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Bruins bid to join Boston's championship era

by John McGourty
It wasn't too long ago that Boston sports fans were echoing the old Atlanta cheer from two decades ago, "Go Bruins ... and take the Celtics with you."

And the Patriots and the Red Sox.

My, how things have changed. The Celtics are the reigning NBA champions. The Red Sox, also reigning champions, have won two World Series in recent years and the Patriots have captured three Super Bowls in the past eight years. They even set the NFL record for most consecutive regular-season victories with 21.

Don't forget the Boston College Eagles, who have played in five of the past eight NCAA Frozen Fours, winning in 2001 and 2008.

The Bruins?

Following a fifth-place finish in the Northeast Division in 2005-06, the fans were up in arms. To hear many of them, the team was terrible for decades and had finally hit bottom. It did little good to remind them that the Bruins had won the Northeast Division twice in the prior three seasons, 2001-02 and 2003-04, or five times since 1990.

Owner Jeremy Jacobs cleaned house and hired Peter Chiarelli as the Bruins' new general manager.

To quote many fans, "Who?"

Chiarelli had solid qualifications for the job. He played on Harvard's 1986 NCAA Frozen Four runnerups and captained the squad the next season.  Then, he returned home to Ottawa to get his law degree. He spent seven years with the Ottawa Senators, first as Director of Legal Relations and the last two years as assistant general manager. He was well prepared for his current job.

In his second season in Boston, Chiarelli's Bruins finished eighth in the Eastern Conference last season and took the Northeast Division champion Montreal Canadiens to seven games in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The team exceeded virtually everyone's expectations.

Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien were asked how they think the fans would react if the Bruins could join the ongoing parade of champions.

"It certainly is a standard we are trying to get to," Chiarelli said. "I know the players look to the other teams every morning and see the successes. We can't rush it. We have to be patient. I'd love to turn it around in a day or a year, but we are trying to build from within, competition from within, growth from within. We've added pieces here and there.

"Especially, with the parity in the NHL, it's important to optimize your team's synergies and that's what we are trying to do. It's a tough market. The fans expect the best. We are playing a gritty style of hockey and our young group is going to continue to improve. I'd love to win at an early date but I can't promise that. I can promise improvement, though.

"There are a lot of dormant hockey fans who are also Red Sox fans, Patriots fans and Celtics fans, but their first love is hockey. We have to capitalize on that. I love watching the Red Sox and the Patriots, as do the players. We have to capitalize on the dormant group. We got a bit of a buzz last year and the fans are trickling back. We just have to continue to improve."

Julien said he thinks the fans have a sense that the Bruins are moving in the right direction, but he is cautioning them, just as he cautioned his players, that his team will have to work even harder than they did a year ago just to make the playoffs again.

"To me, (the fan reaction) was very positive. People seemed to really enjoy last year, but we have to be really careful about getting carried away with that," Julien said. "Last I looked, we got bumped out in the first round of the playoffs. I can be happy with some of the things we accomplished last year but I'm definitely not satisfied.

"We need to do better. There's a lot of competition with other (Boston) sports teams that have done really well and we want to be part of that group. We have to get better and be cautious of last year, sitting around and thinking that it was great. It wasn't. It was good, not great."

While the training camp cupboard seemed nearly bare a year ago, thanks to Chiarelli's drafting and trading, Julien is looking at 19 forwards and a dozen defensemen who appear capable of playing in the NHL. The final cuts will not be easy.

"In this capped league, you have to build from youth and there were some good prospects when I got here," Chiarelli said. "We added a couple, like Blake Wheeler and Zach Hamill, and the goalie, Tuukka Rask. I pride myself on development. The people we brought in here pride themselves on development and we have been stressing that. We want to continue to stress it because we are going to produce these players.

"They are going to be able to play. You saw a young group play with us last year. If at the end of the day, we're deep, that's a good problem to have. Then maybe we have to trade some of these prospects, if we're going to make a run, or we'll trade some of the veteran players if these younger players are pushing them.
"It's a tough market. The fans expect the best. We are playing a gritty style of hockey and our young group is going to continue to improve. I'd love to win at an early date but I can't promise that. I can promise improvement, though." – Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli
"It's a good problem to have but you have to be patient and we are going to be patient."

"I think it bodes well for us," Julien said. "There's nothing better than competition within. I think we have an opportunity to use that depth to our advantage. We were pretty clear with our guys that we should never take things for granted, as individuals and as an organization. Every year is a new challenge. If we have some guys who are comfortable because they were here last year and think they should be here this year, there is some pretty good competition coming behind them, guys that are pushing for a spot."

Chiarelli's choice of Julien as the new coach last season also was initially dismissed by the impatient fans and the media as someone who had been fired from two NHL jobs. But he instituted strategies that worked and drove his players to goals the prognosticators thought not possible.

"I don't always agree with the prognosticators," Chiarelli said. "Claude is a very deliberate, no-nonsense guy and he has a plan to approach the season, how he deals with the players and how he implements his systems, defensively and offensively. He's patient too and confident enough to know that if he puts in the time and the effort that things will come. He's had success before. He's using the same approach here and it worked last season.

"He and I talked numerous times throughout the year and we agreed we have to be consistent too, he at the coaching level and me at the management level. And we were. We checked each other throughout the year. We're going to continue to do that because it delivers one message from top to bottom throughout the organization and that's the way you improve."

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