Boston Bruins' 2014-15 Season Will Be Key to Sustaining Their Elite Status

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Boston Bruins' 2014-15 Season Will Be Key to Sustaining Their Elite Status
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A quarter-century ago, the Boston Bruins were one of the last losing Stanley Cup finalists to return to that round within two seasons. After suffering a sweep via Edmonton in the 1988 championship, they mustered a 1990 rematch, though they brooked the same basic fate in five games.

Since then, only three NHL teams have reached another final one or two years after losing that series. The 1995 Red Wings, 2001 Devils and 2008 Penguins all regrouped to achieve redemption in 1997, 2003 and 2009, respectively.

For everybody else, getting so much as back to the conference final that quickly has been a near-futile endeavor. Boston’s core group from the late ’80s/early ’90s was one exception, losing back-to-back Wales Conference titles to Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992.

Not long thereafter, Detroit mustered a Western Conference Final berth in 1996. If you discount the 2004-05 lockout season, the 2005-06 Anaheim Mighty Ducks, runners-up in 2003, are the other exception.

But minus those 2008-09 Penguins, every losing finalist since that lockout has not reached the third, let alone fourth round of any subsequent postseason. Everyone from the Devils (2012) to the Oilers (2006) is still waiting for another deep run.

 Year Losing Finalist   Longest Playoff Run Since
 2006 Edmonton   None
 2007  Ottawa   Lost in second round (2013)
 2008 Pittsburgh   Won Stanley Cup (2009)
 2009 Detroit   Lost in second round (2010, 2011, 2013)
 2010 Philadelphia   Lost in second round (2011, 2012)
 2011 Vancouver   Lost in first round (2012, 2013)
 2012 New Jersey   None
 2013 Boston   Lost in second round (2013)

Can Claude Julien, who orchestrated the 2011 title run that splashed Boston’s 39-year championship drought, get his pupils to buck that trend? The middle clause of that question makes a valiant effort to propose an answer.

The Bruins’ current core, which lost the Cup Final to Chicago in 2013, has sparse company among teams from the last 25 years. In that span, only the 1999-2000 Stars, 2000-01 Devils and 2008-09 Red Wings have fielded a losing finalist studded with previous champions for the same franchise.

As previously alluded, New Jersey’s 2002-03 installment managed to corral another crown before its core eroded.

The 2014-15 season may be Boston’s last call to emulate that feat and salvage its long-term footing with the Blackhawks and Kings. A nagging salary cap is setting the landscape for a series of key roster changes no later than 12 months from now.

Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images

To avert a substantial bridge year, the Bruins need to ensure that their influx of new blood can hit the ice sprinting. The crux of that endeavor is to finish the coming campaign with a little more assertion than, say, 2011-12 or 2013-14.

The way the Bruins crumbled this past May makes it easy to forget how close they were to another conference final. They whiffed on two chances to close out the Montreal Canadiens, primarily by way of whiffing on scoring chances.

But “close” means just that, and Boston rightly brooked an “underachievers” label for falling in Game 7 of the Atlantic Division Final. A duplicate regular-season buildup and postseason letdown in 2014-15 could presage vinegary change.

The Bruins have 11 skaters, or just a little more than half of their roster, left from their deeper postseason runs. Patrice Bergeron, Johnny Boychuk, Gregory Campbell, Zdeno Chara, Chris Kelly, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, Daniel Paille and Dennis Seidenberg all contributed to both finals excursions.

With the cap crunch already chafing them, there is no telling how many of those holdovers will be with them next year. Some might even go elsewhere as part of an in-season trade in 2014-15.

Per CapGeek, the Bruins are $809,143 above the limit with 21 men on their NHL payroll for 2014-15. That aspect should become a nonissue if and when Marc Savard goes on long-term injured reserve, but they will still be brushing the salary ceiling.

For the following year, Boston has only 10 players under contract and at least 11 (possibly 13) pending free agents. Assuming the cap stays at $69 million, the current projection is only $22,006,190 to spread among the re-signees or new signees.

That is, an average hovering around $2 million for each individual free agent, at best. Hardly enough to keep everyone, especially when two of next year’s unrestricted free agents make more than that as is.

As Fluto Shinzawa reaffirmed last week in the Boston Globe, the 2014 and 2015 free-agent classes are bound to force some payroll precipitation. Newer faces Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, Reilly Smith and Carl Soderberg join key veterans among those who are going to command cash.

In Shinzawa’s words:

Assuming they sign one-year deals, Krug and Smith will be up at the same time as Dougie Hamilton. If they follow their current development curves, all three will deserve raises…Boychuk will price himself out of Boston’s budget. Soderberg could do so too. Paille, Bartkowski, Campbell, and McQuaid could walk next summer.

That forecast amounts to two rearguards and two depth forwards from 2010-11 potentially skating down the egress. That could be a part of the necessary sacrifice to salvage the services of, say, two-time NHL postseason scoring leader David Krejci.

Debora Robinson/Getty Images

Lo and behold, Krejci is one of the pending UFAs for the summer of 2015, and he is already nudging into the saga. This past Wednesday, WEEI.com writer DJ Bean reported that the Bruins have broken the ice in working toward a contract extension with the starting center.

Theoretically, the sooner the two parties iron out a deal, the better the financial implications. But Krejci’s current cap hit is $5.25 million, and he will likely command no less, meaning some other raises will be nearly impossible to accommodate if he stays.

Besides the overwhelming multitude of potential exits, Chara is 37 and not getting any younger. The likes of Seidenberg, Hamilton and others need to supplement the aging captain and build toward a smooth succession between go-to minute-munchers.

One silver lining in Boston’s breakdown this past spring was the growth of Hamilton, Krug and Miller in back. Those green blueliners plugged the voids that resulted from season-ending injuries to McQuaid and Seidenberg.

But while many agree that Miller has already supplanted McQuaid, the stay-at-home specialist may need an additional development spurt. It is either that or Boston will need to bank on a cost-effective import compensating for the lost physicality if Boychuk departs.

Up front, as valuable as Krejci may be, the Bruins will need cost-effective depth strikers to afford him and reward him when he is on top of his game. That could come largely in the form of rising homegrown specimens such as Alexander Khokhlachev and Ryan Spooner.

Not unlike last year’s bevy of beginning blueliners, those young forwards will need to grow fast. Their assimilation into Boston’s core will be vital to the team’s gains in 2014-15 and imperative for the years beyond.

It is on the seasoned staples, as long as they remain in the organization, to stabilize the bridge. It is on them, the coaching staff and the front office to make everyone’s crossing swift and insignificant.

The cap will permit all of the Bruins’ key veterans from 2011 and 2013 to remain together for one more season. To ensure that the franchise’s standard holds up beyond that, they must use this season to authentically restate that standard.

That means nothing less than making themselves a historical exception and reaching the Eastern Conference Final a la their early ’90s ancestors. Another shortcoming prior to mid-May will only invite a sidetracking cycle of pressure and growing pains.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics and past playoff results for this report were found via Hockey-Reference.com.

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