After being struck by the Lightning twice now, should Boston Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney be concerned his time is winding down in Boston?
Sweeney has hit some home runs – hiring head coach Bruce Cassidy, trading for forward Charlie Coyle and drafting defensemen Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy – but he also struck out big time at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and the 2018 and 2020 NHL Trade Deadlines. Meanwhile, former Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman and current Tampa Bay GM Julien BriseBois have built and maintained a better team than Sweeney has.
The Boston Bruins 2019-20 season and 2020 Stanley Cup playoff run in the NHL bubble ended after the Bruins suffered a heart-breaking 3-2 loss in double overtime to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series. Was this really that much of a surprise though? Did the Bruins really have a chance against a much better Lightning team?
When the Bruins lost a brawl-filled, old-time hockey game to the Lightning 5-3 on March 7, the post-game atmosphere in the dressing room and during head coach Bruce Cassidy’s post-game presser felt like the Bruins had won the game and not the Lightning.
Clearly the Big Bad Bruins culture that this franchise tries to maintain was in its glory that night but they forgot one thing:
The Bruins lost the game and the Lightning, a team that was known to be skilled but not tough, had just proved that they were both. The Lightning still had finesse but now they had shown that not only were they just as good, if not better than the Bruins, but they were tougher and they were playoff ready. The Bruins and all of those who got too caught up in the fisticuffs of that game were given a rude awakening in this series as for three of five games, the Lightning simply dominated the Bruins.
Look at the lead time in Games 3-5 between the two clubs:
And for the entire series:
The Bruins were outscored 15-5 at even strength and 19-10 overall.
The Lightning was also better in the clutch, going 2-0 in overtime.
Last year the Boston Bruins lost to the St. Louis Blues in seven games in the Stanley Cup Final because the Blues were a bigger and more physical team. This year, they got bounced in the second round because they were beaten by a Lightning team that was more skilled, more clutch, and yes, bigger and tougher, just like they were back on March 7. There was no better proof of this than on the Victor Hedman overtime winner when the 6-foot-6 and highly skilled Hedman rifled one past the 5-foot-11 Jaro Halak who was screened thanks to the 5-foot-9 Torey Krug failing to clear 6-foot-2 Patrick Maroon from the front of the net.
— BOSHockeyNow (@BOSHockeyNow) September 1, 2020
Sweeney has done a solid job of keeping an aging veteran core in Stanley Cup contention but the only reason his team was able to make it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last season was because the Lightning choked and got swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sweeney now has plenty of salary cap issues to deal with and will need to do so in what is expected to be a very short offseason.
Will Sweeney bring back Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara and/or defenseman Torey Krug, both set to hit unrestricted free agency? Will he trade goalie Tuukka Rask – who could retire – or center David Krejci, who both have just a year left on their contracts but also carry cap hits over $7 million? What about restricted free agents Jake DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk? Both should receive solid pay raises but do they both fit into the future for the Bruins?
Regardless of how those situations turn out, Sweeney’s main goal must be to find that perfect balance of skill, size, and toughness that the Boston Bruins truly haven’t possessed under his watch but under former Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli prided themselves on and possessed when they won the 2011 Stanley Cup and maintained until the 2014-15 season. There’s already plenty of criticism flying around, with most of it aimed at Rask for opting out for family reasons during the first round. No one can argue that the Coronavirus pause affected the Bruins either.
The bottom line though is that in Sweeney’s five seasons of running the Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning have gotten more skilled, bigger, and better than the Bruins. That donnybrook loss on March 7 showed that and a second five-game series loss to the Lightning in three seasons hammered it home. Boston Bruins President Cam Neely and Sweeney were teammates and remain longtime friends but one has to wonder when Neely, who had a hall of fame career built on skill, size, and grit has had enough of watching the Bruins continually fall short because, as a team, they lack that Stanley Cup-winning combo of all three?