Why can't elite, young players thrive in Boston?

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FOXBORO – Missing the playoffs was a stunning wakeup call for the Boston Bruins organization on a number of different levels.

Falling shy of one of the organization’s biggest goals precipitated a significant change in the GM seat from Peter Chiarelli to Don Sweeney, and kick-started a summer of roster turnover designed to both free up salary cap space and bring back a little hunger to the B’s roster. But the wakeup call still continued into the offseason with the Bruins trading Dougie Hamilton after getting no response to a handful of contract offers, and deducing that the young D-man simply didn’t want to play in Boston anymore.

The young defenseman was dealt to Calgary for a first-round pick and two second-round selections in the 2015 draft that was, at least in part, under the pressure that an offer sheet was coming for the 22-year-old on July 1.

Hamilton never admitted a desire to leave Boston in his statements after the trade, but the circumstances made it pretty clear staying wasn't critical for him. It instead sounded like a remote Canadian destination like Edmonton or Calgary, with both rosters filled with elite young players like himself, was perhaps more desirable for a talented, cerebral and somewhat insecure young D-man like Hamilton.

Regardless of the specific circumstances, Hamilton’s exit from Causeway Street continued a long string of talented young Bruins players that have departed the organization long before the considerable primes of their NHL careers. It was true with Jumbo Joe Thornton in 2005, with Phil Kessel in 2009, with Tyler Seguin following the 2013 Stanley Cup Final and now with Hamilton in his first chance to exit Boston following his entry-level deal.

That’s a great deal of lottery pick talent that’s skipped town -- and the Bruins -- over the last decade, and makes some of Boston’s considerable team accomplishments over the last 10 years even more impressive.

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Charlie Jacobs, when posed the question if there’s a perception that Boston isn’t a friendly place to play for elite, young hockey players. “I think they all left under their own set of circumstances. Things happen for a reason. Those players mentioned were all very good; some better than others. But it is what it is. I would hope there’s no rush to judgment where somebody is saying that Boston isn’t a good place for young players to play.”

Far from it, actually. 

While it’s true each of those four high-end skill players left under different circumstances, the pattern could be easy to pick up on. If the Bruins organization isn’t too careful, there’s a clear danger in developing a reputation as a place where elite young players can’t seem to thrive. Certainly there are myriad players that defy the simple narrative Boston isn't a good place for young players: Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Torey Krug all serve as living, breathing, shooting and puck-handling proof that young players can develop and turn into very good NHL players within the Bruins system.

But then again, none of those players were top-10 first round picks like the aforementioned quartet of precocious B’s players that flew the Boston coop in their early 20’s.

Some of it might be attributable to Claude Julien’s proven system that demands players give maximum effort at both ends of the ice, and some of it might be the B’s reticence to indulge superstar conceit within a team concept that’s been very successful. Or it could be something completely different altogether.

Perhaps the Bruins even just got unlucky with a group of talented young prospects in Thornton, Seguin and Kessel that have never come close to a Cup outside of Boston during their statistically impressive careers. In some cases, those players have made the B’s look correct in moving them way back when. 

But whatever it is, Bruins President Cam Neely said it’s something the Black and Gold's management is paying close attention to after another nasty divorce with a young talent in Hamilton.

“We obviously take a hard look at something like that,” said Neely. “It’s something we’re aware of, and we have to build an organization where we’re drafting and developing, and developing not just on the ice but off the ice as well…expectations for the organization, and what do we expect from a professional hockey player that’s going to play for the Boston Bruins.

“We have to help nurture them. It’s a tough transition for a young player going to a big city where it’s really focused on the sport, and [the young players] don’t really know anybody outside of the game. It’s something we’ve looked at…how we do improve the club from top to bottom both on and off the ice.”

So is there an easy answer when it comes to easing that transition for these young superstar players, and lessons learned from the past cases that will help the Bruins create a more nurturing environment should they be lucky enough to land another lottery pick?

“Over the years there are things you’ve learned, and I think communication is a big key,” said Neely. “It’s asking questions and listening, and having dialogue. It’s just making sure that we’re doing the right things as an organization to win as many championships as we can. It’s really about cultivating the players and [supporting] the families, and providing them with everything we can as an organization to allow the players to focus on the game.”

It will be interesting to see how differently the Bruins approach things should they be fortunate enough to get another lottery draft pick in the coming seasons. The hope is that dead ends with players like Kessel, Seguin and Hamilton has given them a better idea of what works, and what doesn't, in Boston. Certainly providing a billet family, or an established Bruins veteran player that he could live with, is something the Bruins regret not doing with an 18-year-old Seguin during his first year in Boston. 

But hindsight is 20/20 in each of the high profile cases that didn't work out between a young phenom and the Bruins over the last decade. 

The bottom line is clear: the Bruins need to find a way to make it work with their young NHL-ready prospects in a salary cap system that’s not going anywhere anytime soon. 

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