With the season all but over I've been doing some reflecting. I recently read with interest what Ference had to say to the Herald on March 22. I listened to Kevin Paul Dupont expound. What they both said seemed to gel with what I have been thinking myself.
First to the question I have been struggling with: is there really anything wrong? Many say that's obvious given the fact that they didn't make the playoffs or even mount a halfway decent attempt at a playoff run. But for a team that is new from top to bottom, much like an expansion franchise, it really isn't fair to expect the playoffs in the first year. So again, is there something deeply wrong?
A lot of the less patient fans began griping about the Bruins way back in the fall. The goaltending isn't good enough, they said. York and Dempsey sucked, they said. I advised patience, particularly about the goaltending. Since then we've seen a lot of games and we've seen a team that struggled badly early-on improve. Thomas went on to prove he is a very capable No. 1 goaltender who can steal games, although not every night. The power play and penalty kill are two areas where the coaching staff has definitely had a positive impact. The power play in particular has really excelled. This team began the season quite capable of taking 5 penalties per period. That number has come down. So it is tempting to simply say this was a rebuilding year and that next year will be better. But again, is that a reasonable expectation or is there something seriously wrong?
The game that summed up the season for me was the last home game against the Habs. The Bruins came out on fire in the first period, dominating physically and emotionally. Kessell and his line scored the first goal out of pure hustle. It stood in stark contrast to the rest of the season, which looked flaccid in comparison. Chara finally used his size to stand up players at the blue line and didn't hold off on the boards like he was afraid to hurt someone. In fact, their second goal came moments after he made a huge hit in the offensive zone. Finally, the Bruins had awakened! Perhaps in time to make the playoffs (a long shot), but definitely in time to beat the Habs at home, which should always be a moment of pride for any player who dons the spoked B.
But as the second period started the edge slowly came off their play. The hits became less brutal. The hustle faded. The tide turned and by the 3rd the Habs were dominating the play.
As the guys on Mythbusters would say, "Well there's your problem!"
Since before Christmas we've heard Dave Lewis sing the same song. The players have to pay the price. But by and large they never did, or at least when they did, they didn't do it consistently. Looking back, it was like each player only felt he had to prove himself for a period here, and a shift there. But when, I ask, did the team ever prove itself? The answer is they never really did. And that I believe, is two problems: inconsistent play from every player (except Thomas, Savard, Murray and Axelsson). And a lack of pride in, feeling of belonging to, and ultimately a responsibility to--a team.
So back to the question, can we expect these serious problems to be solved by this time next year?
Fans have been complaining about Lewis starting early last fall. I've heard the complaints so many times: he doesn't let the kids have a chance to play, he doesn't keep the lines together consistently, he instructs the team to go into a defensive shell at the wrong moments, he benches players who are playing well in favor of those who aren't, and he doesn't use his time outs properly. Many fans read these things so often they stop questioning them, accepting them as fact. But I think those complaints are all nonsense. If true we'd have to believe Lewis is completely stupid and knows half as much about hockey as the typical fan. I don't think that very likely. In fact, considering that he identified the main problem with this team months ago, I'd say he knows exactly what he's doing. In fact, I think many of these things fans complain about are signs of Lewis struggling for ways to motivate and hold accountable the players. But after a full season the bottom line is: it's not working!
I don't know whether or not Lewis can make the players accountable next season or not. It's up to Chiarelly to decide that. If Lewis sticks around look for the gloves to come off the coaching staff next season. Look for real accountability. Look for stars like Bergeron to sit on the bench. Look for the players to be bitter about the way the coaches treat them. If by Christmas we are still seeing spotty efforts by individual players then in my opinion Lewis will have failed.
As for the team problem, I doubt any coach can fix that--not in a year or even two. Before the beginning of last season when Bruins fans were excited about their new team, I read a comment by a journalist (I forget who) that at the time infuriated me. He said that the, "Bruins have forgotten how to win." I was incensed because how could a team that had been rebuilt from top to bottom be categorized like that before they even had a chance to play? I think I see now what he meant and he was right. What I failed to realize is that winning as an institution isn't something that any random group of people can accomplish out of the starting block. Learning to be a winner takes time and effort and continuity. So of course they have forgotten how to win.
In my opinion, the downfall of this team began with the loss to the Habs in the first round in 2004. It was the culmination of O'Connell's work and it wasn't good enough. Then came the lockout, where the strategy of the owner was to gut much of the team and start over. The final nail in the coffin was the "new NHL" with its promise of players free-wheeling around unhindered, a low contact high-scoring affair like an all-star game. No team bought into the "new NHL" like the Bruins did. A premium was placed on speed and skill. The players themselves, particularly Joe Thornton, bought into it. Much of this "new NHL" was a mirage, even in its first year. And now that the "new NHL" once again looks very much like the old one, where emotion and courage and grit and physical play can still trump skill, the Bruins will have to get bigger and badder again in order to get back their winning ways.
The fact is, Jacob's lockout strategy destroyed our Bruins. They are gone. That link to successful teams of the past is broken and will never come back. They will have to find a way to forge a new culture of winning, and unfortunately that could take many years.
Next time: Part 2 -- The Good