With the once-mighty Boston Bruins desperately clinging to the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, there’s open speculation over the future of general manager Peter Chiarelli.

The Boston Globe‘s Fluto Shinzawa suggests Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs and team president Cam Neely won’t hesitate to fire Chiarelli if the club fails to make the playoffs this season.

Will the Bruins fire GM Peter Chiarelli?

Will the Bruins fire GM Peter Chiarelli?

Despite the Bruins rise to dominance since Chiarelli took over as GM in 2006, including two trips to the Stanley Cup Final in three years and a championship in 2011 (the franchise’s first in 39 years), some Bruins followers apparently believe one bad season (coming less than a year after the club finished last season atop the Eastern Conference) is justification enough to give him his walking papers.

Not that some of the criticism isn’t justified. Chiarelli’s trading Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars in July 2013 sparked serious second-guessing when the young forward blossomed into a superstar with his new club. The return he received in the deal, which included veteran winger Loui Eriksson and young forward Reilly Smith, paled in comparison to the big offensive numbers Seguin was tallying in Dallas.

Chiarelli’s self-induced salary cap difficulty (the result of several expensive re-signings of core players) forced him to trade popular defenseman Johnny Boychuk before the start of this season in a cost-cutting deal. That limited cap space also cost them  top-line right wing Jarome Iginla last summer to free agency, leaving Chiarelli unable to find a suitable replacement. Injuries to top center David Krejci and the decline of superstar defenseman Zdeno Chara significantly contributed to the Bruins struggles this season.

Some critics believe those issues expose Chiarelli’s weakness as an effective GM. They note his core players (Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand) were already signed or drafted before he took over as GM. They also point out that, apart from his selections of Seguin and promising blueliner Dougie Hamilton, his draft record isn’t very good.

Much of this criticism, however, seem based on 20/20 hindsight. Prior to this season, there was nary a complaint from the Boston media or Bruins followers over Chiarelli’s management. Most were sympathetic over why Seguin was dealt, citing the Bruins’ depth at center, the youngster’s struggles under coach Claude Julien and stories of a hard-partying lifestyle. Few questioned the return Chiarelli received from the Stars for Seguin.

The Boychuk trade hurt but it was understood because of the club’s salary-cap constraints, which was the price of keeping the remainder of the club’s successful core intact. The promise of young blueliners like Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, David Warsofsky, Joe Morrow and others was expected to off-set Boychuk’s departure; if not immediately, then over the next couple of seasons.

The draft record is spotty, but Chiarelli did land Seguin and Hamilton thanks to shipping winger Phil Kessel to Toronto in 2009 for the Leafs two first-round picks. He also drafted winger David Pastrnak and center Ryan Spooner, who show some promise as potential NHL stars.

Chiarelli’s shown considerable ability as a wheeler-dealer in the trade market. The Kessel trade paid significant dividends for the Bruins. His acquisitions of Mark Recchi, Dennis Seidenberg, Nathan Horton, Gregory Campbell, Chris Kelly and Rich Peverly helped the Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 2011. All but Recchi were part of the Bruins’ run to the 2013 Cup Final.

Rancorous contract negotiations, once a hallmark under Chiarelli’s predecessors, are a thing of the past. While it can be argued that he overpaid to retain some of his core players (like Lucic and Marchand), no one questioned those deals when they were made. Only this season, with the Bruins struggling, has that become a bone of contention for Chiarelli’s critics.

The Bruins do face some difficult decisions this summer. They currently have over $58 million invested in just 14 players, though they’ll receive cap relief of $4 million by placing Marc Savard on long-term injured reserve before the start of next season.

Kelly, Campbell, Carl Soderberg, Daniel Paille, Adam McQuaid and Matt Bartkowski are unrestricted free agents. Hamilton, Spooner, Brett Connolly and Niklas Svedberg are restricted free agents. Assuming $54 million tied up in salaries for next season with a possible cap ceiling of $71 million, that leaves $17 million to re-sign or replace those players. The Bruins still need a top-line right wing. They also need a more reliable backup goaltender and perhaps another top-four defenseman.

It makes more sense to keep the experienced Chiarelli to sort this out than to fire him simply because of one bad season. Chiarelli built upon the foundation he inherited, turning the Bruins into a championship club and a perennial contender. He’s earned the opportunity to try and resolve the club’s current weaknesses.

Firing Peter Chiarelli would be a huge mistake for the Bruins. And if they’re dumb enough to do it, he won’t be unemployed for long. There’s a couple of teams in Southern Ontario which would be more than happy to hire him.