Boston's Milan Lucic (center) chases down Alex Petrovic of the Panthers (Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Bruins fell 4-2 to Florida Thursday, severely hurting their chances at making the playoffs. But whether they wind up making it or not, it's clear that cosmetic changes aren't going to be enough to keep Boston competitive in an improving Atlantic Division.
With a 54-19-9 record, the Boston Bruins were the best regular-season team in the NHL last season. But one year later, and with one game to go in the 2014-15 campaign, they're on the brink of elimination: if they win their final game in Tampa Bay Saturday, the Bruins still need the Senators to lose in regulation or the Penguins to lose their final two games (against the Islanders on the road Friday and in Buffalo Saturday) to avoid the ignominy of being eliminated from the post-season tournament.
If the Bruins fail to make the playoffs, there's an overwhelming sense a good deal of change will take place within the organization, and not just in terms of the roster. There have been persistent rumors all season that the job security of GM Peter Chiarelli and head coach Claude Julien would be jeopardized, with current team president Cam Neely perhaps replacing the former and choosing a new face to take over for the latter. And given that star defenseman Zdeno Chara just turned 38 years old, it's difficult to not conclude the window with this current group of players is in the midst of closing.
But is widespread change the best move in this particular situation? It's not as if we haven't seen strong NHL teams fall off the map one season, and rebound the next. The Philadelphia Flyers made it to the second round in 2011-12, missed the playoffs by a hair in 2012-13, and were right back in the post-season mix last season. The New Jersey Devils made the playoffs 13 straight years, missed out on them in 2010-11, and then went to the Stanley Cup Final the following year. There's not always a need to tear things down when you don't have this minimal level of success as an organization.
However, the more you put this team under a microscope, the more it's clear: cosmetic changes aren't going to cut it. It doesn't have to be a full-on rebuild involving every facet of the franchise, but in an Atlantic Division that now includes the up-and-coming Florida Panthers, the newly-energized Senators, and the already formidable Canadiens and Lightning, Boston cannot afford complacency and second chances for everyone.
The Bruins have committed some $59.5 million to their salary cap in 2015-16, and with the cap ceiling projected anywhere from $68-72 million next year, that doesn't leave much for their nine free agents, especially talented young defenseman and restricted free agent Dougie Hamilton. But simply allowing their unrestricted free agents to move on wouldn't be enough of a change. Boston isn't in the position they're in because Gregory Campbell or Dan Paille underwhelmed this season.
No, the simple reason the Bruins are on the precipice of early-onset-golf season is because their offense hasn't been anywhere near good enough (as evidenced by their 17th-ranked 2.56 goals-per-game average) and their defense (including a 2.46 goals-allowed per game average) is no longer air-tight enough to bail them out on the nights they can't score. Indeed, Boston had the NHL's third-best offense (including a 3.15 goals-per-game average) and were masterful in their own zone (with the second-best goals-allowed per game average of 2.08). That's on players like winger Milan Lucic, who makes $6 million a year; whose 18 goals this year are his lowest total since 2008-09; and whose goal totals have declined now for three consecutive full seasons. That's also on center David Krejci; in fairness, injuries have limited the 28-year-old to just 46 games, seven goals and 30 points this season, but the fact remains Krejci is about to enter the first year of a six-year, $43.5-million contract extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit. Simply put: the Bruins need more from him.
There are still pieces worth hanging on to. There's no good that would come of trading goalie Tuukka Rask, and with Hamilton, Reily Smith, Ryan Spooner and Bergeron, there's enough talent for the future to make this a short-term pain situation. But knowing what you do now, Bruins fans, would you still reflexively say no to a Lucic trade if it helped address the defense, or brought in a couple younger players who might be one or two years away from blooming as NHLers? What about a deal that sends the beloved Brad Marchand, or – gasp! – Chara out of town? I'm not saying I'd absolutely move either player, but I am saying the whole team doesn't deserve the untradeable label. Not the way things have panned out for them this year.
The Bruins still can make it into the playoffs, but it's apparent they can't stick with the same group in 2015-16. Time no longer is on their side. Tough decisions aren't always popular, but they're necessary if you want to stay competitive in the NHL.