Zdeno Chara. (Getty images)
The Bruins are on the verge of an unfamiliar position: missing the playoffs. What happens to their roster – and brain trust – if they flop in the home stretch?
Pop quiz, Bruins fans: where were you when the Joe Thornton trade went down Nov. 30, 2005?
And how did you feel when the ticker crawl on the nearest TV unveiled the return for your team's franchise center?
BREAKING: Boston Bruins trade C Joe Thornton to San Jose Sharks for LW Marco Sturm…
…C Wayne Primeau…
…and D Brad Stuart.
"Wait. That's ALL!?"
It was a doomed deal from the start, and Jumbo Joe went bananas upon arrival in the Silicon Valley, amassing 92 points in 58 games en route to his lone Hart Trophy and scoring crown. It also marked the darkest point in Bruins history since the team finished low enough to draft Thornton.
So why talk about it today? Because, if the Bruins miss the playoffs this season, they'll reach easily their lowest point as a franchise since Nov. 30, 2005. They've made the big dance seven straight seasons since Claude Julien took over as coach, posting point totals of 94, 116, 91, 103, 102, 62 (in 48 games, pro-rated to 106), and 117. The run includes a 2011 Stanley Cup, another final appearance in 2013 and the Presidents' Trophy for the league's top record a season ago.
But 2014-15 hasn't been overly kind to the Big, Bad Bruins. They're 36-25-12, good for 84 points with nine games remaining. The surging Ottawa
Hamburglars Senators have nudged them out of a playoff position and have the dreaded game in hand. The Bruins spent a good chunk of the year without captain Zdeno Chara, they've been sans David Krejci for a month and, worst of all, Dougie Hamilton's breakout season is paused indefinitely with a mysterious injury. The signs don't exactly scream late-season comeback.
The Los Angeles Kings may miss the playoffs despite playing very much like themselves, taking it easy during the regular season and still posting strong puck-possession numbers. The Boston Bruins can't say the same. They're scoring less, possessing the puck less and allowing more goals. They look little like the perennial powerhouse of the past half-decade. It's fair, then, to ponder an off-season of questions for this team. Which heads will roll? Who needs a change of scenery?
WILL CLAUDE JULIEN KEEP HIS JOB?
Reliable Pierre LeBrun mused that the Bruins organization hates losing, referring to president Cam Neely and Charlie Jacobs, son of owner Jeremy Jacobs. LeBrun wondered if that pointed to a Julien firing should the team miss the playoffs. Rumors abound.
As LeBrun went to say, however, axing Julien would be crazy after one poor year. He's a season removed from the best record in the league, and he's never missed the post-season in seven attempts with Boston. Julien has also spent virtually the entire year with some crucial piece of his roster missing at any given time. Firing him after a season in which he had one hand tied behind his back? The Bruins would live to regret it. Believe it only when you see it. Should it happen, Julien would have another job offer the second he collected his personal effects and left the TD Garden.
WILL PETER CHIARELLI KEEP HIS JOB?
Is Chiarelli as immune to blame this season as Julien is? Not so fast. Many of the team's problems seem tied to roster makeup and management. The Bruins have struggled defensively compared to previous seasons, and one missing piece stands out like a sore thumb: Johnny Boychuk. A big D-man in his prime, who has blossomed into a top-pairing guy as a New York Islander, qualified as expendable in Boston at the start of this season. Chiarelli's mismanagement of the salary cap made Boychuk the casualty. Sure, Boychuk's been better than anyone expected, and it's easy to criticize Chiarelli in hindsight. But it's not like no one applauded Garth Snow the day he landed Boychuk. It was a risky move for the Bruins and it blew up in their faces.
Reilly Smith, Joe Morrow and Loui Eriksson have combined for 31 goals in 159 games this season. Tyler Seguin in Dallas? Try 33 goals in 64 games. Uh-oh. Chiarelli's regime deemed Seguin's off-ice habits incongruous with the team's more mature, responsible philosophy and shipped away a franchise player for a package that simply hasn't justified the decision. I don't buy that Seguin "only blossomed because he got traded." He was a No. 2 overall pick who had 56 career goals at age 21. He was a stud, and the Bruins shipped their dollar off for a handful of quarters. Eriksson has barely produced like a second-liner, let alone a first-liner. Smith was a nice story last season, especially among advanced stat junkies, but was never a high-ceiling player. Last season might be his peak. Morrow still has time to become a full-time NHL D-man but hasn't yet.
