Bruins' course could be set in June

Editor's note: This is the fifth and final installment of a week-long series looking at the next decade in Boston sports.

There's a reason why Boston Bruins fans are rooting for the Black and Gold and for whomever is playing the Toronto Maple Leafs right now. And it's not just because the Leafs are hated, Original Six rivals.

The more games Toronto loses and the deeper the club sinks in the overall standings, the better the odds that the first-round draft pick the Bruins acquired via a trade with the Leafs will crack the top three -- with the potential to be No. 1.

In the September trade, the Bruins sent winger Phil Kessel north of the border in exchange for first- and second-round picks in the 2010 draft and a first-round pick in the 2011 draft. Kessel spent his first three NHL seasons with the Bruins.

Where the 2010 draft picks end up, and whom the Bruins pick, will be one of the major factors that will determine whether the upcoming decade is better than the one that just passed. Will the Bruins suffer through another unfulfilling 10 years?

Take your pick

Four years into his term as Bruins general manager, we still don't know about the drafting ability of Peter Chiarelli and his staff. Sure, former amateur scouting director Scott Bradley -- he of the Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci picks during the Mike O'Connell/Jeff Gorton administrations -- is still a major voice in the decision-making process as the director of player personnel. But since the regime change (not counting the '06 draft, when Chiarelli was still in Ottawa) the first-round picks have been Zach Hamill, Joe Colborne and Jordan Caron. The jury is still out on all three as to whether they will make a mark in the NHL, which is particularly disappointing in Hamill's case because the 21-year-old was selected eighth overall. The lower rounds of Chiarelli's three drafts have not produced a player with a game of NHL experience, either.

So while Hamill continues to learn the pro game and Colborne continues to bulk up in college, Chiarelli is looking ahead to a future-making draft. It's widely believed that Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and Cam Fowler all have potential to be franchise players. Three or four other prospects could be All-Star-caliber after the big three.

The heat will be on Chiarelli to get that pick right or to use it as a bargaining chip in a trade for more and/or better picks or perhaps in a package for an established NHL superstar. It's rare that a team has a strong chance to make the playoffs and perhaps even make a run, and then add a stud in June. If Chiarelli makes the right decisions, he could set up the Bruins for a decade of prosperity.

Mr. Big

Of course, making that pick -- and potentially five more in the first three rounds in June -- won't be Chiarelli's only big decision this summer. After July 1, the clock begins on the last year of Zdeno Chara's contract with Boston. He's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2011.

Remember what it was like for the Bruins between the Ray Bourque years and the signing of Chara? Legit No. 1 defensemen who you can build a franchise around might be the most difficult asset to obtain, and Bruins history proves they have top-notch success only when they can lean on a blueliner with Hall of Fame potential.

Chara turns 33 this March and, recent struggles aside, is one of the top five defensemen in the league. With his workout regimen, there's no reason to believe he won't last another five to six years, and he'll be looking to make his next contract his last. He might be willing to come down from his $7.5 million salary in exchange for the type of security that guarantees his completing his career in the Hub.

That's where Boston-based agent Matt Keator comes in. Chiarelli and Keator have proven they can get along, as evidenced by the original Chara signing and the signing of Blake Wheeler in '08. Chiarelli can start to make nice with Keator this summer by re-signing Wheeler and Mark Stuart, both of whom will be restricted free agents, and then start to work on the Chara deal.

Of course, plugging Chara into the lineup and under the salary cap will take some doing, especially with Patrice Bergeron's contract expiring at the same time. Bergeron, however, might be expendable if David Krejci can get his progression back on track and solidify a hold on the No. 2 center spot behind Marc Savard.

The commitments

Chiarelli has already made a few decade-defining decisions in the past nine months, with the re-signing of Krejci and the extensions doled out to Milan Lucic and goaltender Tuukka Rask. Barring trades, these three players, plus a few prospects and the draft selections of 2010 and '11, are the future of the Bruins.

Long after Savard, Marco Sturm and even Chara have lost their effectiveness, Lucic, Rask and Krejci could be the team's foundation. The trend in the NHL -- see Chicago and Detroit -- is to keep your nucleus together and let it blossom. Krejci's struggles this year are obviously disturbing and Lucic's injury-filled season has stalled his development. But if both players stay healthy, there's no reason to think they can't become a potent one-two punch in all three zones.

And no one has extinguished talk about Rask being a long-term No. 1 netminder. Imagine if the Bruins didn't have to worry about who was going to play in goal for the next three or six (or even eight) seasons. That would be quite a luxury. The Bruins need these three young players to meet or exceed their potential the next couple of seasons, even if they someday become trade bait, to guarantee a successful decade.

Steady at the top

All of the above is based on the assumption that Chiarelli, who signed a four-year contract extension that kicks in next season, will be the one calling the shots. That's where the Jacobs men -- owner Jeremy and son Charlie, the Bruins' principal -- come in. The business model for most franchises in the NHL features a GM who keeps his job for the long haul and changes coaches on the whim. If any of Chiarelli's decisions cause a setback to the Bruins' plan, how long would the Jacobses be willing to stand by him? In a fickle sports market spoiled by the outrageous success of some of the other franchises, a playoff-free spring or even a first-round ouster could cause a fan backlash and might reduce the number of butts in the seats.

Chiarelli has been allowed to spend to the cap since he came aboard, but if there's no bang for the buck, the Bruins' budget could get tighter. As Boston's Stanley Cup drought approaches 40 years, the heat is going to be on the upper reaches of management to bring home a winner.

The cap era limits what ownership can do, so ultimately credit and blame will rest on Chiarelli. But for many loyal rooters of the Bruins, it will always come back to the chairman and CEO of Delaware North Companies. The elder Jacobs also will have a major hand in the future of the league, never mind his own franchise, as the chairman of the NHL Board of Governors. The current CBA could open as soon as September 2011. Another lockout or a strike would be a disaster from which the league might not be able to recover.

The opportunity for the Bruins to regain a foothold in the Boston sports scene began at the end of the last decade. Let's face it, if the Bruins somehow make a run to the Cup this spring, that job will be done. More realistically, they could be championship-caliber by next season and for years to come if the right decisions are made and the right players mature as expected. Either way, it's bound to make for a decade of intrigue for the Black and Gold.

Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.