Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli was faced with an interesting quandary entering this offseason.
On the one hand, his team was coming off a first-round defeat in the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands of the underdog Washington Capitals, albeit one that required a Game 7 overtime goal by Joel Ward. It was a bitterly disappointing loss for a Bruins team that not only had aspirations of winning a second straight Stanley Cup, but also had a realistic chance of doing so.
Such a sour end to the season could have pushed Chiarelli to do something drastic in an effort to improve his club over the summer.
30 in 30: Boston Bruins
B's refuse to panic after early exit
By Arpon Basu - NHL.com Staff Writer
The Boston Bruins resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes after last spring's first-round playoff loss. GM Peter Chiarelli opted to bring back last season's cast almost intact. READ MORE ›
Instead, he showed his players he believed in them by sticking with the core group and re-signing the key free agents among them -- Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley, Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell and Johnny Boychuk. Then the GM showed even more confidence in the man leading that group, signing coach Claude Julien to a multiyear contract extension in July to avoid having him enter this season with the "lame duck" label hanging over his head.
"We feel that we've come a long way to keeping this critical mass together for this team because I believe it's a strong team and will continue to be a strong team," Chiarelli said at the news conference to announce Julien's contract. "One of the core components of this, of this critical mass, is sitting beside me in our coach, Claude Julien, and we're happy to announce his extension today."
The Bruins are one of the most well-balanced teams in the NHL, leading the League in goal differential two seasons in a row and three of the past four.
However, to suggest Chiarelli's summer consisted simply of routine housekeeping would be a huge understatement, seeing as a big reason for the Bruins' recent success threw him a huge curveball.
When goaltender Tim Thomas decided he would take the upcoming season off to spend more time with his family, it left Chiarelli and the Bruins with his $5 million salary-cap hit and a sudden need to see if heir apparent Tuukka Rask was ready to take over a little earlier than planned.
"All along we've been working on what I call a succession plan, where we were going to pass the baton to Tuukka," Chiarelli told Ottawa radio station the Team 1200 earlier this month. "That's what I've been telling him since he's been 20. This probably accelerates it by a year, but it's his chance to show us he's a true No. 1. I've always told him we'd like to have him on the Bruins for his whole career, so this is a good opportunity for him."
Chiarelli signed Rask to a one-year, $3.5 million contract during the summer, meaning Rask will need to seize that opportunity quickly if he wants to be in Boston for the long term.
Chiarelli said when Rask was signed that a long-term contract was not discussed because Rask wants to prove he can "be the man before he gets paid like the man."
"Look, $3.5 million isn't exactly chump change, but we've all seen the goaltending carousel [of contracts] that's been going on lately," Chiarelli told reporters after he signed Rask. "He wants to prove that he's the No. 1 goalie for the Bruins for a long time. This was the easiest way to set the stage for that.
"He's been a really good goalie for us, but for one year he hasn't been the No. 1 goalie. The stage is set for him and we'll see where it takes us."
BRUINS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
Additions: D Garnet Exelby, LW Chris Bourque
Subtractions: D Joe Corvo, D Greg Zanon, LW Benoit Pouliot, C Zach Hamill
UFAs: LW Brian Roslton, D Mike Mottau, G Marty Turco
Promotion candidates: D Matt Bartkowski, D Colby Cohen, D David Warsofsky
Rask, 25, has carried a heavy workload before -- with Thomas battling injuries in 2009-10, he played 45 games and shone with a 22-12-5 record, five shutouts, a 1.97 goals against average and a .931 save percentage. But he's never played as many games since, he's never matched the numbers he put up that season, and – most importantly – he's never carried the status of being the team's unchallenged No. 1 goaltender.
Chiarelli is not concerned.
"He's a terrific young goalie and I think he's going to seize the opportunity," he told the Team 1200. "There will probably be some bumps in the road to start, just mentally because of having the No. 1 label on you, but he's always shown he can play through that stuff."
Aside from the change in goal, most of the differences on the Bruins roster this season will be made to make room for an infusion of youth.
Hamilton "is going to get an excellent chance to make our team," Chiarelli told the Team 1200.
Otherwise, a lot of the changes for the Bruins will come from the continued improvement of their young stars -- starting with 20-year-old Tyler Seguin, who could be gearing up for a breakout season, and continuing with Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, and even Selke Trophy-winner Patrice Bergeron, who is 27 yet has been in the NHL since 2003.
Chiarelli is hoping Nathan Horton's concussion problems are behind him and he can go back to being the player who scored 26 goals his first season in Boston in 2010-11. The Bruins also have the benefit of counting on perhaps the NHL's most effective defenseman, Zdeno Chara, on a nightly basis.
With a team like this, Chiarelli's relatively quiet summer was not only understandable – it was logical.