I know, I’m supposed to be done worrying about Montreal now that the Boston Bruins ended the Canadiens’ season with a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. But I can’t help myself. Trying to move on from the Habs’ soap opera even after their demise is like trying to pull your eyes away from the last few seasons of the original 90210 once Vanessa Marcil was added to the cast.
And on a more serious note, I think it’s important for the Boston Bruins to watch the fallout closely and remember that just one spring ago the Habs were where the Bruins are now. After earning the top record in the Eastern Conference, Montreal dispatched Boston in seven games and advanced to the second round, where they ran into a red-hot Philadelphia Flyers team.
In the best example of the fragility of success in the NHL, the 2008-09 Canadiens’ season started with Stanley Cup aspirations. It ended with a No. 8 seed and a four-game loss to the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. Along the way, there was a road trip without Alex Kovalev, despite him being in fine health; allegations of players cavorting with organized crime figures; serious injury to Robert Lang, Andrei Markov and Mathieu Schneider; a goaltender controversy for the better part of the second half of the season; a coaching change; and a failed to attempt to make a trade for one of the league’s brightest stars — Tampa Bay’s Vinny Lecavalier. The Tampa Bay center even had to hold a separate press conference during All-Star Weekend in Montreal to address the rumors of his reported spot on the trade market. While laying some of the blame for his team’s flameout on the injuries and off-ice distractions, Habs general manager/head coach Bob Gainey tried to get Tampa Bay GM Brian Lawton to take the rap.
The Bruins won’t have to worry about trade rumors derailing their team as long as Peter Chiarelli is GM. Chiarelli keeps his negotiations so close to his vest, they’re encrypted — and no, the password is not ‘bosco.’ In fact, if Chiarelli keeps operating the way he has in his three seasons at the helm, the Bruins will be able to avoid a Habs-like drop-off and maybe even begin to mirror the stability of rock-like franchises Detroit and New Jersey.
You start with the securing of the team’s core, which Chiarelli has skillfully done under the cap in recent years. Unlike the Habs, who played this season with 10 potential unrestricted free agents — including captain Saku Koivu, who says he might not be back — in their last year of their deals, the Bruins won’t have to face free agency in those kinds of volumes in the next couple years. This summer, only P.J. Axelsson, Mark Recchi, Stepahne Yelle, Manny Fernandez, Shane Hnidy and Steve Montador — solid players but not marquee names by any stretch — have their contracts up. Next season, only Marc Savard, Shawn Thornton, Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference will be in the final years of their contracts. That’s not a group large enough to create a distraction.
As far as restricted free agents, the names get a little more vital to the Bruins’ longtime health, with Phil Kessel, Matt Hunwick and David Krejci this summer and Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler next summer. It sounds like a tall task, but there’s no reason to believe that Chiarelli won’t get deals done with all of them, or at least trade them for solid value. The CBA allows for easier retention of RFAs. And history shows that when it comes to RFAs, Chiarelli is the type of closer that would make Kyra Sedgwick jealous.
The Bruins are also built, personnel-wise, the way long-lasting championship-caliber teams are built — from the goal out. With Tim Thomas locked up through 2012-13, it’s unlikely that prospect Tuukka Rask will be prematurely thrust into the spotlight and have to explain himself to the media and fans after rough series and hand gestures like Montreal’s wunderkind Carey Price.
On defense, Boston obviously has its commitments to Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman, plus the prospective commitments that will be made to Hunwick and Mark Stuart. That’s where Gainey really failed and where he should take the bulk of the heat for his team’s inability to accomplish its goals. While it is a “disgrace” that Lawton leaked the names of the Habs players that were available, Lawton wasn’t the one that let Mark Streit and Sheldon Souray leave via free agency and traded Craig Rivet for Josh Gorges and a first-round pick (Max Pacioretty) over the last few seasons. It was Gainey.
It’s looking more and more like Gainey will stay on the job, assuming there isn’t a major ownership change. That could benefit the Bruins, if Gainey hasn’t learned his lesson and continues to run the Habs into mediocrity. As long as Chiarelli and the Bruins continue to operate with philosophies that are 180 degrees away from Montreal’s approach, Boston won’t be joining the Habs in the doldrums.