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Time wasn’t on the Bruins’ side last summer.
Such was the hand dealt to a franchise whose contention window remained ajar off of the physical fortitude of two centers over the age of 35.
As soon as both Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci opted to return to Boston on one-year, bargain-bin contracts in August, the clock started to tick.
Both Bergeron and Krejci have trudged through shattered ribs, shredded shoulders, and other ailments throughout their illustrious careers.
But Father Time remains undefeated. And with Boston fixated on one final kick at the can, Don Sweeney put all of his chips on the table in 2023.
The cost? A barren cupboard of draft capital and a self-created cap crunch on the horizon.
The return? Arguably the deepest roster in Bruins history, and a record-setting run from October through April.
The result? The same crushing end, with Sweeney and Boston’s top brass forced to face the music in early May, rather than hoist hockey’s top prize in mid-June.
“I had a couple players at the exit meetings actually apologize and say, ‘You guys gave us a wagon of a team, and we didn’t execute.’ So, the players, they know,” Bruins president Cam Neely said Tuesday. “Players know when you have a chance to win and when you don’t. They knew we had a chance to win.”
The Bruins’ dream season quickly unraveled into a nightmare. A “last dance” for Boston’s lauded veteran core saw them fall flat on their face.
And now, Sweeney and his staff must pick up the pieces on a roster featuring 10 total free agents … and little in terms of available cap space.
“Our goal was to put the season on the absolute best roster we could put together and try and take a real legitimate run and we failed, no question,” Sweeney acknowledged. “So, we have to pay that forward a little bit.”
It’s natural to assume the worst in the wake of such a catastrophic result.
It’s woven into the fabric of this fandom, a group still weary from previous postseason letdowns, and fully cognizant of the missed opportunity that slipped through their team’s grasp this spring.
But there will be no full-scale teardown scheduled for this summer, regardless of Bergeron and Krejci’s future plans.
The Bruins won’t be able to simply run it back, that we know. Rather, the only option afforded to them is to simply keep running forward.
“Roster changes are likely coming,” Sweeney said. “We’re not going to be the same team, but our mandate internally, collectively as a group, is we have a really strong core of guys that hopefully … will continue to grow, will take leadership responsibility moving forward regardless of whether or not Patrice and David walk back through the door because they need to.”
As daunting as a post-Bergeron era might be, the Bruins are still poised to be a competitive squad in 2023-24.
A key contributor like Taylor Hall, Matt Grzelcyk, or even Linus Ullmark might need to be subtracted from this roster in pursuit of cap flexibility. There’s far from any guarantee that Tyler Bertuzzi or Dmitry Orlov will re-up this summer.
But as far as lineup construction is concerned, the Bruins have the framework of a roster still poised to assert itself in the standings.
Up front, 61-goal scorer David Pastrnak (signed through 2031) will anchor a forward corps still featuring other top-six talents like Brad Marchand and Jake DeBrusk.
Despite lackluster results in the postseason, a D corps anchored by Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm (both signed through 2030) is an imposing matchup for most teams.
Boston ideally wants to keep the tandem of Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman intact, but the latter could be primed for heavier reps if the cap circumstances dictate a move.
They’ll be far from the 65-win, 135-point juggernaut of last year, but Boston is not going to tumble down into the cellar of the Atlantic Division.
“The goal is always to remain competitive,” Neely noted. “Don mentioned the pieces that we have coming back are pretty good hockey players. I think we got a little taste of potentially what the team might look like in Games 3 and 4.
“I thought those two games obviously put us up three games to one. So, I think we can still be a better team, but there’s a lot of work to do this summer, there’s no question.”
Like any team, the Bruins will need some things to fall their way once again.
Ideally, at least one of Bergeron or Krejci opts to return on another bargain-bin contract to help Boston navigate through their fiscal headache.
Pavel Zacha, who recorded more 5v5 points than every Bruin except Pastrnak last season, might need to anchor a top-six line.
Regardless of whatever middle-six tweaks that Sweeney pulls off, Boston will need youngsters like Jakub Lauko, Marc McLaughlin, Georgii Merkulov, and others to push for minutes further down the lineup. Fabian Lysell and Mason Lohrei’s development in Providence will be closely monitored.
So long as Boston can continue to plug in pieces around the core that remains in place, the Bruins have the means to stay in the playoff picture and prepare for added fiscal breathing room in 2024.
“Salary cap will be an issue, maybe for a year,” Brad Marchand acknowledged last Tuesday. “But then the cap’s gonna go through the roof over the next couple of years. … Whatever happens with Bergy and Krech, if they come back next year, the group will look very similar, maybe minus a couple of guys. Still be very competitive. And if not, you got to look at what Zachs and [Charlie] Coyle did in [Games] 3 and 4 and the way our team pretty much looked.
“So it’s still going to be a very competitive group. And with anybody moving on, it brings opportunity for other guys to step up. I don’t think everyone expected Zacha to have the year he did and he grew into a hell of a player. … Someone else will do that with an opportunity.”
Opting for an on-the-fly retool instead of a rebuild isn’t a panicked pivot for a Bruins team wading into an uncertain future.
It’s always been part of the plan. Be it signing Lindholm to an eight-year deal before he even logged one shift with Boston or extending Zacha as a contingency plan down the middle back in January, Boston has done its due diligence to remain a playoff-caliber club in the years ahead.
Now, will they be a Cup-contending club? That remains to be seen.
But as evidenced by the Panthers’ current warpath, just punching one’s ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs is as fruitful a path as ever in this chaotic, bizarre sport.
For every Avalanche squad that orchestrated a rebuild off of landing a generational prospect or two, there are plenty of teams like the Red Wings or Senators who have yet to see those years of misery pay off.
The Bruins would much rather roll the dice in the playoffs than settle for tanking measures.
Entering the playoffs, most cast aside the Hurricanes as cannon fodder without their top snipers in Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty. After posting 34 points in 82 games, Jordan Martinook — placed on waivers back in October — now has nine points in the Canes’ last four playoff games.
The Devils bested the Rangers in the first round with Akira Schmidt — he of 24 career NHL starts — in net. Florida toppled the Bruins with a D corps featuring the likes of Marc Staal, Radko Gudas and the second coming of Al MacInnis (also known as Brandon Montour).
Trying to apply logic in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is like expecting the Green Line to ferry you around this city in a timely manner — it’s an endeavor destined to end in disappointment.
Amid the uncertainty of both Bergeron and Krejci’s return and the expected roster turnover, the Bruins sure fit the profile of an aging franchise racing toward a cliff in 2023.
In some respects, they’re a bit like Wile E. Coyote and his various attempts to traverse chasms.
Every time Coyote scrambles across the cliff, he somehow manages to defy gravity at the start — only tumbling toward the inevitable fate below him after looking down.
So rather than stare into the abyss of a painful rebuild, the Bruins might as well keep doing what they’ve been doing: fix their eyes forward and keep running ahead.
And maybe, just maybe, they’ll make it over to the other side.
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