BOSTON (CBS) — To make it in the NHL for 16 seasons as a defenseman shorter than 6 feet tall, Don Sweeney had to exercise an unprecedented level of tenacity and self-confidence.
Whether you agree with his initial batch of moves or think he’s out of his mind, you have to credit him for bringing the same attributes he utilized as a player to his role as general manager of the Bruins.
He’s doing things his way and he’s not going to let anyone stop him. There’s a vision he has for the Bruins as a competitive organization in the present and championship organization in the future. He wants a little salary-cap flexibility now and a lot down the road. He never wants to be in a position where he has to make a rash trade of a player days before the start of the regular season for draft picks or has to give away players to become cap-compliant. He doesn’t want to fall into the Pittsburgh Penguins’ trap of having to dress five defensemen for games because he can’t get his team under the cap. He wants to make sure that the odds of his draft picks turning into high-end NHL players are better because he’s going to make more selections than other teams.
For the Bruins’ sake, Sweeney better maintain his boldness and even be a bit brasher in his dealing with his own players, other GMs and players that are available through free agency, including players that will hit the market Wednesday. Sweeney is right to believe the Bruins have a foundation that’s capable of turning into a formidable team in 2015-16, but he has to upgrade the supporting cast and maybe even add one more foundational player, which might take a move or two that will make others around the league bristle.
Unfortunately for Sweeney, he’s not operating in a vacuum. He took over for fired general manager Peter Chiarelli, who put the Bruins in several precarious positions over the course of the past several seasons. The Bruins are too grateful to Chiarelli for the Stanley Cup championship he delivered in 2011 to publicly excoriate their former GM’s track record. But since his magical trades for Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Tomas Kaberle propelled the Bruins to that 2011 title, Chiarelli proved to be a by-the-book GM with little creativity and a propensity to overpay for loyalty and past performance.
As far back as the $6 million extension Chiarelli gave Milan Lucic, the Bruins started overpaying for the likes of Kelly, Peverley, Dennis Seidenberg, Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille. Chiarelli was eager to make Boston a place every player could put down roots, even if that meant being a pushover in negotiations. Only Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin signed extensions that were reasonable at the time, and we know how one of those contracts turned out.
Even a little harder bargaining might’ve chipped some dollars off necessary extensions for Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara and given the Bruins more room to put a championship-caliber supporting cast around the core.
When the salary-cap ceiling decreased after the 2012-13 lockout and the Bruins couldn’t retain players like Jarome Iginla and Johnny Boychuk in order to remain among the elite, Chiarelli was forced to make a trade that will wind up paying off for Sweeney. And the prospects Chiarelli supposedly had pumped into the organization for a couple of years didn’t make the necessary strides, so the Bruins were left with a playoff-less spring for the first time in eight years.
These moves that put Chiarelli in “cap purgatory” (Sweeney’s term) and on the golf course (my term) last April were all documented and dissected for months until Chiarelli’s dismissal. When Chiarelli departed after an apparent power struggle with president Cam Neely, it was also apparent the Bruins wanted to go in a different direction. Sweeney’s promotion from assistant GM initially signaled continuation of the Chiarelli regime. In a matter of weeks, Sweeney has proven he has his own way of doing business.
Sweeney continued to make the trade of Lucic to Los Angeles look like a bonanza by turning goaltender Martin Jones into a first-round pick in 2016 and a prospect from San Jose on Tuesday. That Sharks pick should at least be in the top 15 next year, and the Bruins still have their own draft pick. The Bruins retained a lot of Lucic’s salary, but that was probably a make-or-break element of the trade with the Kings, and at least they saved half of the cap space.
Dougie Hamilton’s $5.75 million per year contract extension with Calgary proved that there was more at play between the defenseman and the Bruins than a money disparity. Reportedly, the Bruins’ offer was in the same ballpark. Although he did it with less acrimony than Phil Kessel six years ago, Hamilton essentially used his restricted free agent status to force the Bruins’ hand and get himself out of town.
Sweeney would’ve done better to shop Hamilton around and jack up the price. He might’ve been able to get more help for the present. But if the decision was between making the trade with the Flames for this year’s first-rounder and two second-rounders or waiting to see if there was going to be compensation coming on an offer sheet, Sweeney made the better deal by collecting three picks that we already positioned in this year’s deep draft.
Sweeney clearly wasn’t going to let a 22-year-old kid and his agent dictate terms. Sweeney had a number in his mind — he wanted players who are willing to buy in for the long haul — and once he knew he wasn’t getting what he wanted, he made a bold move. He didn’t want to turn Hamilton or Lucic’s contract situation into an albatross around his neck. He also served notice to whichever Bruins are still around come fall that sentimentality has gone out the window and building a team where everyone buys in and shows it with their performance and willingness to fit into the salary-cap structure is priority No. 1.
He might have gone off the rails a little bit with a couple of other acquisitions this week, but Sweeney wanted Adam McQuaid back and wanted to acquire Zac Rinaldo’s “energy” so the GM went out and got those deals done. He overpaid McQuaid, based on what we’ve seen from the defenseman and where he fits into the Bruins’ lineup right now. Maybe Sweeney’s not done remaking the defense corps and McQuaid will be playing a bigger role and could show improvement. There’s no question Sweeney overpaid for Rinaldo, but maybe the 25-year-old agitator will have his “come to Julien” moment and turn over a new leaf as both a physical presence and a player.
Maybe Sweeney’s take-no-prisoners approach will carry over into the upcoming free agency period. The unrestricted free agent pool is shallow and a lot of unproductive has-beens or never-weres are going to get paid handsomely. Sweeney might have the courage, now that he definitely has the resources, to throw an offer sheet at a young, exciting forward like Chicago’s Brandon Saad or St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko to really jolt the Boston organization. (Update: Shortly after this story published, Chicago traded Saad to Columbus.) Even the threat of an offer sheet could spark a trade, and the Bruins have plenty of draft picks and prospects to offer to another cap-strapped team right now.
Sweeney didn’t make any promises about delivering a big-name player in free agency or via trade during a conference call on Tuesday. He hasn’t been predicting a Stanley Cup parade either in most of his media availabilities since taking the GM job last month. He won’t call what the Bruins are going through a rebuild, but there’s definitely a reinvention going on. Chiarelli’s misadventures taught Sweeney and his higher-ups what it really means to manage a salary cap, and it might take a season or two to apply those lessons.
The Bruins might be mediocre for a couple of seasons until the prospects blossom and then they might be back where they were from 2011 through 2013. Sweeney’s plan might completely flop and the Bruins might become the Edmonton Oilers of the next decade. There’s no way to judge right now.
But hopefully Sweeney doesn’t lose his early willingness to break with convention. If he’s going to fail, he should do so on his own terms. He shouldn’t be afraid to offer-sheet high-end talent, continue to collect prospects and picks until it’s time to convert them into something that could make a sooner impact and continue to innovate within the organization in terms of assessing free agency and draft picks from the collegiate ranks and overseas.
The gutsier he is, the more chance there is he’ll succeed and maybe even accelerate the process to the point where the Bruins could be in the mix for a playoff run just 10 months from now.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.