The Bruins have some nice young pieces in Hamilton, Malcolm Subban, David Pastrnak and Torey Krug. But they remain a win-now team built around veterans, from Chara to Krejci to Patrice Bergeron. And win-now teams, especially those on the playoff bubble, tend to seek out major roster upgrades approaching the trade deadline. Chiarelli brought Max Talbot and Brett Connolly to town. Connolly's injury clouds things, sure, but it's natural to look back at the lackluster haul if the Bruins end up golfing in Cape Cod come April.
Each of those factors is a veiny crack in Chiarelli's patch of ice. Maybe he earns a mulligan given his Cup ring, but his firing would make more sense than Julien's.
IS IT TIME FOR A ZDENO CHARA TRADE – OR RETIREMENT?
The big fella deserves a Hall of Fame ticket, no doubt. He's had an amazing career, especially since he bloomed relatively late. But Chara, 38, isn't the formidable force he was even a few years ago. Attackers beat him wide more than ever. He publicly acknowledged last summer his playing days were running thin.
Chara still brings a booming shot, bonecrushing physicality and inspiring leadership to a team, however. His value hasn't dried up. Should Boston miss the playoffs, and should Chara consider waiving his no-movement clause, dealing him wouldn't be the dumbest idea. An ideal fit would be a win-now team coming off a down year, a.k.a. a team with a reasonably high draft slot and aspirations for immediate improvement. How about the Dallas Stars? They could use an established D-man to support Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley and mentor John Klingberg, Jamie Oleksiak, Julius Honka and Esa Lindell. It wouldn't be a stretch to think Chara could return a first-round pick, which Boston could use to add a new D-man prospect to the fray. Maybe a Zach Werenski falls far enough.
Depending on what the Bruins would get for Chara and whether they'd eat some of his salary, it would also free up some cash to sign a younger free agent defenseman. How about Cody Franson?
SHOULD THE BRUINS OVERHAUL THEIR WINGERS?
There are two schools of thought on Eriksson:
(a) He's a disaster, nowhere near the front-line player he was in Dallas, and has torpedoed the Seguin deal
(b) He's still a fine player, a strong two-way presence who has produced in spurts, and his production has only dipped because he plays in a more defensive system and lower on the depth chart
The truth lies somewhere in between. Either way, considering Boston reportedly was open to dealing him at the deadline, it wouldn't be a shock to see Eriksson go. The more interesting name is Milan Lucic. The beastly power forward is grinding through one of his weaker seasons, in serious danger of missing the 20-goal mark. He has one year remaining at a $6-million cap hit with a limited no-trade clause. Lucic's heavy game doesn't seem to jive with a long, healthy career. He's the type of player who may break down completely by 30. Still 26, though, and with a wealth of big-game experience, he'd command a truckload on the trade market. Dealing Lucic would've seemed like a ludicrous idea a couple seasons ago, but Boston has to ask tough questions if it misses the post-season.
WHICH GOALIE MAKES THE BETTER TRADING CHIP: MALCOLM SUBBAN OR TUUKKA RASK?
This question is one of team philosophy. In no way is the end nigh for Rask's future in Boston, even if he's been inconsistent this year. But what if a lost season puts the team brass in a radical mood for a real rebuild? Subban in that case is the goalie of the future, Rask the trading chip. And if Rask stays, which is the far likelier scenario, he has six years remaining on his contract. Subban's chance won't come anytime soon. It's similar to Zach Fucale's situation in Montreal. Should the Bruins decide to keep much of their core intact, why not explore a Subban trade for some win-now help?
Of course, every one of these questions can end up moot if Boston makes a late run back to the playoffs. As beaten down as they are, you don't want them as a first-round opponent.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin