BOSTON (CBS) – Anyone that thinks he or she can guarantee Don Sweeney will turn out to be a great pick as the Bruins’ eighth general manager in team history should probably put their prognostication skills to better use than predicting the success of NHL front-office types.
There’s no way to know if Sweeney is the right man for the job any more than there were signs the Bruins had the right man when they plucked Peter Chiarelli out of Ottawa and installed him as the seventh general manager nine years ago with only his experience as an assistant general manager for the Senators on his resume. With Chiarelli at the helm, the Bruins had their ups and downs, but ended their Stanley Cup championship drought at 39 years and were considered an elite team for much of the GM’s tenure.
With Chiarelli out of the picture and now tasked with remaking the Edmonton Oilers, it’s Sweeney’s chance to remake the Bruins in the image he has of a Cup contender. In promoting Sweeney, the Bruins opted for familiarity and a subtle change in their way of doing business over a major reshaping of the organization.
In his introductory press conference Wednesday, Sweeney, who played 15 seasons for the Bruins and has been one of the Bruins’ assistant GMs for six seasons, said all the right things. But nothing he said differed much from the things Chiarelli has said about his philosophies, whether the Bruins were coming off a successful a successful or failed season.
“All of our players have to understand that the four teams that are playing this week [in the NHL conference finals] all have different attributes of skill, size, speed, grit — but they have a sacrifice level that it takes to win in the playoffs. You have to have a blend of that to get there; we have to have more aggression in our game,” Sweeney said in response to a question about restoring the Bruins’ identity.
Later Sweeney talked about the Bruins needing to “create anxiety” in opponents in order to force the play at the blue lines and maybe cause an uptick in offense after the Bruins finished in the bottom third of the NHL in goals scored this season. Sweeney’s “anxiety” sounds a lot like Chiarelli’s “hard to play against.” Chiarelli also never wanted a team of just tough guys or grinders. He too tried to strike the right balance and believed in strong goaltending and depth on defense. In three of the past five seasons, the Bruins finished in the top five in goals scored. Chiarelli wanted a checking team that could score, president Cam Neely came to accept that as a championship formula in the NHL in modern times and coach Claude Julien installed a game plan that would produce the type of teams that won that way. Sweeney even admitted that although he wants the scoring to increase, the “structure and accountability pieces are not leaving the Boston Bruins philosophical approach.” Sweeney’s not taking over as GM to re-invent hockey or the Bruins’ approach to the game. All successful teams do all things well.
Sweeney, though, has a plan to make the Bruins the type of team they want to be that better suits president Cam Neely and CEO Charlie Jacobs. It starts with communication. According to Neely, Sweeney will have autonomy as long as he keeps his boss in the loop on matters of hockey.
“I’ve made it very clear, I don’t want to be a GM. I want the GM to do the job,” Neely said. “But I want to know what’s going on. I mean I don’t know how much more clear I can be with that. If the GM wants to push and fight and say ‘this is the right thing, then I’ll sit down and listen.’ If you want to have conversations, my door is always open. But for me, it’s having those conversations, having the communication and understanding what the short- and long-term effect is for the organization. So if I get questions from Charlie or Mr. Jacobs, I have the answers.”
Neely admitted communications between him and Chiarelli weren’t always as open as he would’ve liked. Whatever the reasons for that, the Bruins needed to make sure there wouldn’t be any head knocking in the front office that could drastically throw the organization off course. In Sweeney, Neely has someone he’s known for a long time as a teammate and colleague in the front office. Neely stressed that Sweeney wasn’t hired because he was a friend, but it certainly will help that no introductions are necessary in matter of hockey or life. It also helps that Sweeney has deep knowledge of everything Bruins, something that other candidates lacked and Neely said would’ve set the Bruins back.
Sweeney ultimately will be judged on the results of the on-ice personnel he assembles. He’s starting out with a solid core led by goaltender Tuukka Rask, defensemen Zdeno Chara and Dougie Hamilton and center Patrice Bergeron. Beyond that Sweeney will have to decide the fates of several veterans and younger players, and make hard decisions with little flexibility under the NHL’s salary-cap ceiling. He said he’s going to make the “best decision for the organization, not necessarily the easiest one.” That will be tested right out of the gate, with Hamilton a restricted free agent and Milan Lucic eligible for a contract extension July 1 prior to the last year of his current deal. Sweeney will be sure to let all Bruins players know where they stand in the GM’s mind.
“A big part of my makeup is the communication aspect. I’ve spoken to every player that’s ever gone up and down, in terms of to Providence and to Boston. I’ve had a 1-on-1 conversation with [them],” Sweeney said. “That’s not going to change in terms of my communication with players and being comfortable in a locker room. That was where I was comfortable for a lot of years, and I’m going to continue to do that, and that way, you have a pulse on things to support a coach and to support a staff, and hopefully have them challenge you back, because that’s what you want. You want people that are going to be willing to challenge or push you to get better.”
Former Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero had a track record and he ultimately landed with New Jersey. Even if the New York Rangers would’ve let Jeff Gorton talk to the Bruins, he has yet to be a full-time head GM. Paul Fenton has done an excellent job as an assistant GM in Nashville, but he has the same experience as a GM as Gorton and Sweeney. There wasn’t much to differentiate the Bruins’ candidates in terms of experience or acumen. So they went for comfort. In that respect, Sweeney was the right choice for now. He has a long way to go, though to prove he was the right pick for the future.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.