As Peter Chiarelli conducts his hunt for the 28th coach of the Bruins, the general manager will be pitching a battered product that demands an immediate fix.
Ex-Bruin Mike Milbury and former New Jersey Devils coach Claude Julien, considered the leading candidates on Chiarelli's short list, were most recently employed by playoff clubs. In contrast, the 2006-07 Bruins stumbled to a 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference and will require a significant overhaul to make a postseason push.
Yesterday, Chiarelli confirmed that he has interviewed Milbury, whose last position was vice president of sports properties for the Islanders. New York made a late-season push to qualify for a first-round showdown with the Buffalo Sabres.
Julien, who has a relationship with the Boston GM that dates to Chiarelli's days as an agent in Ottawa, was fired April 2 despite the Devils' first-place position in the Atlantic Division at the time.
Scott Gordon, the current Providence coach whose lack of NHL experience might put him at a disadvantage, kept the P-Bruins' season alive for a month after the parent club played its final game.
Meanwhile, the 2006-07 Bruins under Dave Lewis were an ill-fitting jumble of parts that finished in last place in the Northeast Division.
"I didn't feel collectively as a staff, in observing the inconsistency, that we saw the level of play you expect and want," said Chiarelli. "Obviously something wasn't getting through."
The next coach will have to turn around a club that was partly constructed to fit Lewis's defense-first approach. Milan Jurcina, who fell out of favor in training camp because of his non-physical play, was shipped out to the Washington Capitals for a fourth-round pick. Paul Mara, a power-play specialist with the Phoenix Coyotes, played on the second unit behind Zdeno Chara. During even-strength situations, Mara rarely joined the rush, and he was swapped at the trade deadline for Aaron Ward, a stay-at-home defenseman better suited for a sit-back approach.
As it stands, Chiarelli's hire will take over a team with an experienced but expensive core in Chara, Marc Savard, Glen Murray, Patrice Bergeron, and Marco Sturm. Phil Kessel, Andrew Ference, and P.J. Axelsson are also under contract for at least two seasons.
Savard, Bergeron, and Kessel (a combined 195 points in 2006-07) will give the team strength up the middle, with AHLers David Krejci, Ben Walter, and Nate Thompson promising to add depth. But Murray (28 goals) is coming off a groin injury, Sturm is a streaky scorer, and youngsters Brandon Bochenski, Stanislav Chistov, and Chuck Kobasew have yet to distinguish themselves as regular producers.
Defensively, Chara is looking to rebound and should average close to the 27:57 he skated per game in 2006-07. But for the team to lower its 3.48 goals allowed per game (second-most in the league), the Bruins need Ference, Andrew Alberts, and Dennis Wideman to reach the next level in their development.
The team's biggest question mark lies between the pipes. In 2006-07, Tim Thomas, forced into a workload comparable to those of the league's top-flight netminders, couldn't be the difference-maker. Hannu Toivonen was projected to develop into a No. 1 goalie, but the 22-year-old failed to get into a rhythm in Boston and served as Providence's starting goalie in the playoffs in hopes of remaking his game. Both goalies could be trade bait because of their salaries ($1.1 million for Thomas, $532,000 for Toivonen).
Chiarelli can retool his team this summer, starting with next weekend's draft and the opening of free agency July 1. However, because draft picks aren't expected to make NHL contributions for a few years, the latter date is more critical.
"I think it's important to do it [hire a coach] before that day," said Chiarelli. "Any free agent who's considering a place to play, especially in this new system with the choice of location players have, they want to know who the coach is and what the coaching staff consists of."
The Bruins emptied their pockets last summer when landing Chara and Savard for the collective sum of $57.5 million ($37.5 million over five years for the captain, $20 million over four years for the No. 1 center), and Chiarelli has stated that he'll be on the hunt for mid-tier free agents come the first Sunday of July.
But if the Bruins' seat isn't filled (the only other vacancy is in New Jersey) by July 1, prospective free agents may consider Boston too volatile a location to consider. Last year, Lewis was officially brought on board June 29. As one of his first duties, Lewis put a sales pitch on Chara, helping persuade the ex-Senator to sign with Boston.
New Jersey center Scott Gomez, who had 60 points under Julien in 2006-07, will be an unrestricted free agent. Gomez's asking price may be too costly for the Bruins, but having Julien in place could be a factor in Gomez's decision.
Milbury is familiar with New York's impending UFAs, a crop that includes forwards Arron Asham, Jason Blake, and Ryan Smyth, and former Boston University defenseman Tom Poti.
"Coaching is so important," said Chiarelli. "You have to get it right, especially now with the salary cap where the margin for error is so small. Coaching often makes a difference."