The Boston Bruins failed to defend their Eastern Conference title last season, when they lost a seven-game series in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Their early ouster was doubly painful because they had won the Presidents' Trophy to earn home-ice advantage for the entire postseason, and because the team that prevailed in that seventh game was the archrival Montreal Canadiens.
In some outposts of the NHL, a loss like the one that ended the Bruins' season well short of their ultimate goal would be cause for reconstructing a roster. However, that's not how Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli operates.
There's no panic button in Chiarelli's world. He held firm to his club's core after it lost in the second round of the 2010 playoffs to the Philadelphia Flyers by blowing a 3-0 series lead. Chiarelli's devotion paid off with a Stanley Cup championship the following season.
The Bruins lost in the first round in their title-defense season, but again Chiarelli made minor changes to the supporting cast and one year later a team built around centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, defenseman Zdeno Chara and goaltender Tuukka Rask (a spectacular substitute for Tim Thomas) returned to the Stanley Cup Final, where the Bruins lost to the Chicago Blackhawks.
So it's no surprise the 2014 offseason has been uneventful in Boston.
Although forward Jarome Iginla, who shared the team lead in goals with Bergeron (30) last season, decided to sign with the Colorado Avalanche, the Bruins' closeness to the salary-cap maximum limited their options in terms of hiring a replacement.
The Bruins also let backup goaltender Chad Johnson (2.10 goals-against average, .925 save percentage in 27 games) leave as an unrestricted free agent. He signed a two-year contract with the New York Islanders.
Chiarelli re-signed eight restricted free agents over the summer as part of his plan to bring back a familiar group for next season.
"I think the team is a very good playoff team as it stands right now," Chiarelli said. "If we can tweak it a bit, it'll be better. What will happen with the younger players, our younger players are still getting better, so we'll be better as a result of that. I'm happy with the framework of the team, and as a manager you continue to tweak and to upgrade. I've been hesitant, and justifiably, to do anything major and I'm going to maintain that. I feel good about the core and the framework of this club."
BRUINS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
Chiarelli stressed that there's still work to be done. Entry-level free agents Torey Krug (40 points) and Reilly Smith (51 points), who became integral parts of the Bruins in 2013-14 in their first full seasons in the NHL, are still unsigned. Restricted free agent Matt Fraser, who made his presence felt with a goal and an assist in a four-game stint in the playoffs, is without a contract.
With CapGeek.com reporting the Bruins are already over the salary-cap ceiling without signing those three players, something has to give before the season gets underway on Oct. 8.
"Am I satisfied? One thing I knew was we were going to be relatively quiet after we resolved the Iginla thing," Chiarelli said. "We've been in on two or three deals that maybe are percolating a little bit. A couple fell through, so we're continuing to work at it."
There was more change off the ice than on it for the Bruins. Assistant coach Geoff Ward left for a head coaching job in Germany and was replaced by former Colorado coach Joe Sacco. Assistant general manager Jim Benning is now GM of the Vancouver Canucks.
The offseason has also been an important time for healing. Defenseman Dennis Seidenberg seemed ready to return from an ACL/MCL injury had the Bruins advanced one more round in the playoffs. Now he's had a summer to fully recover. Defenseman Adam McQuaid (ankle), left wing Milan Lucic (wrist) and center Chris Kelly (back) also had the offseason to work their way back from surgeries.
With Seidenberg and McQuaid healthy, the Bruins have an obvious logjam on defense with Chara, Krug, Johnny Boychuk, Dougie Hamilton, Kevan Miller, Matt Bartkowski and prospect David Warsofsky. Should the Bruins trade one or more of their defensemen, they'd probably need to get a right-shooting wing in return because all their veteran wings are left-handed shots.
Inaction from the Bruins front office shouldn't be mistaken for satisfaction though. Whether Chiarelli gets it done in the summer, in training camp or even during the season, the GM is determined to make sure he takes steps to avoid another second-round defeat.
"I think what that should tell people is that I'm not ready to blow anything up. So there's the area between that and where I am," he said. "That doesn't mean you don't want to improve. I'm aware of where our guys are projecting out and I think I've been loyal to guys that got us the Cup, but I'm not blindly loyal. So I wouldn't look to not make deals for that reason. But confidence in the core and the guts of the group, the bricks and mortar, that's something that's brought us a lot of success and we've got a high-character group."
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