For the fourth time in the last 10 years, both the Boston Bruins and Boston Celtics missed the playoffs. The news was greeted with a collective yawn throughout New England.
It’s hard to believe, but there will be people having grandchildren this year that don’t remember the last time the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, and there will be others graduating college this year who don’t remember the last time the Celtics won a championship. B’s and C’s fans have become too used to losing now, and it’s making both teams less and less relevant to the New England sports scene.
The sad part is, people still want to care.
Last fall, there were supposed to be signs that both teams were headed back in the right direction. It doesn’t seem possible now, but people were legitimately excited. Sure, it wasn’t like pennant fever sweeping the region, but there were reasons to look forward to the winter.
Eight months ago, Bruins fans were told that the B’s had been rebuilt to win in the new, wide open NHL. Big crowds at the TD Banknorth Garden indicated that fans were willing to forgive the year-long work stoppage and eager for a fresh start.
Instead, they got a listless start to the season. GM Mike O’Connell’s off-season acquisitions and re-signings, Shawn McEachern, Dave Scatchard, Alexei Zhamnov (did he even play?), Tom Fitzgerald, Petrified Hal Gill, quickly proved to be either busts or embarrassing busts.
Tim Thomas provided a nice boost and some buzz three months into the season with some outstanding work in net. But the Bruins, as only they can, turned that into a negative by signing the journeyman goaltender to a hefty long-term contract that sent a mixed message to their promising young goalies, Andrew Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen.
Then came the bombshell, the Joe Thornton trade. Too many people evaluated the deal from the angle that Jumbo Joe was never going to reach his potential with the Bruins, that he wasn’t ever going to be a true power center and was too fond of playmaking behind the net. It was clearly one of the most lopsided deals in NHL history, and O’Connell rightly took the fall for it.
Boston dealt away another underachieving forward (Sergei Samsonov), limped to the finish line, and, with the exception of the continuing development of Patrice Bergeron and the surprise emergence of Brad Boyes, the season ended with Bruins fans having nothing to hang their hats on.
The Bruins can make all of the excuses they want about injuries and the 30 one-goal losses they suffered (Bruins fans should find that stat more disturbing than encouraging), they’re not close to being a Stanley Cup contender. Hiring a new coach and GM isn’t going to give anyone new hope, either. They have fifth pick in the draft and fans are already talking about the player either being a bust or getting dealt when he turns into a star. That’s a healthy skepticism to have as long as there’s someone named Jacobs at the top of the masthead.
The owners of the other team at the Garden are the complete opposite of the Bruins’ caretakers in at least one regard – they’re not absentee owners. We have reason to believe that they care about winning because they’re there for every home game. At the very least, they’re at the tail end of a three- or four-year grace period while they try to rebuild.
The man they brought in to do the rebuilding, Danny Ainge as the GM, has made some rather contradictory moves during his tenure. He has drafted some good young talent and complemented it with some worthless and/or overpaid veterans (Gary Payton, Raef Lafrentz, Brian Scalabrine and Dan Dickau, their Zhamnov). He’s saddled the team with an albatross of a contract in Lafrentz, their Hal Gill, then shown some good cap savvy by shipping off Mark Blunt for a more useful (if he can stay healthy) Wally Szczerbiak and Michael Olowakandi, who was in the final year of his contract.
Perhaps more importantly, Ainge got Paul Pierce to buy into their plan. Pierce quelled concerns about his mindset following last year’s playoffs and had the best year of any Celtic since Larry Bird in 1990. If he continues to talk the talk over the summer, Ainge will have to give serious thought to extending his contract beyond next year.
The last thing the Celtics need is to get younger, but they still have holes to fill. A dominant big man would be nice, but those don’t come along much anymore. Their next biggest need is a true point guard.
Barring a miracle bounce of the ping pong balls, the Celtics will have the seventh pick in the draft. If there isn’t a true point guard available, I’d suggest they trade the pick – not for a player or another draft pick, but for a coach.
Sorry, but I don’t see Doc Rivers taking this team very far. He used no discernible rotation during the entire year and seemed to have a fundamental lack of feel for momentum swings in the game. The Celtics were also a dreadful defensive team (19th in field goal percentage, 20th in points allowed) this year and haven’t been able to guard anybody since he took over the team.
Most troubling were the comments from some of the young players after the season ended that indicated they were satisfied with the results. That reflects poorly on the coach. One has to wonder what kind of messages he’s been sending them, how accountable he’s going to make them during this off-season, and what he’s going to expect from them next year.
He’d better expect a lot, because Celtics fans will be expecting a lot, for justifiable reasons. You can only fall short of expectations so many times before fans start to expect the worst. Just ask the Bruins.
Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer. He may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]