Today is Part 5 of a five-part “Breaking Down the Boston Bruins” series that will run this week at Boston Hockey Now. Today we’ll look at the current and future picture for the Bruins’ management as we head into an important offseason.
Now that Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask has retired, it might be that B’s general manager Don Sweeney is the most polarizing figure within the Original Six organization.
The Bruins have been a playoff team all but one year, his first season at the helm, since Sweeney has taken over and the Bruins have drafted and developed core players like Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy and Jeremy Swayman since the 2015-16 NHL season. Sweeney has pulled off big trades for players like Rick Nash, Taylor Hall and Hampus Lindholm at the NHL trade deadline during his game ahead of hockey ops and the Bruins have only been a first-round playoff victim a couple of times with a 2019 trip to the Stanley Cup Final sprinkled in as well.
It isn’t easy to keep the Boston Bruins playoff truck rolling as key players like Zdeno Chara, Rask, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci age out of the program, but to this point Sweeney has found a way to do that while fully understanding the championship expectation in Boston.
“I think I’ve been around this town long enough for people to know in terms of pressure and what I’m necessarily going to lump in myself and hold myself hopefully to the standard that is why I’m in this job. The Jacobs family, the organization, the history of the Boston Bruins, you know, the standard that we’re being held to is exactly what I aspire to. To be perfectly clear and honest, it’s the aspiration to be the best in class, on and off the ice,” said Sweeney. “When we’re not, we want to hear about it. You know, the criticisms are what they are, and nobody likes to hear them. Call it constructive criticism, I don’t necessarily feel that’s constructive, but it’s appropriate. You need to hear them. You need to have evaluations. You need to look in the mirror and figure out what that guy’s staring back at you is saying.
“That’s a big part of my makeup. But I think it aligns with what we try and accomplish, what we have tried to accomplish. I stand up here and say, if I can put the best team together, if Patrice wants to continue to play, that’s the mindset that we aspire to uphold. Winning is part of that. Absolutely part of that. What we’ve tried to do over the course of you know, since I’ve come back as part of not playing the game, is have we accomplished it all the time? No. It’s hard to win 50 games in a season, but you just don’t hang your hat on it. You got to go through, and I say, we left it on the table. We did not accomplish what we had hoped to do in the course of the season. Only one team does, but we aspire to be that team. You are going to go through pockets. Every organization probably goes through them where you have to step back, be very realistic. Maybe it’s injuries, maybe it’s cycling, whatever it is. You have to go through it in professional sports and we may. But as it stands right now, we have a competitive, really competitive group. We’ve been competitive. We want to remain competitive and play the right way. That’s what we’re going to try and do.”
“We did not accomplish what we had hoped to do in the course of the season. Only one team does, but we aspire to be that team…we stand here today acknowledging we fell short.”
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) May 18, 2022
But there’s the flip side to all this as well.
Sweeney’s draft record is never going to be great because the Boston Bruins have continuously traded away first round picks while going for it in their Stanley Cup window while trying to win it with guys like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy. The 2015 NHL Draft will always be an albatross around Sweeney’s neck even if he isn’t scouting these amateur players, and the big miss with Zach Senyshyn when players like Mat Barzal, Thomas Chabot, Brock Boeser, Travis Konecny and Kyle Connor were available was a killer. Let’s be honest, that probably cost them the Stanley Cup in 2019 when players like Karson Kuhlman were filling important roles in Game 7 against the St. Louis Blues, and it certainly cost them other deep postseason runs while they didn’t have those kinds of in-their-prime impact players.
There are also the failed attempts by the Boston Bruins to use free agency to fill their power forward vacancy after trading away Milan Lucic, who continues to be one of the most feared players in the NHL even as he’s admittedly slowing down in his twilight years. Matt Beleskey, David Backes and now Nick Foligno have all flopped as veteran solutions to this problem when it’s pretty clear that NHL clubs need to draft and develop their own of these rare, powerful players that become big time factors in the playoffs.
When asked if the Boston Bruins could really use a player like him during the postseason battles, Cam Neely answered affirmatively while putting it at the feet scouting department.
“It would be great to have someone like that, there’s no question,” said Neely, about the need for a power forward. “I think every team would love that, and the teams that have them, they hang on to them. They don’t let them go. It’s just a matter of the scouting department going to work and trying to find someone for us.”
Some might say the Boston Bruins tried this with the drafting of Trent Frederic and Johnny Beecher, but let’s be honest here: The Tom Wilson/Milan Lucic types are not playing US college hockey, so drafting college kids with the notion they are going to become intimidators doesn’t really hold water when put in practice.
This is when you draft a big, raw and rough-necked kid from the OHL or the “Dub”, while investing a high draft pick to do it, and get the prime years out of them rather than paying for the older, broken-down version in NHL free agency.
All of this has led to a hard, long examination of Sweeney as the GM, who went into this past season as a lame duck executive that needed to prove it to Bruins ownership. He did exactly that by sticking the landing at the NHL trade deadline with the big move for Lindholm and the subsequent contract extension, and now Sweeney is on track to sign a contract extension moving forward that all parties expected to be resolved pretty quickly.
“I really wanted to see how the year went. We had a lot of changes in the last offseason, so I just really wanted to see how that played out. Obviously, you get January, February, March – really good months for us. The team really came together. I thought we had a lot of depth, and I was happy with what he did at the deadline,” said Cam Neely last week when asked about the Sweeney contract situation. “I’m going to sit down with Donnie [Sweeney] in the next day or two and hopefully hammer something out.”
Until that officially happens there will be some level of uncertainty in the air and the injury situations with Brad Marchand and Matt Grzelcyk, along with the NHL playing career uncertainty for Patrice Bergeron, means it’s going to be rough waters for Sweeney and Co. moving forward at the start of next season. It also means it’s difficult to predict exactly what the offseason game plan is going to be until they know exactly what Bergeron is planning to do for next season.
“It might be years in the making in terms of you draft a player like [Bergeron], develop a player like that, and you count your blessings every day,” said Sweeney. “That’s ultimately what it comes down to, to be perfectly honest. That’s how it generally happens for most organizations. When you have an iconic player, a player that’s going to go into the Hall of Fame, that’s generally how it transpires. It will be no different for the Boston Bruins to find the next type – I don’t know whether or not there will be another one.”
Sweeney will have the certainty of a new contract running the show in Boston, but there will continue to be the supporters, and the haters, for the polarizing GM as he sets out his vision for a Black and Gold group that’s clearly rebuilding on the fly.
That’s by no means an easy task for Sweeney and the rest of Boston’s management group, but that is the job they’ve signed up for.