On Wednesday morning, Mr. Jeremy Jacobs, Charlie Jacobs and Cam Neely joined together at TD Garden for their annual season-end press conference to cap off the 2015-16 season and meet with reporters. They expressed the same sentiment that Don Sweeney, Claude Julien and the players previously voiced.
“I hate to lose more than I love to win,” said Neely. “I don’t like missing the playoffs. I want everybody else to feel the same way.”
“We know where our better players are in their careers, we have an idea of how many more good years they have left at the top of their game. It’s very important for us to put pieces around them to compete again for a Cup. That has to happen sooner rather than later.”
Heading into the 2015-16 season, Sweeney laid out a plan to get the Bruins back on that path.
“That plan included giving us some cap flexibility, stockpiling prospects and putting a playoff team on the ice,” said Neely. “And quite frankly, with 86 points and 13 games to go, we should’ve been a playoff team — we should be playing right now.”
“We should’ve locked up the third seed and who knows? But that didn’t happen, and we’re all extremely disappointed the way the season ended.”
“Having said that, that plan was not a one offseason fix,” Neely went on. “We know what our goals are, we know what we need to improve and we’re taking the necessary steps to continue to do that. From my perspective. we were told by Don it’s going to be a bumpy road, we should see some improvement along the way and for the most part, we had that. But it's the way we finished that was extremely disappointing for us.”
It is still difficult to fathom the finish, and the way in which the season ended.
“It’s really hard for me to climb inside the guys’ heads,” said Neely. “But there were a lot of times this year, as you know, where we could have won and gotten to first place in the division — the Winter Classic game, the last game of the season, it happened a lot this year where we could have separated ourselves a little bit more from those behind us and we laid an egg. Those are things that we certainly need to correct.”
“It looked like it was growing to be a great finish,” said Mr. Jacobs. “I know periodically I’ll be talking to the Commissioner [Gary Bettman] and he says, ‘What just happened?’ He said, ‘You guys were winning, then you’re losing, now you’re losing, you’re winning.’ We were very streaky this year, and I think if not for those downward movements, we could have been very much a contending team.”
“I was told going in, it was going to be rocky, because there were some serious changes that took place, as we know. So I would say that it was a group that worked its heart out on it and tried as best they could from a management level, but they had some tough chores. I think they’ve got some great opportunities ahead of them.”
Mr. Jacobs spoke about his support of Neely and Sweeney to manage the process.
“It’s very obvious to me that Cam and Donny speak alike and collaborate very well, as well as the coach with Don and with Cam,” said Mr. Jacobs. “There’s a dialogue there that’s pretty open and I feel whatever I hear from Cam is refined and combines all of their combined thinking, so the leadership is at the president and the president has good lines of communication.”
In turn, Neely puts his trust in Sweeney.
“You have to allow your GM to do his job. If I don’t necessarily agree with what he’s doing, I will let him know, but you have to allow your GM to be able to do his job and what he thinks fits,” said Neely. “When we interviewed Don and he laid out a plan that he thought would get us to where we want to be I certainly agreed, both Mr. Jacobs and Charlie agreed with it. If I didn’t, he wouldn’t be the GM.”
During the GM and head coach’s press conference a week prior, Sweeney emphatically backed Julien and his task of navigating the team though this transition period. Julien’s players have backed him as well, and the leaders have made known that they’re fully on board, too.
“There’s an element on everybody, really,” said Neely. “I mean, it’s not just the coach, it’s not just the players, it’s everybody that’s trying to put this team together to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish.”
“One of the things I can tell you that I’ve learned recently is that our coach has not lost the room. That’s one of the first questions you ask, especially of someone that’s been around as long as Claude and some of the players have been around as long as Claude. That has not happened and if it did, we’d have different discussions.”
The players personally placed accountability on themselves. They worked hard, they wanted to make the playoffs, but the will that was needed to push them into the postseason didn’t end up being there in the end.
“I believe the group was a closer group; they enjoyed playing for each other and working hard for each other,” said Neely. “Aside from a couple stretches, we were a team that showed more passion than the year prior, but it’s still an area we need to improve upon.”
