September 9, 2013

From NEHJ: Boston Bruins training camp preview

By Jesse Connolly

Nathan Horton, Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley are out. Loui Eriksson (above) and Jarome Iginla (below right) are in to shore up the right-wing slot.

So long as you don’t go and trade the face of your franchise for a bag of pucks and a concession stand snack to be named later, just about any major move an NHL team might make can be given a positive spin.

Parting ways with a long-tenured, reliable defenseman beloved by your fans? “We needed to get younger.”

Shipping out a promising, flashy forward for a grizzled veteran? “We felt we had to get someone with experience that better fit our style.”

Heck, in this day and age, even if you give away a player free of charge, there’s always the convenient fallback of “needing that precious cap space” to acquire “the right pieces.”

This summer, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli probably could’ve found a way to avoid making any major alterations to his roster. Continuity’s been king in the Hub of Hockey since the abomination that was the 2006-07 campaign, but after a string of five straight offseasons in which the modus operandi was to keep the band together, the summer of 2013 was arguably Chiarelli’s boldest yet.

His big maneuvers initially stung Black and Gold loyalists who have grown to love a group of players who have keyed the B’s climb back to among the elite teams in the NHL.

Andrew Ference’s leadership will be missed. So, too, will Nathan Horton’s playoff heroics and Tyler Seguin’s superstar potential.

But at the end of the day, a GM’s top concern isn’t appeasing the emotions of the masses. It’s about putting together a team poised for short- and long-term success. From the looks of it, Chiarelli’s done just that, assembling a squad that, on paper, looks even better than the one that just made its second run to the Cup finals in three years.

The right stuff

Even with the salary cap being scaled back for the 2013-14 season, Boston’s thrilling postseason performance pointed to all the usual suspects returning to the fold. A wild first week of July threw that idea right out a high-rise window.

After a boatload of rumors had Seguin on his way out of town on the weekend of the NHL Draft, the rumblings seemed to only result in an opportunity for Chiarelli to emphatically insist the young forward “become more of a professional.”

When Horton — who went from certain cap casualty at the onset of the playoffs to must-keep by its conclusion — told the Bruins through his agent that he wouldn’t be returning, less than one week after Chiarelli stated his intentions to re-sign the winger, the odds of Seguin being swapped seemed bound to drop to zero.

Not so fast.

In a somewhat stunning turn of events, Chiarelli packaged Seguin and Rich Peverley — whose disappointing regular season, postseason and sizable, $3.25 million cap hit made him expendable — in a deal with Dallas on July 4. In doing so, coupled with Horton’s departure, the Bruins GM essentially gutted the right side of his forward corps.

The centerpiece of the return from Dallas, Loui Eriksson, was the first step toward rebuilding it.

“He’s a good two-way player,” Chiarelli said of Eriksson. “(He) knows where to find the spots to score, has a good shot, good release from either side, can play on the PP. … He can play the right side, and he has left-shot skill. He spreads out your power play. He’s a fast and a good two-way player. There’s a lot of his game that fits into how we play.”

Chiarelli didn’t say it, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better match on the wing for center Patrice Bergeron than Eriksson, as the two possess nearly identical skill sets. With his superb defensive acumen and 70-plus points in each of the last four full NHL seasons, Eriksson’s addition to the line of Bergeron and Brad Marchand should make the unit one of the most well-rounded forward groups in the NHL this season.

“(Bergeron’s) a real good player in the league and he’s been real good for many years,” said Eriksson, a two-time Lady Byng finalist. “I think it will be a good fit for me to play with him. I think he’s a smart player and can play a really good defensive style and also score goals and do a lot of things out there. I think that will be a good fit for me and I’m going to try to make him better, too, when I play with him.”

While Chiarelli filled the void created by Seguin’s departure with a forward who possesses a vastly different game, he knew that an older version of Horton with a little more mileage, snarl and gravitas was on the open market. He just never expected said player to be interested in sporting the Spoked-B.

Jarome Iginla said, “Thanks, but no thanks” when an all-but-finalized deal was going to send him from Calgary to Boston this past spring, instead electing to join the red-hot Penguins in pursuit of the first Stanley Cup of his NHL career. When the future Hall of Fame winger’s agent called Chiarelli about his client joining the Black and Gold, the notion of holding a grudge and shooting him down never crossed the Bruins GM’s mind.

Iginla is 36 — eight years older than Bruin-turned-Blue-Jacket Horton — and is coming off a season in which he had 14 goals in 44 games. He doesn’t view last year as a downturn in his career.

“I still feel very good,” the longtime Flames captain said. “I think last year was an average year and I know, as you get older, once you have one, people start thinking how much is left in the tank. I still feel great. If you look over my career, I’ve had some average years and I think I’m going to bounce back. I don’t think it was a bad year. I think I got better. And it was also half of a season, as far as the regular season. It’s fun to get back into the playoffs and stuff. But I expect to play well. I expect to produce and be good for the Bruins and help contribute to a great regular season and be a contending team.”

Four reasons Boston made the right moves on the right side

* Seguin’s contract would’ve been all but untradeable if he had another down year, and definitely wouldn’t have yielded as good of a return.

* Horton’s playoff success is tough to part with, but Iginla should prove to be a more consistent scoring threat throughout the regular season.

* Though he did rule out a return to Boston on his own power, Chiarelli would’ve been taking an extremely big gamble if he re-signed Horton to a deal as lengthy as the one he got from Columbus (seven years), given his concussion history.

* Chemistry has been instrumental to Boston’s success, but bringing in new blood to play key roles should provide a big boost for a team that seemed a little too comfortable last season.

