Looking back to the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, one would’ve felt that a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in the next five years was a crazy dream. A real crazy one. There were some real dismal moments during those two seasons of “retooling.” Players underperforming, the Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes deals, inconsistent coaching, the no-show in the 2016 Winter Classic, not to mention the two consecutive late-season collapses. At times, it felt like the team was completely wasting their core. It was frustrating.
Were the Bruins terrible those two seasons? No, I guess they weren’t. But they weren’t good enough, either. Things started to trend upward during the 2016-2017 season, but even then it felt like something was hindering their progress.
Swap a few key words and names and that sounds like the Pittsburgh Penguins circa 2017-present. Not terrible, but certainly not good enough.
Boston went through a pretty open “retooling” during 2015 and 2016 to build up to where they are today. Their earlier peak from 2008-14 wasn’t as high as the Pens’, but Boston did make two Stanley Cup Finals in that time. Add in a third this year, and you can probably put them as the chief playoff competition for “best in the East” along with Pittsburgh over the past decade or so.
So what did they learn and do to clean things up?
Trades/Buyout the Dead Weight
As SCOC mentioned, Jimmy Hayes (who played this year with Wilkes-Barre) was bought out of a $2.3 million annual salary. Another vastly overpaid player in Matt Beleksey and his bloated $3.8 million salary was traded to New York in the Rick Nash deal. Boston had to retain half of his salary — the maximum the CBA allowed — but it proved worth it to cut ties with a player not pulling his weight.
The B’s also dumped overpaid forward Carl Soderberg and his $4.75 million cap hit for just a sixth round pick to simply clear room. They were also willing to give up on Reilly Smith if it meant dealing the dead cap space of the Marc Savard contract after his medical retirement.
Lesson to Take: Fixing mistakes is a lesson Pens’ general manager Jim Rutherford doesn’t need. Rutherford traded Matt Hunwick one year into a three-year deal. He fired his coach just 15 months into his tenure. He shuffled eight players onto and off of the roster last season in a cap world where changing the lineup proves difficult.
Still, it’s a lesson of smarts and analysis that Rutherford has to take. Defensemen like Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, and Olli Maatta are over-paid at best, and often times liabilities at worst, either last season or with a career’s worth of evidence. Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust went ice cold at times. Rutherford’s signed them all to long-term deals, with the exception of Gudbranson whom he acquired in a trade knowing that there was two plus years on his contract. Some, if not most of these players need to be gone — the sooner the better, especially the defensemen.
In 2015 the B’s turned Milan Lucic into two first-round picks (13 and 29 overall), forward Sean Kuraly and defenseman Colin Miller. Those firsts haven’t yet developed into NHL contributors but it was a bold move toward youth.
They traded young defenseman Dougie Hamilton for three picks inside the top-52 in the 2015 draft.
Lesson to Take: As we’ll touch on below, it’s important to make the right calls on which players to move — and make sure good, young talent is coming back to add to the organization. Timing-wise dealing Lucic a year early (and not a year late) looks like a master stroke. It might be too late to do that for Hornqvist or Rust.
Keep the Core
Boston didn’t trade any of their very best or foundational players (Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Brad Marchand), instead it sought to surround them with more talent, like all the young draft picks it stocked up on.
Lesson to Take: Pittsburgh won’t be able to accumulate as many draft picks, but that’s OK. The Bruins’ batting average with high picks has only been about 50/50 anyways. Sure there’s David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy and Jake Debrusk as key contributors but also quite a few whiffs along the way. The Pens don’t have the resources to worry about that, the main takeaway here would be not to ditch the foundation, and instead seek to add around the franchise players.
A New Coach
Boston had a really good coach in Claude Julien, whom the Bruins won a Cup with and respected deeply, but felt it was time to move on. Bruce Cassidy has come in and done a great job, providing a new voice that has resonated and driven results. On the surface a transaction of “Julien out; Cassidy in” appeared to be a step back. However, it has worked.
Lesson to Take: Not sure if there is one given how much the Pens and Rutherford are willing to “ride or die” with Mike Sullivan. They’ve surely never even thought to consider a change so far. Barring disastrous results next season, there’s no reason to go there. However, NHL coaches have a short shelf life, and it’s important to remember that the voice behind the bench sometimes matters just as much as the person who is back there talking.
Tuukka Rask is on his game with a .942 save percentage, 1.84 GAA, and two shutouts through the first three rounds — all of which are best in the league. Going far in the NHL playoffs usually means a goalie that is performing tremendously, and Boston is surely an example of that.
Lesson to Take: Pittsburgh has a guy in Matt Murray who at his best (2016 and 2017 playoffs, andDecember through April this year) can be that dominant goalie. The team just has to hope he peaks at the right time.
As SCOC finishes off:
While the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons were disappointing—and infuriating at times—the Bruins could’ve had it much, much worse. They could’ve blown it up completely. They could’ve stockpiled even more draft picks. They could’ve traded Patrice Ber—actually no, they wouldn’t have been dumb enough to do that. Instead, Sweeney and Co. stuck to their plan, which a lot of people questioned early on.
But now, it looks like that plan wasn’t so crazy when he first proposed it back in 2015: build young talent around a consistent core, emphasize speed and quick play, and reconstruct the team chemistry that was completely dismantled during those two wasted seasons. I definitely owe Don Sweeney an apology.
Since the beginning of the season, the Bruins have fired on all cylinders. The team chemistry has been superb and everyone’s contributed in their own way. Game after game, they showed their resiliency, consistency, and the will to play as a team.
This would be perhaps the Penguins front office’s best takeaway: “Build young talent around a consistent core, emphasize speed and quick play, and reconstruct the team chemistry that was completely dismantled during those two wasted seasons.”
The application is perfect, as Pittsburgh has strayed from a speed and skill game in nearly every personnel move it has made in the last 24 months. That isn’t opinion, that’s an admitted statement from their own GM proudly boasting about going more towards a direction of size, physicality, and the infamous “pushback.”
These moves have led the Penguins to league the lead in hits in 2018-19, but drop off the radar as a championship contender. If they can refocus, retool, and pick and choose some of the lessons from Boston to implement, then maybe next spring other teams will be looking at the Pens once again as a model franchise.