Despite Early Exit, Future Remains Bright for Bruins

BOSTON – In the wake of the Bruins’ first-round exit, questions have been raised about where this leaves the franchise and what its future is. Chief among them is one most people probably weren’t expecting to hear — were the Bruins just a one-year wonder?

I understand why people are asking this. After an unreal 21-2-1 run through November and December propelled them to the top of the NHL, the Bruins went just 25-20-3 to close out the regular season. They went into the playoffs as the two-seed, but were actually tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference in regular-season points.

Then the Bruins got upset by the seventh-seeded Capitals, a team that finished the regular season with a negative goal differential. Sure, the Capitals look like a better team than their regular-season numbers indicate. And sure, rookie goalie Braden Holtby played great. But ultimately this was still a series the Bruins should have won had they played up to their abilities.

The top two lines disappeared for large portions of the series. The power play was useless for the second straight postseason. The fourth line and third defensive pairing were consistently pushed around by Washington’s third and fourth lines. Reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas was good but not great, and got outperformed by Holtby on the whole.

Then you look at the big picture, and you realize that although they’ve made the playoffs in each of Claude Julien’s five years behind the bench, the Bruins have advanced past the second round just once during that stretch. So all of that — the lackluster finish to the regular season, the upset loss to the Caps, and the lack of playoff success outside of 2011 — is why the one-year wonder question is being asked.

The answer is a definitive no. The Bruins are as well-equipped to have long-term success as any team in the NHL. Three of their top six forwards (Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Rich Peverley) are locked up through at least 2014, and the other three (Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand) are locked up for at least next season. Seguin, presumably, is on the verge of getting a long-term deal.

Nathan Horton, who missed the final 36 regular-season games and all of the playoffs with a concussion, will hopefully be back as well. Benoit Pouliot is a restricted free agent, and it seems more likely than not that he’ll be back after posting a career high in points. Jordan Caron is under contract for next season and could be ready to assume a top-nine role.

The only possible defections from the top three lines would be third-line center Chris Kelly, who is an unrestricted free agent, and third-line winger Brian Rolston, who never appeared to be more than a trade deadline rental anyway. Kelly tallied a career-high 20 goals and 39 points this season. As much as the Bruins would love to bring back his leadership and stellar two-way player, Kelly will likely be able to get top-six money, a price the Bruins might not be able to justify paying.

Fourth-liners Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell are also unrestricted free agents, while linemate Shawn Thornton is back for two more years. Until recently, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Paille and Campbell would be brought back and the fourth line would be kept in tact. But after that trio got manhandled by the Capitals, that’s now a shaky assumption to make. The Bruins might elect to look elsewhere in free agency to fill out that fourth line.

The Bruins could also have the cap space to make a big splash in free agency, especially if they trade Thomas (more on that later). While they have plenty of depth up front, the Bruins still lack an elite goal-scorer. Seguin appears to be on his way to becoming that, and Horton has shown flashes of being it. But there’s no denying that the Bruins could’ve used a difference-maker in the playoffs.

The names that keep coming up are the Blue Jackets’ Rick Nash, a perennial 30-goal scorer whom Columbus tried to move at the trade deadline, and the Devils’ Zach Parise, an unrestricted free agent and another perennial 30-goal scorer.

Parise would have to be option No. 1 here, if the Bruins have the cap space. Nash will cost some combination of a top-six forward, a top-four defenseman and an elite prospect, at the very least. Unless the price comes way down, it’s not worth it for the Bruins.

But even if the Bruins don’t land Parise or Nash, or any other top-six forward for that matter, they’ll still have a pretty good offense next season. It’s easy to forget this given their shortcomings against the Caps, but the Bruins ranked second in the NHL in scoring this season. And they’ll have almost all of that scoring back.

Krejci and Lucic have been the most criticized in the aftermath of the first-round exit, as they combined for just one goal in the series. You have to remember, though, that Krejci led the team in postseason scoring last year and had been a good playoff performer up until this year. There’s no reason to get too concerned about him just yet.

Lucic is a different story. He now has just five goals and 10 assists in 32 playoff games the last two seasons. That’s some serious underachieving from a guy who has notched 56 goals and 123 points over the last two regular seasons. Lucic is still only 23, though. His game can still get better and more consistent. Unless he’s part of a package for Nash, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which trading Lucic would be a wise move.

The Bruins’ back end looks even more promising than the front. Four of their top five defensemen (Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid) are locked up for at least the next two years. The fifth (Andrew Ference) is under contract for next season.

Joe Corvo, Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau are all unrestricted free agents, and it seems unlikely that any of them will be back. That’s fine, because the Bruins have Dougie Hamilton — the ninth overall pick in last year’s draft — waiting in the wings. Hamilton will get every chance to claim the sixth spot on the blue line, and given that he just destroyed the Ontario Hockey League this season, there’s no reason to think he won’t be ready to do that.

All this brings us to goaltending, which will undoubtedly be the most interesting position to keep an eye on this offseason. Thomas is entering the final year of his contract, and his no-trade clause expires on July 1. Rask is a restricted free agent and the franchise’s goalie of the future. Whether it’s next season or the year after, Rask will at some point be the Bruins’ clear-cut No. 1 goalie.

That raises the long-discussed possibility of the Bruins trading Thomas. Some people have pointed to perceived distractions like Thomas skipping the team White House visit, posting about politics and religion on Facebook, and referring to his teammates as “they” as reasons the Bruins should trade him. Before I go any further, I will just say that I think this line of thinking is beyond stupid. None of that should have any effect on a potential decision about trading Thomas, and I don’t think it will.

There are plenty of reasons to trade the 38-year-old netminder without manufacturing anything. For starters, it would free up cap space and allow the Bruins to make the aforementioned push for someone like Parise. The Bruins would also be able to get a pretty good return (I’m thinking a second- or third-liner) given that there are no goalies of Thomas’ caliber available in free agency. Playoff teams being held back by sub-par goaltending should have general manager Peter Chiarelli’s number on speed dial right now.

And then there’s the fact that the Bruins will be more than set in goal even if they do trade Thomas. Assuming Rask will be fully recovered from the groin/abdominal injury that caused him to miss the end of the regular season and start of the playoffs, he is ready to be the go-to guy. In fact, his stats this season were better than Thomas’. Anton Khudobin would be the backup, a role he should be able to handle, barring any cheap signings.

All that said, the Bruins certainly don’t have to trade Thomas. He’s not a distraction, no matter how much certain media members want you to think he is. And Rask has already said he would be perfectly fine splitting time with Thomas for one more season.

I think they should trade Thomas if they find the right deal. Getting a top-nine forward in return and freeing up money to go after Parise would be a smart business move. At the same time, I certainly don’t think it would be a mistake to hang onto Thomas. He can still be a big part of this team next season.

No matter what the Bruins do this summer, there’s no reason for fans to panic. The future is bright, and 2011 was not a flash in the pan. Even if the Bruins do nothing aside from depth moves, they will still be a favorite to get home ice next season. This year’s first-round exit is obviously a disappointment that shouldn’t have happened, but it doesn’t mean the window is closing. In fact, it’s very much wide open.

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