Coming back from the Habs-Bruins tilt last night at the Bell Centre (yes, I was there : ), I couldn't help but think two things: How much the Montreal Canadiens must be looking forward to their record 25th Stanley Cup (I may have been exaggerating a tad after their fifth-straight win), and how much the Bruins can look forward to yet another year without one (their last coming in 1972).
Suffice it to say, the Bruins looked nothing like the team that won the Eastern Conference last year, at least speaking figuratively. Physically, a lot of the same faces were there: forwards Patrice Bergeron and Michael Ryder and defenseman Zdeno Chara, etc. But there were two notable omissions: Phil Kessel, who had been traded to the Maple Leafs, and Marc Savard, who, thanks to a dirty hit by the Pittsburgh Penguins's Matt Cooke, was out with a concussion.
Now, I could turn this into a debate over headshots, but, really, been there and done that, and, besides, I don't think there's much of a debate anyway. No, what irks me currently is how far the Bruins have fallen over the past year, and, more specifically, how far they are sure to fall without Savard in their lineup for the remainder of the year.
Most people know that Savard is the straw that stirs the Bruins's drink. While he's not their leading scorer this year, over the past four years he has been with the club, no one comes close to matching his point totals (96, 78, 88, and 33 for a total of 295). The team has actually had three separate second-leading scorers in each of the past three years, showing either the team's depth or the Bruins's lack of consistency. I will admit to last year's stacked team, but the lack of success this year and the two others is most definitely a byproduct of the latter possibility.
In any case, the fact is the Bruins, currently in eighth spot in the conference, four points behind the Canadiens (I get giddy just writing the words), with three games in hand, are victims of that ever-so-popular saying: "One bird in hand is better than two in the bush", or, in this case, three, or four, or however many more games the Habs can stand to play. Generally speaking, in the best of times, trailing-in-the-standings teams with games in hand aren't exactly considered lucky because they still need to win them. Right now, for the Bruins, the only stat that should concern them is how many games they've got left before the end of the regular season before they can clean out their lockers (15).
I won't pretend to be all that sympathetic, seeing as the Habs-Bruins rivalry is one of the most long-standing in league history and I am a Habs fan. I will argue, however, that the Bruins's current general manager, Peter Chiarelli, has had a hand in where they are now.
He did assemble last year's team, but at what cost to an organization that failed to win the Cup? He clearly isn't the worst general manager ever, but he is far from the greatest. Just look at the proof, which can be found in the proverbial pudding:
-He traded away current-Chicago-Blackhawk Kris Versteeg for current-minor-leaguer Brandon Bochenski (who is in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization).
-He signed aging goaltender Tim Thomas to a huge four-year, $20-million contract extension (with a no-trade clause), although I will give him the benefit of the doubt on that one seeing as he did win the Vezina Trophy, but the fact remains that the $5-million cap hit each year will severely cripple the Bruins's chances at competing from here on out.
-After being hired by the Bruins from the Ottawa Senators (with whom he served as an assistant general manager), he was conveniently able to sign former-Senator-turned-Bruins-captain Chara (which really isn't bad for the Bruins, just reeks of foul play).
-He signed Ryder to a $4-million-per-year contract, just one year after he played his worst professional year with the Montreal Canadiens (I should know, but, looking at his stats now, it is looking more and more like this year will end up being his worst... at $4 million per).
-On trade-deadline day this year, he traded defenseman Derek Morris for a conditional draft pick to the Phoenix Coyotes, just one summer after acquiring him in a bid to win the Cup, then turned around and traded for defenseman Dennis Seidenberg of the Florida Panthers in a bid to make the playoffs, giving up effective checking-line-forward Byron Bitz and a second-round selection.
I will admit that the decision to trade away Kessel, which has yielded Toronto's next two first-round draft picks has turned out better than expected as the Leafs continue to sink, the Bruins continuing to get close to potentially drafting a superstar in the making in Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, but, then again, that decision was one borne out of incompetence as well, with Chiarelli opting to sign Morris with the money he could have used to sign Kessel in the off-season. Then realizing he and Kessel wouldn't be able to come to terms, he did do the logical thing and get the most for him in a trade, but that resulted in what? A team that couldn't score if it was lined up, one after the other, at the lip of the crease ready to do drills on an empty net.
Losing Savard does hurt, but the truth is the Bruins were screwed long before Cooke decided to concuss him (because that is what happened; the hit was visibly an attempt to injure). The Bruins would likely make the playoffs with Savard (only to slightly delay their inevitable elimination)… now there's no doubt that they won't and Chiarelli is in part to blame for that for not building a deeper team. Three games in hand or 30… just like Hall or Seguin, Bruins fans shouldn't hold their breath and count their chickens before they're hatched. Any way you look at it, they've got a long, hard road back to respectability.