Zdeno Chara. (Getty images)
The Boston Bruins were the NHL's best regular-season team in 2013-14. But as this season's halfway point nears, they're not even a wild card team. GM Peter Chiarelli needs to do something significant to the roster to help his veteran team win now.
The Boston Bruins needed 16:55 of the first period to register their first shot on net against the dreadful Carolina Hurricanes Sunday. Yes, the same Boston Bruins that were the NHL's top regular season team in 2013-14 are now looking like every championship boxer does sooner or later: tentative, ineffective, and corroded by self-doubt and/or delusion. The injury-related absence of captain Zdeno Chara for 19 games is sufficient excuse on its own for some of their struggles, and they're by no means out of the playoff race – but one game removed from the current campaign's halfway point, they are on a three-game losing skid, have gone 6-7-6 since Nov. 21 and are one standings point behind the Eastern Conference's final wild card team.
Colorado's change in fortunes this year have have surprised some, but at least some people (most notably, the advanced stats community) had an inkling that was coming. But the Bruins? Miss the playoffs? In the Eastern Conference? Nobody predicted that was a genuine possibility. And the way things are headed for the Bruins, that's now a genuine possibility. Forget about the teams they have to overtake to grab a playoff spot – Boston is in danger of being leapfrogged by the Florida Panthers (who have one fewer point and three games in hand) for ninth place in the East. Another injury here or there, another two-or-three week team slump between now and April, and they could indeed wind up out of the post-season for the first time since 2006-07 – and with the amount of talent and experience on the roster, Boston missing the playoffs would be the biggest shock of the NHL season.
This isn't a Bruins team that can be blown up, nor should it be at this stage. When GM Peter Chiarelli made the choice to deal young star center Tyler Seguin in 2013, he was committing his franchise to a short-term window in which to compete as one of the true elite Stanley Cup contenders; and while that trade, like most of us, will look worse as the years go on, it isn't only the departure of Seguin that's turned the Bruins into a team that can't score (they've got the league's 21st-best offense) and isn't much better in their own end (their goals-allowed average of 2.60 per game is 16th overall). Most of their forwards (including Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron) have been mired in sub-par seasons, and their other defensemen haven't been able to replace the solid minutes provided by former mainstay Johnny Boychuk. Chara will be 38 in March. They are not the Chicago Blackhawks, who have 26-year-old superstars (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane) to lean on for the next six or seven years, so Boston needs to take a long, hard look at one of their core members and see what he might land them on the trade market.
Many of the decisions Chiarelli has made haven't worked out, but when you've made two Stanley Cup Finals in the past four seasons, you earn a little credit and time to atone for those mistakes. Nevertheless, look no further than Ray Shero in Pittsburgh to see that a recent history of success doesn't always guarantee you continued employment. The pressure is on Chiarelli, which is why whatever moves he makes next will be fascinating. He can explore the trade market in the hope of landing a David Perron type of scorer or a veteran blueliner to get them back in the playoff mix, but he's also being paid to keep his eye on the future – and in that future, he's already got some $55 million already committed to just 12 players; that means he's got to be mindful of taking on bulky contracts that only hurt him in flexibility down the line. But he'd better be careful what he trades away in any deal. Perron cost Pittsburgh their first-round pick, and Boston's first-rounder might just turn out to be a top-10 pick if their struggles continue.
Whatever the case, keeping the current group intact doesn't seem like an option for Chiarelli any longer. This Bruins team looks tired and in need of notable alterations. Chiarelli has tinkered with the lineup so far, but he needs to do something of consequence before the consequences come for him.