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Monday, January 30, 2012
Updated: January 31, 12:53 PM ET
Chiarelli OK as a shadow player

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Peter Chiarelli
Peter Chiarelli's hard work paid off on the biggest stage in the sport, but he's still a bit of an unsung hero.

BOSTON -- It is one thing to build a magnificent structure. It is quite another to maintain it.

And make no mistake, when it comes to the Stanley Cup, the two tasks are dramatically different.

The Boston Bruins are no different than any Stanley Cup winner in that they are trying to traverse the difficult path from having built a house worthy of holding a Cup to one that can maintain that structure.

As the NHL comes out of the All-Star break and the unofficial start of the stretch run to the playoffs, the Bruins have adjusted comfortably to life as defending champions for the first time since their last Cup win in '72.

Winning, of course, changes everything. It changes it for the players, the coaching staff, even the general manager.

Everything is different. Even how other GMs treat you, GM Peter Chiarelli told ESPN.com in a recent interview at the team's practice facility.

"Expectations have always been high here but now they're even higher," said Chiarelli, 47. "It's a different feeling. Obviously, it motivates you. I feel I have a higher standard now. It has been enjoyable."

Profile is a difficult thing to gauge. And when there are 30 NHL general managers, a low profile is a bit of a relative thing.

But among the 30, even after winning a Stanley Cup, it's fair to say that Chiarelli has a pretty low profile.

He isn't a Ray Shero, who is constantly in the spotlight with the Sidney Crosby situation and being the son of legendary coach Fred Shero. Chiarelli's not Stan Bowman, another Cup winner from Chicago who happens to be the son of legendary coach Scotty Bowman. And Chiarelli's not the larger-than-life Brian Burke, who guided Anaheim to the Cup in '07, or a Hall of Fame player like Steve Yzerman, whose Lightning battled to a seventh game last spring with the Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals.

"I think his profile is low by design," longtime friend and sometimes fishing buddy Burke, president and GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, told ESPN.com recently.

"He's smart. He's tough. He's surrounded himself with good people.

"He's done a lot of things right, and right now I don't think there's a better team in the NHL than the Boston Bruins."

The Toronto boss isn't just blowing smoke at a colleague. The Bruins are far and away the most dominant team when it comes to goal differential, with a plus-69 mark heading into Tuesday's games. The next-best differential? Detroit at plus-43.

The Bruins are second in points percentage, lead the league in goals per game and are fourth in goals against per game.

And if Chiarelli is bothered by the fact he's not a household name in the hockey world, he appears not to be losing much sleep over it.

"Not really. I don't mind it," he said. "It's about the players. My job is to give them a good platform.

"It's nice to get credit," he added. "But I know now who I am."

But Chiarelli's road to the top was not without its potholes.

He took over the Bruins after the 2005-06 season and his first head coach was Dave Lewis. That was an experiment that lasted exactly one season and threw into doubt whether Chiarelli was GM material. Some say Lewis, despite his success in Detroit under Scott Bowman, lacked the toughness and structure that Chiarelli required for the Bruins.

"The coach I hired first, I had to fire. It was a mistake," he acknowledged.

GMs don't get an unlimited supply of lifelines, even if they are Harvard-educated like Chiarelli. The Ottawa-area native ended up hiring his old pal Claude Julien, understanding that this was likely one of those make-or-break hires. The two had skated together in the summer back when Chiarelli was captain of a strong Harvard team and Julien was a minor-pro defenseman looking to shoulder his way onto an NHL roster. Then, when Chiarelli became an agent working for Ottawa-based agent Larry Kelly, the agency sent its clients to Julien's summer conditioning camp.

The two remain friends but both are cognizant of the boss/employee nature of the relationship as well.

"It's a very comfortable relationship," Julien said. "We know where to draw the line."

Even then, success did not come instantly in an Original Six market that had become used to disappointment when it came to their beloved Bruins.

Boston lost in seven games to the hated Montreal Canadiens in '08, and then lost the following year in seven games, in overtime no less, to Carolina in the second round. Then, in 2010, the worst imaginable, a blown 3-0 series lead against Philadelphia in the second round. In that seventh game, the Bruins led 3-0.

