The Bruins were not the most talented team in the NHL last season.
There were other clubs with more pure skill, more electrifying scorers and more dominating individual performers. But it was the Bruins who finished the year with the Stanley Cup raised high over their heads. They did that largely because they were the best team.
They won as a collective unit. They won because they played for each other, worked for each other and fought for each other. There was a camaraderie and a closeness about that team that every club in every sport strives for but few attain as successfully as the 2010-11 Boston Bruins.
"You can’t overlook the fact that the team has to get along," Bruins forward Gregory Campbell said after winning the Cup. "We all enjoy each other’s company. You can say all you want about the talent of a team, but the way you come together as a team and wanting to be around everybody in this room and want to play for each other, that’s what really matters."
But hockey isn’t a static sport. Life goes on in the NHL. Change is inevitable, especially in the salary cap era. No teams are able to retain their complete lineups from year to year, but championship squads are usually particularly beset by changes as rival teams are quick to raid a roster of now proven winners.
The previous year’s Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks saw half of their roster gone before they even got to play a single game as reigning champs. Chicago retained a core of stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, but it was forced to jettison many of its other key contributors in a salary cap purge. Those losses proved too much to overcome and Chicago barely squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the West before bowing out in the first round.
The Bruins didn’t face that sort of challenge this summer. There are a handful of players gone. Mark Recchi headed off to retirement and his clutch play and leadership won’t be easily replaced. Michael Ryder signed with Dallas and his scoring will be missed as well, at least in the playoffs. Tomas Kaberle and Shane Hnidy were late additions to the club last season, but still became full members of the team over the course of the long run to the Cup and they won’t be back to defend it either.
But pending a new deal for restricted free-agent forward Brad Marchand, every other player on the ice for that Game 7 victory in Vancouver will still be wearing Black and Gold when the coming season opens. Seventeen of the 20 players dressed that night, plus injured forward Nathan Horton and seven of the eight healthy scratches and black aces on hand that night are still with the organization.
It’s rare to have that kind of continuity, and considering how important the club’s chemistry was to its success last year, it may just give the Bruins a better chance than most champions to defend that title.
"I personally like that as a coach," Claude Julien said. "You are getting your team back and every year you don’t know what is going to happen with the free agents and unrestricted free agents and so on and so forth. . . . But as a coach, when you win the Cup and you know that a big majority of your team is coming back, you have to be happy.
"If you asked Chicago last year, they would have loved to have kept their team together," Julien added. "They couldn’t, but if they could they would have. When you build a championship team, you like having those guys back."
Chemistry can only take a team so far. There needs to be talent as well. And the Bruins do have a deep and talented team from Vezina winner Tim Thomas in net on to Zdeno Chara’s towering presence on the blue line and Patrice Bergeron and Co. up front. But hockey is the ultimate team sport and how those talented individuals come together to form a cohesive whole is the most important factor.
The Bruins found the right mix last season, and they’ve managed to make sure not to tinker with it too much this offseason.
"It’s so important that when you win championships, the main core stays together," Chara said. "I think it’s a very positive thing that we have most of the guys coming back under contract. We have the same tools. We just have to bring the same attitude and hard work that we did this year."