By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — We’ll learn from his actions when free agency opens Saturday and during the rest of this offseason if Bruins general manager Don Sweeney was being truthful Friday, but for now we shouldn’t expect the Bruins to be aggressive bidders when the free agent frenzy begins.
“Probably in a more patient mode right about now,” Sweeney said Friday during a press conference at Warrior Ice Arena. “I’ve certainly explored some of these similar situations but not anxious or overly anxious to jump the gun.”
Sweeney’s public pronouncement that he’s not going to cannonball into the free agency pool is a sign of two things: 1. He continues to have the go-ahead from ownership and president Cam Neely to continue the youth movement even at the expense of not challenging for the Stanley Cup in 2018; 2. He’s learned his lesson from the past two summers.
Let’s deal with the latter point first. The Matt Beleskey signing from July 1, 2015 was an overpay, but it was one Sweeney felt he needed to make while reworking the roster in his first summer as GM. And although Beleskey was never going to live up to his $3.8 million cap charge, that price turned out to be a bargain compared to what it was thought Beleskey would get on the open market. Thus, it was a worthwhile risk and Beleskey might still wind up being a contributor to the Bruins before the next three years are up.
David Backes, last summer’s signing, was a whole other story. Sweeney panicked because he wanted leadership that the 2015-16 Bruins lacked and because he needed an established forward to replace Loui Eriksson. Backes is unlikely to produce at the levels he or Eriksson did in the past, so the Bruins will be overpaying for leadership for quite some time. They’re not in “cap jail” (that old Peter Chiarelli phrase) but their flexibility is a little less because Sweeney felt the need to make a splash with so many prospects still at least another year from being able to contribute. Backes should’ve been signed by someone closer to winning and by the time the Bruins are ready for the contender title, he might wind up a bit player.
That brings us back to the first point, which is that after a season of watching Brandon Carlo grab a top-pair job and Charlie McAvoy make his mark in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Sweeney has confidence that there are more prospects ready to move up the depth chart.
“I think our forward group will have a real nice push. I think there will be players that will emerge in our forward group that will push for opportunity and ice time,” Sweeney said.
Among that group will be Anders Bjork, who didn’t leave Notre Dame to ride the buses in the AHL. He’s going to be given a legitimate shot to play in Boston, as will Danton Heinen, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Peter Cehlarik, each of whom had a cup of coffee last season; and Jake DeBrusk, who’s still waiting for his NHL debut.
There are also other defense prospects that could join Carlo and McAvoy in the mix, including Rob O’Gara, Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril. Sweeney, however, isn’t counting on a massive influx of youth on the back end, so the GM’s focus in free agency will probably be another defenseman to use as a placeholder.
Part of developing prospects is helping them mature and then giving them a chance to prove they’re ready. If Sweeney were to go all in to sign a Kevin Shattenkirk or Alexander Radulov, that could clog up the works in addition to making for a precarious salary-cap situation in the near future. There are ways to increase depth, such as waiting for the second wave of free agency after the market gets corrected, without limiting opportunities for those an organization believes are future cornerstones.
Sweeney gave a brief synopsis Friday about how McAvoy was never promised a NHL job when he left school, but the circumstances forced the Bruins’ hand. Bjork, Sweeney said, was also not given such promises. The rookie is going to have to prove he can handle the NHL in the fall. But by the same token it’ll be a little easier to beat out the likes of Beleskey, Riley Nash and any secondary-market free agent signings for a job (or move Backes down in the lineup) than if Sweeney went on a spending spree with his $14 million of cap space (pre David Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner’s re-signs).
This is the way an organization trying to build a sustainable model rather than a win-now one operates. And if the scouting on these prospects is accurate, it should pay off. It’d be easy for Sweeney to see how close his team is, based on the runs of Ottawa and Nashville last season, and try to spend his way back into contention for 2018. But where would that leave him and the Bruins after a potential run? Probably in the place Chiarelli and Bruins were in 2015.
As his third free agent season as GM commences, Sweeney is determined to duplicate Chiarelli’s ultimate success (the 2011 Stanley Cup championship) without the failures (salary-cap jail and a playoff DNQ). As long as he has the backing of his bosses, Sweeney would be wise to stick to his patient plan this weekend because he’s come too far to change approaches now.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.