The Bruins' sacrificial lamb

by Adam Small | 11/2/00 6:00am

The Boston Bruins are one of the original six hockey franchises in the NHL. They are one of the most respected and well-known teams in any sport.

Yet this once proud franchise hasn't won a Stanley Cup in 30 years. It has won only one playoff series in the last five years.

As if it hasn't seen enough of a downward spiral over the past few years, Coach Pat Burns, who took over prior to the '97-98 season, was recently fired.

Now, this is far from uncommon in pro sports; coaches get canned all the time. What makes this one so special is that every analyst, fan, pundit, and NHL poobah knows that it was not the right call. Except the Bruins management.

"King Harry I," a.k.a. general manager Harry Sinden, has swung his mighty axe again, despite having proclaimed his beheading days to be near their end six years ago. At that point he named Mike O'Connell, 65-year-old assistant GM, his chosen successor, in what was supposed to be the end of an era.

Sinden has been an integral part of the team's history. He has been with the organization for over 30 years, as a player, coach, and now GM and president.

Unfortunately, the 68-year-old Sinden has gone senile. He fired Burns, a legend in coaching, who has turned around every franchise he's ever been with, and hired Mike Keenan, a loose cannon of a coach who has gotten into fights with management everywhere he's coached.

Why the change? According to Sinden and lap-dog O'Connell -- who deserves no sympathy for not forcing Sinden out years ago -- it's because Burns is taking the team in the wrong direction.

If so, how is he supposed to lead them down the "right" path when every good player he has gets dumped by the club?

Let's face it, the Bruins have maybe eight upper-tier players right now, and that's being generous.

Jason Allison, Byron Dafoe, Kyle McLaren, Brian Rolston, Sergei Samsonov and Joe Thornton are now or soon will be legitimate stars in the NHL.

Andrei Kovalenko and Don Sweeney are still very credible, but are past their prime. Old-man Paul Coffey, a poor excuse of an old-man to replace Ray Bourque (the greatest defender to have ever played in the NHL), was past his prime before Thornton and Samsonov were shaving.

Anson Carter should be included in this list, but management won't pay him what he's asking. Maybe he doesn't deserve it, and even if I agree with Harry here, doesn't he have an obligation to put an above-average-at-worst player on the ice for a premium then to leave another hole just to save a few bucks that he can't use anyway?

The Bruins haven't had a credible offense since Cam Neely retired following the strike season of '94-95. They've had exactly ONE 30-goal scorer since then in a league where you need two a season to win consistently, unless you have a defensive Olympus like the Devils (Scott Stevens + Martin Brodeur = all-mighty Deity).

Allison is that player, having scored 33 goals in '97-98. He's been plagued by wrist injuries the last two years, and no one is certain of his longevity. To top that off, the Bruins max out at two somewhat legitimate centers, who happen to be the top scorers (Allison and Thornton).

Now that we've analyzed the offensive troubles, lets look at what Harry Sin-done has given away.

Late in the '96-97 season, Sinden traded Adam Oates to Washington for Bill Ranford because Sinden and Owner Jeremy Jacobs (more on this guy later), didn't want to pay him the money he was going to ask for after the season -- one in which he was in the top 10 in the NHL in assists for the ninth-straight season.

Ranford played poorly over parts of the next two years, and was traded away. Oates, meanwhile, has put up consistent 70-plus-point seasons as a top-line center, and turned in a dazzling 17-point playoff performance in '97-98, leading the Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals.

Since the team struggled to score goals in '96-97, Sinden decided not to re-sign two of the Bruins' three top goal scorers.

Josef Stumpel, an up-and-comer who was coming off his best season by far with 76 points, was a great play-making center, who stepped into Oates role on the first line after the latter was traded. Unwilling to spend the money again, Penny-Pincher Sinden let Stumpel defect to the L.A. Kings.

Stumpel answered with a 79-point year. He has been slowed by injuries the last two years, but his numbers projected out to an 83-point season this past year.

