Bruins must consider big changes if they miss playoffs a third straight year

It might not happen. The Bruins may even enjoy a deep playoff run. But sitting out the Big Dance is suddenly a possibility. Heads might roll if that happens yet again.

That changed in a hurry.

The Boston Bruins basked in sunlight as recently as last Wednesday. They’d won their fourth consecutive game, improving to 12-3 under coach Bruce Cassidy, who took over for Claude Julien. The mid-season bench boss swap looked like a stroke of genius. The Bruins were already the best possession team in the league, the lords of shot attempts, but Cassidy had them doing a better job getting to the high-danger areas of the ice. Patrice Bergeron’s early-season slump was long gone, as was David Pastrnak’s mid-season goal drought. And, of course, Brad Marchand was playing the best hockey of his career, vaulting atop the NHL’s goal and points leaderboard, stirring up Hart Trophy chatter and winning the league’s first star of the week honor.

And that was just a week ago. The Bruins sat comfortably third in the Atlantic division with 82 points, just three behind the second-place Ottawa Senators and, heck, four behind the Montreal Canadiens for the division lead. The Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning, jockeying for the last Eastern Conference wildcard position, sat six, five and five points back, albeit they had games in hand. It was nothing to worry about. The Bruins were playing .800 hockey under Cassidy.

And so much has gone horribly wrong since. Consecutive defeats to the Edmonton Oilers, Leafs and Senators stalled the Bruins in the standings. The Leafs, meanwhile, have gone 6-1-1 in their past eight, while the plucky Isles keep staying alive, most recently with a comeback victory over the New York Rangers Wednesday.

We can argue the Bruins are still a good hockey club, that their Corsi numbers would make them an actual Stanley Cup threat should they reach the post-season, that the officials jobbed Dominic Moore with a late penalty to cost Boston Monday’s game in Toronto…but that doesn’t put this team in any less peril.

The Bruins have fallen a point behind the surging Leafs, who also have a game in hand on them. The Islanders have a game in hand, too, and have climbed within two points. The playoff chanceshave dropped the Bruins to 74 percent. And, gulp, their next two opponents are…the Lightning and Islanders, the latter on the road. An optimist says that’s a good thing, that the Bruins can finally bury the teams chasing them, but a pessimist would shudder at the pressure suddenly weighing on this team’s collective shoulders.

So why wring hands and speculate about the Bruins’ potential doom? Because it would mean a third consecutive playoff miss for a big hockey market with high expectations. It would mean burning three straight years of Marchand’s, Bergeron’s and Rask’s primes. It would be fair to wonder, then, if heads might tumble in Beantown. The Bruins’ fan base already douses their torches with kerosene at every mention of GM Don Sweeney’s manic first round of the 2015 draft. Matt Barzal has lit up the WHL, and Dougie Hamilton could wind up a Norris Trophy finalist, albeit not a winner, out of Calgary, while Jakob Zboril, Zach Senyshyn and Jake DeBrusk have plateaued.

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There’s a lot of pressure on Sweeney to show his market he’s making the team better. The Bruins’ future still could be fruitful, sure. Defenseman Charlie McAvoy looks like a true difference maker and could crack the Bruins as early as next year, as could mature-beyond-his-years pivot Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson. Blueliner Brandon Carlo arrived ahead of schedule. The Bruins wisely locked up Marchand on an eight-year, $49-million extension last summer, and it already looks like a steal of a deal.

But, remember, inking David Backes to a five-year, $30-million pact as an unrestricted free agent last July indicated Sweeney intended to get this team back to the playoffs. Same goes for firing Julien. Boston was supposed to win now. And if it doesn’t, changes could be in order.

That means two possible paths. The first would involve Sweeney aggressively pursuing upgrades, especially to the blueline, which needs some veteran support for the up-and-coming kids, particularly with Zdeno Chara hitting 40 and entering the final year of his contract and perhaps his career. Might that mean hunting for Kevin Shattenkirk in free agency? Trading a center like David Krejci or Ryan Spooner straight-up for a blueline upgrade?

On the other hand, three consecutive playoff defeats would be tough to ignore, for Sweeney, for president Cam Neely, for owner Jeremy Jacobs. Would the Bruins, then, consider taking steps backward to eventually go forward? Marchand and Bergeron would obviously remain safe among the veteran group. But what if Sweeney shopped Krejci, Chara, and even goaltender Tuukka Rask in pursuit of picks and prospects? It wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to build around a young core of Pastrnak, JFK, McAvoy, Torey Krug, Carlo and, hopefully, Zboril, Senyshyn, DeBrusk and goalie prospect Malcolm Subban.

I wouldn’t blame any Bruins fan for reacting to the latter path with disgust right now. After all, this team still holds down a playoff position and could absolutely make noise if it dodges a Metro Division opponent in Round 1 and climbs back into the Atlantic Division’s top three. But we said that about the Bruins last year and the year before. Those teams fell flat when it mattered. If a team does so three seasons in a row, maybe its glory years are done. Maybe it requires a drastically new blueprint.

Whatever happens, the next few weeks will be darned exciting. No team’s short- and long-term futures have wider ranges of outcomes.