The Boston Bruins went stride for stride with the Blues three years ago in their Stanley Cup battle.
Like the Blues, they remained relevant through this season. But this summer the Bruins are facing the prospect of a complete rebuild while the Blues are preparing to resume their Cup chase.
The tumult in Boston should make fans appreciate how Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has managed to keep his team moving forward.
Half of the Bruins’ dilemma can be analyzed through actuarial science. Boston maintained an excellent veteran nucleus through recent years but that group got old, just as the Chicago Blackhawks aged after their dynastic surge.
Defenseman Zdeno Chara reached his mid-40s and returned to the New York Islanders this season. Center David Krejci eased toward retirement while playing back in Europe.
Goaltender Tuukka Rask tried to come back from repairs this season but his body refused to cooperate.
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Patrice Bergeron remained an elite two-way center this season, but he turns 37 this summer and playing 200-foot hockey can takes a heavy toll on a body. Bergeron hasn’t announced his plans for next season, but he is sniffing the retirement breeze.
Winger Brad Marchand remained an elite scorer this season. But he just turned 34 and he needed surgical repairs on his hips.
Winger David Pastrnak is still in his prime at age 26, but he is a year away from unrestricted free agency and concerned about the direction of the franchise.
If the Bruins can’t lock Pastrnak into an extension, then general manager Don Sweeney may be compelled to trade him away for rebuilding blocks as the franchise starts over.
There is nothing unusual about any of this. Nature ran its course and eroded the team core. The Blues and every other perennial playoff team – like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals – face this inevitability.
“We’re trying to fight Father Time year in and year out,” Armstrong noted.
But the Blues have avoided some of the pitfalls that could force the Bruins to reboot. On Armstrong’s watch, they continued to draft well, trade smartly and spend wisely in free agency to refresh their talent base.
After suffering two futile postseasons after their Cup run, the Blues reemerged as a real playoff threat this season. They handled the Minnesota Wild in the first round and were pushing the mighty Colorado Avalanche until Nazem Kadri took out goaltender Jordan Binnington.
Through this three-year journey, Armstrong remained on the same page with coach Craig Berube. Sometimes they disagreed, like on the value of winger Mike Hoffman, but they worked together well.
Meanwhile Sweeney became estranged from coach Bruce Cassidy for multiple reasons, including perceived message fatigue.
“I think the players felt they were very well prepared. But at times, young and old, they struggled,” Sweeney explained to reporters. “Sometimes that’s the voice that’s in their head. Ultimately, I had to make a decision that takes us in a different path.”
So while Sweeney jettisoned Cassidy (who quickly landed on his feet with the Vegas Golden Knights), Armstrong gave Berube a contract extension during the season and voiced full-throated support of his work after it.
Sweeney grew concerned that young players failed to blossom under Cassidy. Given the advancing age and declining orthopedic viability of his veterans, this created a crisis.
Cassidy allowed his key veterans to police the dressing room and drive the team culture. This approach propelled the Bruins to healthy won-loss records year after year and reach the past half-dozen postseasons.
But it led to some grumbling about a not-so-nurturing environment. When forward Jake DeBrusk asked to be traded, he became the face of the team’s restless youth.
Cassidy’s defenders will point out that most of the young players who flopped in Boston simply weren’t talented or hardy enough to become impact NHL players.
Look at the alphabetized list of washouts: Anders Bjork, Peter Cehlarik, Austin Czarnik, Ryan Donato, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Danton Heinen, Ondrej Kase, Karson Kuhlman, Jeremy Lauzon, Zane McIntyre, Colin Miller, Joe Morrow, Rob O’Gara, Nick Ritchie, Zach Senyshyn, Ryan Spooner, Malcolm Subban, Urho Vaakanainen, Frank Vatrano and Dan Vladar.
Do the Bruins really miss any of those guys?
Meanwhile the Blues cycled in and deployed notable young talent, thanks to Berube’s ability to motivate young players without breaking their spirit.
Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou broke out on Berube’s watch. Klim Kostin stalled, but Alexei Toropchenko took off. Jake Walman failed to advance, but Niko Mikkola has broken into the circle of trust.
Given that track record, there is reason to believe Jake Neighbours, Scott Perunovich and Zachary Bolduc can develop under Chief.
So while the Bruins’ team nucleus is crumbling, the Blues’ core is evolving. While the Bruins may step back for the next few years, the Blues will plow forth as contenders.
“We’re the team that’s there year in, year out,” Armstrong said. “That’s our focus moving forward.”