“Character” and “passion” are always great qualities to have, and in that regard, the Bruins’ priorities will be in three key areas.
“We talk about it as a group, improving our defense is No. 1,” said Neely, who emphasized that they will be looking at every opportunity they can to improve the blueline, including exploring the free agent pool come July 1.
Next up, “I’d like us to get a little bit heavier on the right side,” said Neely. “I think we need that element on the forward group. I’d like us to get a little heaver up front. We have some skill, we just have to have a little bit more of the gritty piece.”
“And then we have to take a look at the backup goaltending situation. With [Malcolm] Subban’s injury this year, it kind of threw a wrinkle in maybe that development there. We have to look at that.”
With cap flexibility and a deeper prospect pool, the Bruins made improvements during 2015-16 in terms of incorporating young talent into the lineup like Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari up front, in addition to David Pastrnak’s continued development, and Ryan Spooner solidifying himself as a full-timer.
That emphasis will continue.
“Having to acquire players is harder than drafting and developing, getting them in to your lineup,’ said Neely. “We had quite a gap of saying, ‘OK, these guys are ready to come in and play now.’ We’re still going to have a little bit of a gap based on the fact that we just drafted a bunch last year. We’re going to have to look at what can we acquire, whether it’s free agency or through trades, to help that secondary [scoring] piece.”
“Everything is on the table, to be honest with you. We need to improve our club and everything’s on the table to try and do that.”
The Bruins’ brass highlighted the long-term investment in building back a system of prospects though the draft, starting with last June. The fact that the Providence Bruins are poised for a strong push in the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs is not any sort of consolation for the big club missing the postseason.
But, the fact remains that the 2015-16 season is now in the past.
“We’re always investing in our team,” said Charlie Jacobs. “I feel like we’ve levered up our future for — we had a wonderful run, let’s not forget, we won the Stanley Cup in 2011, we were back to the Final in 2013, we won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2014 — but what had happened was we slowly chipped away at the availability for us to spend money on players, and there was no youth movement to back it up.”
“If you look at the teams that are still playing today, they have the right balance of each and we’ve gotten a little bit off track. I think Don Sweeney, in the first year, has done an excellent job of writing the ledger, and I would expect that that would pay dividends in the near future.”
“We are a cap team and there should be expectations in an Original Six market that we continue to be a playoff contender, and frankly, a Stanley Cup contender,” said Charlie Jacobs. “Given the mix of talent that we currently have on the roster and the youth that’s coming in, Cam’s aware of those expectations, as is Don.”
“I look forward to the next generation of players here,” said Mr. Jacobs. “This is a young man’s business and we have to understand that we have to make space for them. It will be exciting.”
There’s no way to know exactly how that process will play out, but there is trust in place that it will build in the right direction.
“That is always an interesting process,” said Mr. Jacobs. “[With Brad] Marchand, where we were sitting up, watching him [after he was drafted] and having the brain trust saying he’s not big enough, he’s not this, only to see him become a tremendous player — that was a real plus. And then you see some that don’t perform up to what expectations are.”
“But we’ve got a great pool now, and that was an investment that Don was very well aware of because that was an area that he functioned very much in, so it’s good to see him and see him be able to bring players in and Claude happy to evolve them and deal with them, and put them into position.”
Patience isn’t naturally easy to have, especially around this city, with its propensity for titles.
“The fan base is unbelievable. You know it. I know it,” said Mr. Jacobs. “I think that you get stimulated by those around you that succeed. We haven’t seen anything succeed like the Patriots have and they’ve been tremendous. What happened in baseball hadn’t happened for 80 years or whatever it was — they look like the Bruins on steroids that way, we went 35-40 years without winning the Cup."
"This has been a great environment to be in, a great sports environment. When I go around the country, I was out in Los Angeles and they say, ‘We’d like to be like Boston. We’d like to look like Boston,’ in regard to the fan commitment.”
“We’ve got tremendous fans and I hate disappointing them.”