After getting to the Eastern Conference finals a year ago, many members of the club can only look ahead to next season.
P-Bruins head coach Rob Murray is a man who, more often than not, wears his emotions on his sleeve. That's a character trait Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli commended upon naming Murray Providence's lead man prior to last season. But following a very successful rookie year as boss of the bench, Murray experienced a revolving door of transactions in his sophomore campaign. A substantial number of call-ups, coupled with key personnel missing significant time to injury, added up to a seventh-place finish in the Atlantic Division at 36-38-5-1 and 78 points, ultimately eight points short of the 86 they needed to make a run at the Calder Cup this season.
"I've been through it before," Murray said shortly after the team was eliminated from postseason contention last Friday. "I've been with teams that haven't made the playoffs. The odds are that you’re not gonna make the playoffs every year. Obviously, it's disappointing. Who's kidding who? You never want to not make the playoffs. We won't make excuses for this season, but we had a lot of things that went against us, be it call-ups, injuries and things of the sort."
That's an understatement.
Providence's captain, Trent Whitfield, appeared in only 52 games for the P-Bruins, registering 17 goals and 43 points. The team's MVP never missed a game to injury. He did, however, miss several games to call-ups. Whitfield enjoyed four recalls to Boston, where he remains after suiting up for 16 games during the regular season.
Defenseman Adam McQuaid entered the year as Providence's elder statesman on the blue line, always working against the top lines of the opposition when in the Ocean State. The problem was he wasn't around much. McQuaid appeared in 32 games for Providence, 19 contests for Boston and missed seven weeks due to injury.
Both players, according to Murray, provided a certain leadership and calming influence on the ice that the P-Bruins were never quite able to replace when they weren't around.
How about Brad Marchand? Arguably Providence's most dynamic player, Marchand spent only 34 games with the Rhode Island bunch, scoring 13 goals while adding 19 assists. Tack on to that 20 games in Boston and five weeks lost to injury, and he proved to be a vital missing piece for the P-Bruins throughout much of the year. Throw in lengthy and often untimely injuries to Jamie Arniel, Drew Fata, Drew Larman, Guillaume Lefebvre, Jeff LoVecchio, Lane MacDermid, Kirk MacDonald, Levi Nelson and Jeff Penner, plus several call-ups for others, and ultimately 50 different players saw action for Providence this season.
Having to deal with all of that in the same season could be viewed as an excuse, but Murray is not the type to make one.
"At the end of the day, I don't care who's in your lineup. You've got to find a way to win," said Murray. "Yeah, we didn't have the horses we had last year. You look at a guy like [Martin] St. Pierre or Johnny Boychuk, with the season he had. Early in the season, you’ve got Vlady Sobotka, Brad Marchand. … Mikko Lehtonen had a great rookie year. Even prior to the trade, you've got Marty Karsums and Matt Lashoff. Those guys are quality players. You take that whole basket of players, and other than Mikko — he's the only guy here.
"And a guy like Zach Hamill — the pressure wasn't on him last year as opposed to this year, where Zach was kind of thrust into that number one center role. At different times during the season, you've got a guy like Jamie Arniel, a first-year player who’s really projected to be a third-, fourth-line player in the NHL, and we're leaning on him to be our number one center. I think there were a lot of guys playing, in essence, out of position. You get guys, and you’re trying to squeeze offense out of them, and maybe that's not necessarily their game.
"But you've got to find a way, and I think we did. We battled. We found a way through the majority of the season, but eventually just came up short."
Roster turnover is in many ways the name of the game at the minor league level. With more than 240 NHL alumni in 18 years, call-ups are one of the key reasons that the Providence Bruins exist. The P-Bruins are a breeding ground for future B's, and Murray and his assistant, Bruce Cassidy, are two of the main men charged with the responsibility of continuing that trend. Because of their successes on the farm, plus Boston's own injury woes, more than a dozen players made the drive north on I-95 this season. Many of those players now remain in Boston for a Stanley Cup playoff run, while others are waiting in the wings in Providence in case they should be needed.
Coaches, though, don't tend to get called up this time of the year. So with contract extensions in place, both Murray and Cassidy are looking ahead to next season.
"Obviously, there's a certain amount of excitement with [Joe] Colborne, [Max] Sauve and [Steve] Kampfer, and knowing that Jordan Caron is coming also next year," Murray said. "We're going to be a very young team again, probably younger next year than this year. But in saying that, there's a possible upgrade in skill level. We should be a better team. There are going to be some growing pains with some of the younger guys, but that’s why I always say it's invaluable to get these guys in at this time of the year, so they've got a foot up coming into next year, some expectation of what it takes to play at the pro level.
"There's a good crew of young guys that are going to be here. As an organization, be it ourselves, and working with [Bruins assistant general manager] Donny Sweeney, we've got to make sure we surround these guys with the right veteran players."
As for this year's early finish, it will likely take a little while before Murray's disappointment goes away. That being said, perhaps there's a light at the end of the tunnel. The last time the P-Bruins missed the postseason, they went on to win the championship the following year.
"Let's hope there's some karma in that," said Murray, "That's for sure."
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