Harry also let go of the aging Rick Tocchet, who he feared had nothing left, after being limited by injury to only 40 games (ignoring the fact that he was projected for 32 goals, a team high, had he played a full season). Tocchet turned around and scored 26 goals each of the next two seasons, including half a dozen against the Bruins.

Don't think Boston's GM only made mistakes that year. Sinden let Mariusz Czerkawski go after '95-96, claiming that he wouldn't ever be a top-notch NHL player. This past year, Czerkawski put up 35 goals for the lowly New York Islanders.

I'm sorry, Harry, but did that non-top-notch player outscore everyone on YOUR team?

Here's another '95-96 error to chew on. Shawn McEachern, a 25-goal-a-year guy on the left wing, who has always been a clutch power-play guy, was not resigned and allowed to go to Ottawa, on the basis of Sinden's determination that he wasn't consistent enough to warrant Boston's money.

McEachern went on to three 20+ goal seasons, finishing in the top 12 in the league in goals twice (with a high of 31 in '98-99). McEachern also netted 25 power-play goals during that time.

Harry has made a few good moves. He signed Dmitri Khristich prior to the '97-98 season, and the Russian-born left wing did his job.

Khristich scored 29 goals each of the next two season, the most total goals scored by any Bruin over that time. He was second in points to Allison, and was second on the team in plus/minus rating each season.

He was also the top goal scorer on the power play, with 13 goals each season. So of course, he should be re-signed!

OF COURSE NOT! After bashing Khristich for having no heart in the Bruins' playoff loss to the Sabres, Khristich was allowed to sign with the L.A. Kings.

What happened to Khristich's position? Neither of Boston's top two left wings broke 20 goals, and COMBINED they only scored 13 power-play goals.

So how much better was Boston's heart in the playoffs this year, Harry? Oh wait, the team didn't make the playoffs because you gave away its best goal scorer!

This past season, Sinden, again in an effort to save money, fought Byron Dafoe on his contract, after Dafoe recorded the best single-season by a Bruin goalie in over a decade. Dafoe held out several weeks into the season, before finally relenting to Sinden after pressure from his family, friends and teammates.

Having missed preseason because of the contract dispute, which numerous analysts felt was ridiculous as Dafoe was asking for less than goalie's with similar numbers were asking for, Dafoe didn't get back into his former game shape until the end of the season, by which point the B's were not a true threat to make the playoffs.

This year, Harry pulled the same magic with Samsonov and McLaren, two of his most promising youngsters. Samsonov is a creative winger who will have to shoulder the load of scoring with Allison, Thornton and Rolston.

McLaren is the heir to the Raymond Bourque legacy, and clearly he has the ability to at least act as a small-time salve to the wound left by Captain Ray's move to Colorado.

Add Carter's dispute to these and you have a history of management failing to pay what it needs to in order to keep and get new talent. It also helps to highlight why the B's hardly ever have anything worth trading with.

And yet, they fire Burns -- a man who took the Bruins to the playoffs twice, despite this mess he was handed, and despite Sinden constantly hopping back and forth as to whether he supported Coach B or not.

The problem? Sinden, and, due to his purse strings, Jacobs, who is more interested in purchasing the Buffalo Sabres (he lives in Buffalo) than turning the B's into a great franchise. The scapegoat? Burns.

You now have a team with no head trying to remake itself in the image of an aggressive, tough-minded coach, who will probably shoot himself when he realizes just how little talent he has.

Maybe Keenan will have the guts to call his front office on its disgusting habits. Surely he's never kept his mouth shut before.

But the real answer is for the shareholders to stand up and demand Sinden's resignation.

Let O'Connell take the reins as he was promised years ago. Maybe he can get the job done if he's in total control. If not, Boston'll oust him too, and bring in someone who knows hockey and what the Bruins are really about.

Then, if the city TRULY cares, it will get rid of Jacobs and get some real money and clout behind this team. This is a great franchise, and deserves to be treated as such, not just a method of making money whilst rooting on another team.

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