NHL: Winter Classic Press Conference

Boston Bruins president Cam Neely is pictured recently.

BOSTON -- All things considered, the pace has been pretty good.

Two years ago, after a 27-game sprint under then-interim head coach Bruce Cassidy, four current Boston Bruins made their NHL playoff debuts in a first-round series the B's lost to the Senators.

Last year, three more first-timers were added, and the Bruins reached Round 2. Three other young players got their first taste of the playoffs this spring, and the Bruins came one win from drinking from the Stanley Cup.

They're not the Bruins' leaders, but from defensemen Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk and Connor Clifton through forwards David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, Sean Kuraly, Danton Heinen, Noel Acciari and Karson Kuhlman, they've developed quickly enough to help the leadership group play for a legitimate contender again.

But they can't afford many, if any, false steps at this point.

"When we hired (general manager Don Sweeney), that was certainly a conversation," team president Cam Neely said at Tuesday's year-end press conference. "How do we take this core that won in 2011 and give them another opportunity to win while they're still somewhat in their prime?

"We still look at it that way."

As disappointed as the Bruins are to have lost Game 7 of the Cup final to the Blues (Neely called it "heartbreaking" on Tuesday), and as much as they may acknowledge that the early eliminations of other contenders may have created a smoother route to the final (owner Jeremy Jacobs mentioned that "it may have been circumstances, conditions that got us there"), they believe they will take a contender into next season.

They also understand that they can't count on the remaining 2011 champs indefinitely. Captain Zdeno Chara (42 years old), centers Patrice Bergeron (34 next month) and David Krejci (33), No. 1 goalie Tuukka Rask (32) and first-line winger Brad Marchand (31) may still be putting up impressive numbers -- in many cases, the best of their careers -- but those numbers will inevitably decrease as their ages increase.

"Our players are now one year older, and we're another year removed from winning in 2011," Neely said. "We certainly have recognized what we have coming, what we need to have coming.

"We're talking pretty big shoes to fill. We still think (the core veterans) have some good hockey left in them, but we certainly know it's winding down, so to speak."

Several of those who began to come onto the playoff radar in 2017 (Pastrnak, McAvoy, Kuraly and Acciari all made their debuts) have steadily grown as postseason players; some have experienced ups and downs. Pastrnak, for example, scored 20 points in 12 playoff games last season, but was limited to 19 over 24 contests this spring. DeBrusk scored six playoff goals a year ago -- five in Round 1 against the Maple Leafs -- but netted only four this time.

All have presumably learned from their postseason experiences, however, and the B's hope they'll be ready to carry larger loads in the relatively near future.

"To be able to get those experiences, to advance in the playoffs and understand what it really takes to play playoff hockey ...," Neely began. "It's hard to play a certain way for 82 games, but when you look at a seven-game series, you'll see guys step up, because that's what you have to do."

The newer players aren't the only ones to have stepped up their postseason games. Neely also cited Cassidy, who had coached only one NHL playoff series before 2017 -- in 2003, less than a year before he was fired by the Capitals.

"It's kind of a tale of two seasons -- to get into the playoffs, and then once you're in the playoffs, how do you adjust for a seven-game series?" Neely said. "I think (Cassidy) has done a really good job in managing the regular season, and learning from playoff hockey."

All that said, however, "we didn't win the last game, so we weren't good enough," Neely said. "We have to move on from (losing in the final), look at our club, and see where we can make improvements."