BOSTON — From league-wide laughingstock and Boston-sports-scene afterthought to Northeast Division champions in just two calendar years.
It’s been quite a turnaround for the Boston Bruins. And current general manager Peter Chiarelli deserves a ton of credit. First he landed the two marquee pieces — Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard — he needed to build on. Then he was willing to admit he made a mistake with his first coaching hire and replace Dave Lewis with Claude Julien.
But then, most importantly, Chiarelli resisted the urge to break up the core of his team. He could’ve done it after that first season when the club failed to make the playoffs. He could’ve done it last year at the trade deadline to make a big splash and land Marian Hossa, or he could’ve done it at this year’s deadline with a swap that would’ve brought in Jay Bouwmeester or Chris Pronger. But he stuck to his guns, let the Bruins — built around Chara, Savard, Dennis Wideman, Phil Kessel, etc. — jell and grow and become a team that could wrap up a Northeast Division title with still nine games to go.
“We had the core. We had the same group of guys my first year — a lot of the same guys. I think that year there was a lot of new additions to the team. There was a lot of trades with the (Andrew) Ference and (Chuck) Kobasew (deal). There was guys coming in and out and it takes a while to get used to teammates and get to know guys and feel comfortable around guys,” Wideman said after the Bruins’ 4-1 win over New Jersey today at TD Banknorth Garden sealed the division crown.
But there’s another side to the Bruins’ rapid ascent toward the top of the NHL standings — and that’s the blossoming of the young prospects to complement the veteran nucleus. That’s what head coach Claude Julien stressed when asked about how his team has climbed the charts in such a short time.
“I think a lot of it is the progression of our young players. At the beginning of the year, we wanted to take another step forward. I don’t think we even talked about being divisional champs. We just wanted to make sure that we were better than the year before. And a lot of our young guys really surprised us,” the coach explained. “Obviously, (Blake) Wheeler coming in, was one of those guys. David Krejci, who had an unbelievable season until he went through some of the struggles the last few weeks. … Matt Hunwick, is one of those guys. We’ve had a lot of young guys come up big for us.
“Our veterans continue to be our best players, and they need to be our best players. But the young players seem to be what makes a big difference nowadays. If you’ve got the good leadership and young players are following them and taking the bull by the horns and doing their part, it certainly helps the progression. I think that’s where we’ve probably surprised ourselves a little bit with the way the season has gone so far.”
And while Chiarelli deservedly gets a ton of the credit for landing Wheeler as a free agent and having the confidence to throw the likes of Krejci and Hunwick into the fire, so to speak, you can’t forget how these guys landed in Boston pre-Chiarelli
Scott Bradley, formerly the Director of Amateur Scouting and now the Director of Player Personnel, has been the one constant, and you can’t help but praise him and his scouts — both those current and those gone — for the work they’ve done. They unearthed rare gems like Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron and did their due dilligence to make smart late-round picks like Hunwick and Byron Bitz.
But don’t forget former general manager Mike O’Connell and former assistant general manager Jeff Gorton for making the ultimate decisions when the scouting staff made its recommendations. And don’t forget that in addition to the work Rob Murray has done at Providence (AHL) this year as head coach and in the past as assistant, that New York Islanders head coach Scott Gordon spent a lot of years developing the Bruins’ budding stars when he was running the P-Bruins.
Kobasew knows that without the support of the youngsters he and the rest of the veterans would be at a loss.
“We’ve been able to add players along the way. I think it has a lot to do with scouting. We’ve got a lot of young guys,” he said. “So it’s tough to keep a team together, but when you have a lot of young guys coming in and contributing it makes it easier.”
It hasn’t been that easy, per se, but it’s been speedy. While the Bruins are quick to downplay the accomplishment of winning the division as just a small piece of what they set out to do, two years ago hardly anyone could’ve imagined the Bruins would be where they are now. It’s been a team effort, including players young and old, and some that were added before the current regime took over.