Boston Bruins
The Bruins' playoff loss to the Flyers in 2010 was crushing, but the team emerged stronger for its 2011 run.

Did Chiarelli worry that he would be fired after the colossal collapse?

"I didn't worry about it," he said. "I have enough confidence in myself. If I was to have been fired, it would have been really disappointing.

"But it would have been the wrong move. Just as it would have been the wrong move to fire Claude."

He's right, of course.

Ownership remained faithful to Chiarelli and his plan, and last spring the Bruins won three seven-game sets en route to their first Stanley Cup since 1972. They trailed Vancouver in the final, 2-0 and 3-2, but this time persevered.

"We've collectively been in the trenches together. We've been through some pretty good battles together," Chiarelli said.

Although the team's big midseason addition last year, Tomas Kaberle, had only a modest impact on the team's playoff fortunes, the other moves paid handsome dividends. Chiarelli tapped into his knowledge of the Senators, adding Chris Kelly from Ottawa before picking up Rich Peverley from the Atlanta Thrashers. Both played key roles in the Bruins' playoff march. Both remain with the team. Previous to that, Chiarelli made deals that landed Tyler Seguin (as a draft pick), Dennis Seidenberg, Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell, all vital cogs in last year's Cup run. And he's had a bit of good timing as well, his tenure coinciding with that of Zdeno Chara (who signed the same summer Chiarelli started but was not signed by Chiarelli) and Tim Thomas (whose first season as a No. 1 with the Bruins was also Chiarelli's).

Part of Chiarelli's success in adding players comes from his comfort with Julien and knowing what he and his coaching staff needs.

"I know what components the player must have," he said.

It is rare for any team to remain so consistent in terms of personnel from year to year, let alone one that has won a championship, and yet the Bruins saw only three regulars depart after the Cup win: Michael Ryder, who signed with Dallas in the summer; Kaberle, who signed with the Hurricanes; and Mark Recchi, who retired.

There were questions about whether the Bruins might find themselves in a rut, given the lack of significant turnover, especially when the team struggled to find its groove coming out of the gate in October.

"It was a factor. But we made a decision if we were going to win, we were going to win with these guys," he said. "Maybe I wasn't completely objective, but I had faith in this team."

Among the major influences in Chiarelli's evolution as a GM was Marshall Johnston, who hired Chiarelli in Ottawa. Chiarelli spent seven years in various capacities with the Senators, including assistant GM. Another influence was John Muckler, who was Senators GM after Johnston.

"Marshall's a terrific man and a great judge of talent. I learned a lot from him," Chiarelli said.

Johnston gave Chiarelli a lot of responsibility, including handling all of the preliminary contract talks with players, and he also encouraged Chiarelli to get out and see as many games as possible himself.

"The bottom line was that I kind of liked him. He was obviously a sharp guy," Johnston told ESPN.com last week. "I'm not surprised he's done as well as he has."

Muckler taught Chiarelli the difference between building a team to win and building a competitive team. That meant making bold moves. "And it means learning to be able to take the heat," Chiarelli said, something that put him in good stead for his run in Boston.

Longtime NHL defenseman Aaron Ward is now a national broadcast analyst. He played for Chiarelli for parts of three seasons and said of all the GMs for whom he played, Chiarelli had the closest relationship with his players.

"He would deal with you very up front and honest, so there was a trust factor there," Ward told ESPN.com.

A three-time Stanley Cup winner, Ward said he's not surprised that Chiarelli has built a champion in Boston.

"I think he has a vision," Ward said. "I don't think he gets all caught up in trying to be something that he's not. He's a pretty reserved guy."

Ward said Chiarelli's understanding of his team has allowed him to tinker without changing the character of the team.

"He's got a template," Ward said. "He gets his environment."

Every once in a while, Chiarelli will hear how the Bruins were one goal away from having to clean house last spring -- having gone to overtime in Game 7 in the first round against Montreal, or how they won by a goal in Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa.

Chiarelli has only one answer.

"But that's not what happened," he said.

Now, more people are suggesting that the road to the Stanley Cup in June will almost certainly run through Boston.

"We've worked hard to get there. It's a label we have earned," Chiarelli said.

"I think our group is a modest group. But they've earned it."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.