The kids are all right

While it might be a stretch to call it a flaw, there have been a few instances where Chiarelli’s decision to bring in a veteran or two has prevented prospects from working their way up to the big club. Heading into the upcoming season, however, there don’t appear to be any stopgaps in the Stephane Yelle or Steve Begin vein on the depth chart.

What does that mean? Barring a late-summer signing or a prominent camp invite, the Bruins will be looking down the pipeline when they determine who will fill their list of open vacancies.

You can’t quite call it a philosophical change, as Boston isn’t simply throwing a batch of green rookies into a collective trial by fire. But while most of the top candidates have regular season and playoff experience with the big club, they’re certainly not hardened veterans or certified full-time NHLers.

Boston let a player of that description walk away on July 5, as Ference — a model Bruin, exemplary leader and rock-solid rearguard for seven seasons — departed in favor of cheaper, younger alternatives.

It’s a gamble by Chiarelli, but a calculated one. Boston has two open spots on the back end and at least three impressive youngsters to choose from.

Highly hyped rookie Dougie Hamilton showed flashes of brilliance in his first pro season, posting 5-11-16 totals in 42 games and winning the team’s Seventh Player Award. The ninth overall pick in 2011, Hamilton skated in seven of Boston’s 22 playoff games. He says he drew a lot from his time on and off the ice as a rookie and expects it to pay big dividends going forward.

“I think I learned probably more throughout the year playing, and I think in the playoffs as well just watching the games, and it’s definitely different from up there,” Hamilton said. “It’s a different game in the playoffs as well, so I think it’s a good experience to be able to go through at such a young age, and I think it’ll help me in the future.”

Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug (above) stepped in during the 2013 playoffs and were expected to be Boston’s undoing, with Ference and Dennis Seidenberg on the mend, but the Bruins didn’t miss a beat.

Bartkowski was immensely dependable and came up with a big goal during Game 7 against Toronto. With him in the lineup during the postseason, the B’s went 5-2. Krug set an NHL record with four goals in his first five career playoff games, leading the Bruins’ vanquishing of the New York Rangers in the second round and helping the B’s shut down the vaunted Penguins in the conference finals.

Krug recognizes his clutch offensive contributions on the big stage have certainly raised expectations of him going forward.

“Obviously I’m not going to score goals every game, so coming in I definitely did set the bar a little bit high,” said Krug, who finished with six points and a plus-5 rating in 15 playoff games. “You know, I’m just going to continue to do what the coaching staff asks of me. And you know that’s just moving pucks, being clean in the defensive zone, obviously taking care of my front of the net and being efficient.”

Four reasons a youth movement was needed on ‘D’

* God love Ference for all he did as a Bruin and for the people of Boston, but the B’s would’ve really restricted themselves if they entertained the thought of inking him to a deal identical to the one he got from the Oilers (four years, $13 million).

* Collectively, Hamilton, Krug and Bartkowski have the potential to make a considerably bigger impact offensively — especially on the B’s forever-underwhelming power play.

* If the Bruins feel confident with Hamilton, Krug and Bartkowski all taking on full-time roles, they can afford to part with a higher-priced veteran, a la Johnny Boychuk, if a deal comes along to upgrade elsewhere or to acquire draft picks.

* While it might seem light years away, the day will come when Chara — and, to a lesser extent, Dennis Seidenberg — will have to hand over the reins. Having the luxury to promote from within when that time arrives, vs. overpaying a free agent on the open market, will be huge for the Bruins’ long-term success.

A new era

Much like every member of the 2004 Red Sox, those who helped end the Bruins’ 39-year Cup drought in 2011 will forever be cherished, no matter what NHL sweater — OK, avoid the bleu, blanc et rouge if possible — they return to TD Garden wearing in the near future. Not only did they help Boston win more playoff games over the last three years than any other club in the NHL, but also they’ve made the Black and Gold an easy team to root for throughout the Hub of Hockey and far beyond.

If you’re looking for a by-the-book definition, the Bruins technically didn’t part with any of their so-called core players other than Seguin, but you’d be lying to yourself if you discounted the vital roles the departing individuals played for this organization during their tenures here. Furthermore, you’d have to be a soulless robot if the camaraderie among them wasn’t as clear as day.

“You want to be able to stay together as much as possible,” Peverley said on breakup day, unaware he’d be part of the trade with Dallas a little more than a week later. “We’ve got a good group, been to the finals two out of the last three years, won a Cup. If we’re able to all stay together, that’s great. I’m sure the organization has to do what’s best for them. That will come first. Whatever happens, happens.”

What’s happened is a major, somewhat unexpected facelift. The Bruins will still be a team led by their behemoth blueliner, Chara, a center more versatile than a Swiss Army knife in Bergeron and their blossoming backstop, Tuukka Rask, but many of the pieces surrounding them will be different going forward.

While partially born out of cap-related necessity, the noteworthy shakeup boiled down to Chiarelli — as Peverley put it — doing what’s best for the organization, for 2013-14 and beyond.

Is this new edition of the Boston Bruins better than the group that fell just two wins short of being crowned champions of the National Hockey League in June? That’s an answer we won’t know definitively until the spring rolls around.

What’s clear, however, is Chiarelli possesses the utmost confidence his roster reshaping has put the Bruins in position for plenty more success in the coming years. As someone that guided them out of an abyss, has put together six straight playoff teams and came oh-so-close to being the architect behind a Stanley Cup winner for the second time in three seasons, it’s easy to be inclined to believe him.

How easy, you ask? I’d go as far as wagering a bag of pucks and the concession stand snack of your choice that these new-look Bruins prove him right.

Photos: Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