The Boston Celtics are handcuffed by an owner unwilling to make the most minor roster moves, leaving the team carrying the league minimum of players. Management for the Boston Bruins has remained true to its ways, letting the team's biggest star walk away in the offseason without making a legitimate pitch to keep him.
Yet somehow, with the odds stacked against them, both Boston franchises have managed to excel this season. The Celtics are in second place in the Atlantic Conference with a 10-4 record, and the Bruins lead the NHL's Northeast Division with a 14-3-3 record, the best mark in the Eastern Conference.
Last season, Celtics Coach Jim O'Brien led Boston to the Eastern Conference finals, but instead of making moves to get Boston in a position to challenge for the NBA title, owner Paul Gaston wouldn't allow General Manager Chris Wallace to re-sign free agent Rodney Rogers or bring aboard any impact free agents in fear of eclipsing the dreaded luxury tax.
Wallace lost Rogers, Mark Blount and Erick Strickland -- three key contributors last season -- and replaced them with a trio of unproven, low-paid youngsters -- Bruno Sundov, Ruben Wolkowski and J.R. Bremer -- who received all of 72 minutes in the first 12 games this season. The one trade that was made in the offseason, dealing Kenny Anderson, Vitaly Potapenko and Joe Forte to Seattle for Vin Baker and Shammond Williams, was approved by ownership primarily because it sliced about $1 million off the payroll for this season.
Everything made sense when the announcement was made in September that Gaston was selling the club for a whopping $360 million. Now Wallace isn't even allowed to pick up a body to fill the roster when players such as Kedrick Brown get hurt. Gaston has made it clear that there will only be 12 players under contract -- the league minimum -- until the team is sold.
"It is what it is. We've just had to adjust accordingly the best we can and that's the reality of the situation," Wallace said. "The deal we made was able to reduce our team payroll this year and make it a little easier for us to handle the luxury tax, but we're not out of the woods with the luxury tax by any means. It's still a major concern."
The Celtics have been relatively healthy this season, but if they lose one or two more players to the injured list, Celtics assistant coach and former NBA player Lester Connor will be pressed into practice duty.
"It's a big deal for a number of reasons," O'Brien said. "In practice we aren't able to have guys at their normal positions because we don't have enough players. A guy like J.R. Bremer, who we think can be a good point guard in this league, can't even play his natural position in practice because we don't have enough two-guards."
"When you play three games in four nights, you can't practice the same way," added O'Brien. "You'd like to give Antoine [Walker] or Paul [Pierce] a rest, but we don't have enough guys to do that. When it comes to player development, it's very difficult to be put in this situation. We don't have the luxury of being three deep at positions and having 13 or 14 players like the rest of the league."
Walker and Pierce are both among the top 10 in the league in minutes played, and the lack of depth on the team could take its toll down the stretch. It looked as though the lack of moves might put the team out of contention as the Celtics opened the season with back-to-back losses to Chicago and Washington, but they managed to win 10 of their next 12 games and keep pace with the Eastern Conference's top clubs.
The Bruins have been just as hot as of late, winning seven of their last nine games, including their last three. However, no one was floored when Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs didn't allow his general manager, Mike O'Connell, to go after right wing Bill Guerin and goaltender Byron Dafoe when they became free agents. However, when both players were allowed to walk away without even an attempt to re-sign them, the backlash began yet again.
"He has no problem giving money to other people, but he doesn't re-invest in his own hockey team and it's frustrating to see," said 28-year-old Jon Siegal, a lifelong Bruins fan who chose not to renew his season ticket package this season because of the lack of offseason activity. "And he wonders why only 9,000 people show up for the games nowadays. No one buys into it and people realize that the team has no chance of winning the Stanley Cup."
Guerin, a local product who racked up 81 goals over the past two seasons, signed with Dallas. Dafoe, coming off one of the best seasons of his career with a 2.21 goals against average, was recently picked up by Atlanta. O'Connell opted to bring on less expensive alternatives in career backup netminder Steve Shields and defenseman Bryan Berard, who has revived his career in Boston after a career-threatening eye injury. The team's top defenseman, Kyle McLaren, hasn't played all season after requesting a trade.
"I hear the question all the time whether we're surprised at how well we're doing," said Bruins captain Joe Thornton, who watched management trade Jason Allison two years ago instead of paying him big money. "Not at all. We've got a great team here and we don't know what else we've got to do to prove it."
The Bruins haven't just had to cope with the loss of Guerin, Dafoe and McLaren, either. The B's have also been without Sergei Samsonov (wrist) and Martin Lapointe (broken foot) for nearly all of the season after both suffered serious injuries in the fourth game of the year.
Guerin, Samsonov and Lapointe combined for 87 goals last season, which was 37 percent of the team's offensive production. The Bruins have also been without P.J. Axelsson, Jozef Stumpel, Mike Knuble and goalie John Grahame, who splits duties with Shields, for stretches yet they managed to become the only team in the NHL to rack up 30 points in their first 20 games.
"It's been unbelievable watching all the guys stepping up," Lapointe said. "Billy was a big part of the team and was also the leader and it was disappointing to see him go, but life goes on. Hockey is a business and you've got to turn the page and write another chapter."