By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
In September of 2007, the Bruins were a broken franchise. As one of the leaders in pushing for a salary cap that cost the NHL the 2004-05 season, they turned out to be among the least prepared for the new rules, and after a slow start to the first year under the cap, they panicked and traded franchise center Joe Thornton for pennies on the dollar (Sound familiar, Bruins fans?).
Just prior to the draft in ’06, the team hired Peter Chiarelli away from the Ottawa Senators as their general manager, and although he couldn’t formally work for the team until after free agency started due to a contractual situation; the team signed Senators’ star defenseman Zdeno Chara and center Marc Savard from the Atlanta Thrashers before he officially took the reins.
Chiarelli chose longtime Detroit Red Wings assistant/head coach Dave Lewis as his first bench boss, which yielded a second consecutive last-place finish in the then Northeast Division, costing Lewis his job in the process. A semi-desperate Chiarelli subsequently tabbed Claude Julien for the job in June of ’07, Julien had become available because New Jersey Devils then general manager Lou Lamoriello gave Claude the axe just days before the playoffs started that April, despite a 47–24–8 record, which was leading the Atlantic Division and tied for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
To say that the Bruins were reeling at the time is akin to saying winter weather in New England can be fickle – it is a massive understatement.
As the Boston Globe’s Kevin Dupont wrote when Cam Neely was hired in a position “which was created specifically for him,” the B’s were then a “bedraggled franchise” desperately in need of a fan friendly face to give them some hope for the future. At the time, no one knew the terrific job that former GM Mike O’Connell had done drafting players like Patrice Bergeron, Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Brad Marchand; and certainly no one could predict that an off the scrap heap signing like goaltender Tim Thomas would propel the team to its first Stanley Cup in 39 years just four seasons later.
As a player, Neely was the consummate Bruin. He could beat goalies off the wing with his deadly shot, and he could pound the opposition into submission with his body and his fists at will. He was exactly the type of figurehead the franchise needed to try to get fans back in the stands, and that’s precisely why the Jacobs family created the phony baloney position he was named to.
As it turns out – much like what happened in his injury shortened career – his timing couldn’t have been better; at least in the beginning.
Julien quickly whipped his young team into shape, qualifying for the playoffs in his first season behind the bench, only to lose to his former team – the Montreal Canadiens – in seven games of the first round. And despite a soul-crushing loss to the Philadelphia Flyers after being up three games to none – the series shifted after David Krejci broke his wrist in game three on a hit by Mike Richards – in the playoffs in 2010; the Bruins rebound was in full force, and once again; they were relevant in the Boston sports scene.
That’s when ownership made a costly mistake.
In June of 2010, due mostly to the work of others, Neely was promoted to the very real title of team president. And when the team went on to win the Stanley Cup the following spring, it was as if Bruins Nation had found Camelot.
The Cup winning team seemed destined for greatness. They had won it all with nary a contribution from the number two pick overall – Tyler Seguin – and they still had in their pocket the number nine pick overall in the ’11 draft – which would result in defenseman Dougie Hamilton – courtesy of the Phil Kessel trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many had little doubt that there would be more than one duck boat ride for this Bruins squad.
Little did anyone know it would all be lost only four years later.
While some will argue just how involved in the day to day operations Neely was involved in during the early days of his presidency, there is no arguing the steep decline of the team under his watch. Following the Stanley Cup win, the club gave lavish contract extensions to Krejci, Bergeron, Milan Lucic, and ultimately, Tuukka Rask. The overspending created cap issues that still affect the club to this day, and the arrogance of the administration at the time led to catastrophic trades that will handicap the franchise for years to come.
Whether he was directly responsible – and as president, he should be – during Neely’s stewardship, the Bruins dealt away Tyler Seguin for Loui Eriksson and a box of rocks. They let go the heart and soul of the locker room – Shawn Thornton – after the ’13-14 season for no reason. They traded Johnny Boychuk just prior to the ’14-15 season due to the salary cap mess that was created by the free-spending ways of Chiarelli; and their farm system went to hell under the watch of then director of personnel and current general manager Don Sweeney.
In a desperate effort to win a second title before they had to blow it up, they hogtied themselves to a free agency deal with the guy who dissed them the year before for the Pittsburgh Penguins with Jarome Iginla, prior to the ’13-14 season which partially led to the Boychuk mistake. And in his first year at the helm as GM, Sweeney and Neely succumbed to Hamilton’s child-like demands to be traded at the draft.
During Neely’s tenure, the Bruins have gone from a model franchise in the NHL, to a team without an identity, who has taken to canning the winningest coach in their history – Julien – in order to cover his own ass.
The gig is up; the news is out, Neely as an executive is an abstract failure. He never should have been anything more than what he was originally hired for; a figurehead. From the outside looking in, it seems as if all he has done is wave his pom-poms, while the Bruins burned to the ground.
It is an old-time cliché to say that the fish stinks from the head down. Nothing could more appropriately describe the Bruins front office situation right now. For the sake of the franchise, ownership needs to lop off the head of the rotting cod immediately; before it sinks further to the bottom of the NHL ocean.
It is time to assign blame for the Bruins descent into obscurity where it belongs. It is time to fire Cam Neely.