Although Patrice Bergeron might have something to say about this, it sure looks like the Boston Bruins' window of contention has closed.
If it wasn't shut after the Bruins lost a seven-game series to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs last month, then it was shut on Monday when general manager Don Sweeney fired coach Bruce Cassidy.
The move was met with a mix of anger, confusion and consternation from the fanbase and the local media, though team president Cam Neely had hinted at the possibility of making a coaching change a few weeks ago.
But the few weeks that passed led many to believe that Cassidy, a Jack Adams Award winner who led the Bruins to the 2019 Eastern Conference title, was safe.
"I just felt that the messaging and voice that was going to be required," Sweeney said Tuesday morning at a press conference at the club's practice facility. "I felt we needed a new direction."
The team was always going to be headed in a new direction regardless of who was behind the bench. Brad Marchand recently underwent hip surgeries and is expected to be out six months. Captain Patrice Bergeron's contract is up, and he may opt for retirement this summer.
Sweeney insisted that Bergeron did not have any influence on this decision.
"No, I’ve had multiple conversations with Patrice about this organization over the course of my time here. We continue to have them. He has too much respect for Bruce or for me, or for anybody, to make recommendations about who the coach is and who he’s going to play with," Sweeney said. "We went through the same thing with Claude [Julien] where he played and had a lot of success. It’s more out of respect. In my conversations with him yesterday, I did not ask whether this impacts his decision. It’s Bergy’s decision and his timeline."
Losing Bergeron, the 2021-22 Selke Trophy winner, would be a huge blow to the club, but it shouldn't be a shock. Last year, the Bruins lost center David Krejci and goalie Tuukka Rask. There was always a belief that one, if not both, would return, and Rask briefly did before ultimately deciding to retire. There are still persistent rumors that Krejci will return from playing in the Czech Republic, and Sweeney said he has had conversations with the Krejci camp, but even if that's the case, the roster still doesn't have the depth needed to compete in the Atlantic Division next season or in the future.
The Bruins proved to be a one-line team, and the "Perfection Line" itself may not even return. A new coach isn't going to fix that.
"The question looms for Bergeron," Sweeney said. "That’s the question in terms of when you’re talking about bringing back a similar type of roster, that he’s a big part of that and I still have to wait for that decision. I don’t have any clarity on that as I stand here today, so I’m not going to fully answer the question because I don’t have that answer as I sit. Now, we are going to take a shift, not unlike 2015, where we institute some younger players, and we have to continue to do a good job of that when they’re ready."
Pivoting to young players will only help if those young players are ready to contribute every night at the NHL level, and a team that has been in win-now mode like the Bruins isn't necessarily flush with prospects. With the exception of 23-year-old goalie Jeremy Swayman, the younger players on the NHL roster haven't necessarily shown they're ready to do that. Trent Frederic was a healthy scratch for three playoff games. Oskar Steen appeared in one game after February. The 25-year-old Jake DeBrusk was expected to struggle without Krejci as a linemate but had a bounce-back season with 25 goals and 42 points.
Nevertheless, questions surround DeBrusk's future. He asked for a trade early in the season, and, despite signing an extension at the trade deadline, there's still a possibility that the young forward will be dealt.
This leads us back to Cassidy and the front office. Neely said young players were scared to make mistakes under Cassidy, and while that may have been the case, development shortcomings cannot be placed on the head coach.
Player development requires processes to be in place, and resources have to be managed correctly. A club's inability to develop young talent is systemic. Unless some big transactions are made, the prospect pool isn't about to get much deeper. The club does not have a first-round or fifth-round pick in the upcoming 2022 draft and does not own a second-round pick next year.
Sweeney said he doesn't regret giving up those picks to trade for players like Hampus Lindholm at the trade deadline, and while he admits that he might like more picks, he stands by his decision to make that sacrifice. More sacrifices may have to be made to get younger because he can't keep the same roster and rebuild or retool. He can't have it both ways.
He also admitted that the bottom-six forwards were lacking when it came to speed, skill and toughness.
"I think it’s playing with a little bit more pace, and maybe that’s in the bottom six," he said. "I think we were well-equipped depth-wise, but when certain players go through their challenges, were other guys able to step up and be with the group? And that’s on me."
Sweeney is not wrong that the roster construction is on him. As the general manager, the roster is his responsibility. The coach can only do so much with the players he is given, and Cassidy got a lot from a top-heavy group.
Sweeney's job is safe. Neely said it a few weeks ago, and Tuesday morning Sweeney said he didn't anticipate a change in his employment status. Much of the blame can be placed on the front office, but they chose to place the blame on Cassidy.
Being a head coach in professional sports sometimes means being a pawn in the game of the executives above. It means being the fall guy when the plans don't turn out the way they were intended, and it means little, if any, long-term stability.
Cassidy became the fall guy, and now the Bruins look like they have no choice but to rebuild.
"I made the decision because I’ve been in the place where I hired Bruce six years ago, and the same person that stands here today and says, 'I need to make a change,'" Sweeney said. "As I referenced, the messaging, the direction and some of the things are not resonating as loudly as they did. That’s part of the exercise."