In every sport now, it seems one of the most fascinating things to watch is when an organization decides a particular roster has run its course. Thanks to salary caps everywhere (or just the totally not but really is a cap in baseball) there always comes a time when you have to pull that trigger as players age and get more expensive and money runs out. If you’re the Pittsburgh Penguins, that day seemingly won’t come until Sidney Crosby retires (though Kris Letang’s and Evgeni Malkin’s free agent status this summer may move up that date). If you’re the Chicago Blackhawks, that day comes about four years too late and leaves you in their current morass. And if you make your living writing or commenting from your piss-soaked bunker on the Toronto Maple Leafs, you think that day should come four years too early.
The Boston Bruins have apparently decided that the Patrice Bergeron Era is now officially over — and Bergeron very well may decide that himself anyway — as they have fired head coach Bruce Cassidy. It has been a nightmare offseason for the Bs, and the offseason hasn’t even started, really. Not only is Bergeron’s retirement status hanging over the whole organization like the sword of Damocles, but both Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk are going to miss months of next season after offseason surgery. And so will Brad Marchand, who needs work on both hips. If Bergeron was to retire, the best case scenario would see the Bs stripped of essentially 4/5ths their top unit.
And it could be more, as Boston Athletic Bruins beat writer Fluto Shinzawa was hinting that if this is indeed cliff-diving time for the Bruins, that David Pastrnak could go on the trade market, with only one year left before he hits unrestricted free agency and assuredly gets a deal that seems him making eight figures every season.
Whenever a coach is fired, and especially one as successful as Cassidy has been, what it usually means is a GM is trying to cover his own ass. Don Sweeney is no different, as he couched Cassidy’s dismissal as needing to begin the search for a coach who can work with young players better than the hard-ass Cassidy could. The problem for Cassidy is that almost all of the young players provided by Sweeney have been dog meat.
Sweeney’s tenure as GM started with the infamous three straight first round picks of 2015, only one of which turned into anything useful in Jake Debrusk (a player so fed up with Cassidy that he demanded a trade he never got last year). And Debrusk is really only a middle six winger. The next year, 2016, McAvoy was added, but since that pick there’s only been Jeremy Swayman that could be a foundational piece moving forward. And he was taken a couple rounds after McAvoy. That’s five drafts that Sweeney has produced nothing out of.
And to suggest that Cassidy can’t work with young players seems awfully wide of the mark, as McAvoy and Pastrnak have become top tier stars under his watch. Charlie Coyle was reinvented as a checking center and Grzelcyk rose to top pairing status. That’s only one aspect of Cassidy’s work that saw the Bruins make the playoffs every year under his watch and never register less than 100 points. The Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line became the best in hockey, even as its role shifted from do-it-all to mostly offensive juggernaut. This season, Cassidy was able to move Pastrnak off of it for long stretches while not losing any effectiveness and keeping the Bruins comfortably in the playoffs. Perhaps if Sweeney had provided any sort of replacement for David Krejci he wouldn’t have had to.
Sure, Sweeney has to mortgage some of the future in deals for Hampus Lindholm or Taylor Hall or Coyle. But what was it he really thought he would get out of depth signings like Nick Foligno or Craig Smith? Or Erik Haula, who was shoved into a second center role when he’s healthily proven he’s nothing more than a fourth liner? And Cassidy still got a 100-point season out of this rusted wind instrument. Is he really the problem?
It certainly appears that Sweeney is trying to buy himself time to start a rebuild here instead of going out the door with Cassidy, though he soon might. If Bergeron retires, combined with the injuries, the Bruins very well may sink like a stone. And there isn’t anything in the pipeline or horizon that the Bs can identify as being the tentpole for the next great Bs team.
One can’t help but feel the Bruins came up just a little short, and how the outlook would have been had just a couple bounces gone their way. This is a team that lost Game 7 of the 2019 Final at home. And had Zdeno Chara’s point-shot in double overtime in Game 1 against the Hawks in 2013 hit the inside of the post instead of the outside…well, it very well may have been a sweep for Boston. Laid out over the 12 years or so that the Bs have been around the penthouse of the league, these are microscopic shortages. But no one puts the Bruins in the same category as the Pens, Hawks, Lightning, or Kings. After all, they only won one Cup, despite appearing in the same amount of Finals as the Hawks and Lightning and more than the Kings. Three wins in the last round isn’t enough to be hallowed though, even if by any reasonable calculation the Bruins have done the exact same thing, if not better in the case of the Hawks are Kings who have either plummeted out of sight for a while or did in the past..
Perhaps Sweeney’s hand is forced as he knows Bergeron isn’t coming back and there simply is no replacing him. And perhaps he feels there’s little point in stumbling down the standings and barely scraping together playoff places when you’re headed backward. It ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re goin’ down, after all. Perhaps it’s best to just rip that band-aid and head to the basement immediately.
Still, just a matter of inches and these moves could have next to no melancholy to them. But now, there is no escaping that the Bruins left something on the table when they decided to push the chair away and leave.