal. In 2013, a more experienced Boston team rallied from a 4-1 deficit in a Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round and charged all the way to a six game series battle with the Chicago Blackhawks that ultimately ended in defeat.
Thomas was no longer part of the story after 2012. Rask took over the reigns and never looked back. Jaromir Jagr came and went in a largely forgettable time in the spoked-B.
But the Bruins could skate with the best. Until they missed the playoffs in 2015 and 2016.
In the Salary Cap Era, teams are built up and ripped to shreds by massive longterm contracts and dollars being improperly allocated throughout the roster.
Peter Chiarelli got the Bruins in a salary cap hell, what with their fourth line center, Chris Kelly, making $3.000 million in his final years as a Bruin. In the broad scope of things, that was the least of Chiarelli’s mismanagement that ultimately ended his time in Boston. Neither the Tyler Seguin trade nor the Johnny Boychuk trade alone could be what led to the Bruins going from a top team deep in every roster spot to a team outside the playoff picture looking in with some mediocre placeholders.
Brett Connolly and Max Talbot didn’t yield the same results in Chiarelli’s last season with the Bruins– tangible or intangible– than any of the bottom-six forwards (Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton, Daniel Paille, Rich Peverley, Kelly and Michael Ryder) provided for the 2011.
Just one year removed from a President’s Trophy season that ended with an early First Round exit to Montreal, the Bruins found themselves on the verge of an uncomfortable position that they hadn’t been in since missing the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. They went on to miss the playoffs in 2015 and 2016.
So the Bruins did the only thing they’ve ever known. They reset themselves while still carrying a core group of players.
In the 70s, Boston rebuilt themselves around Orr, Esposito and friends when Sanderson left (then returned and left again via trade), Cheevers departed and McKenzie stormed off to the WHA. They drafted Terry O’Reilly in 1971, Stan Johnathan in 1975 and acquired Peter McNab from the Buffalo Sabres after the 1975 Stanley Cup Final.
The new identity Bruins flipped Esposito along with Carol Vadnais during the 1975-76 season to the New York Rangers for Brad Park, Jean Ratelle and Joe Zanussi and still had Orr until his departure via free agency in 1976.
They could have dismantled a team that won two Stanley Cups (and should have won more, if it weren’t for the WHA) after the franchise’s slow start in 1975. They didn’t.
Hockey has never been kind to good teams with the right players at what seems like it’s the right time (just ask last year’s Washington Capitals). But that’s the nature of the sport. No matter how much of a powerhouse you build– with or without a salary cap, with or without expansion or injuries– you can’t control the way the puck bounces.
Some players stick around in the league for long enough to become seasoned veterans of the NHL and never sniff a Stanley Cup Final appearance, let alone the postseason. It took Ron Hainsey until just last year with the Penguins to make his Stanley Cup Playoff debut and it took Bourque and Dave Andreychuk at least a couple of decades each to win it all.
Just because Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, Chara and Rask only have a 2011 Stanley Cup championship together doesn’t mean they’ve been wasting their time, killing the prime of their careers.
For Boston, they ended a 39-year Stanley Cup-less drought.
They’ve already won once more than thousands of others who were lucky enough to make it to the NHL.
And they’ve forever cemented themselves in the history of the franchise, as well as the City of Boston as adopted sons and representatives of the Hub everywhere they go and in everything they do related to the sport or not.
Fans want rings and that’s one thing, but to say they’ve wasted their primes is another. They’ve contributed so much on and off the ice for the youth movement once again creeping up on the Bruins. Pastrnak is destined for stardom. Charlie McAvoy is an apprentice to Chara as Bourque was to Park in 1979.
The torch gets passed on. We’re all in for the ride.
And you pray to the Hockey Gods that they’ll let you win at least once.