FOXBORO (CBS) — Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs had already started to take a lesser role in the operations of the franchise when he relinquished the title and duties of CEO to his son Charlie in January, but as the Bruins’ 2014-15 season got bleaker the chairman of the Bruins wouldn’t let those immediately below him in the food chain pull the plug on general manager Peter Chiarelli.
The elder Jacobs referred to Chiarelli as the “best in the business” as a GM last fall. Maybe Jacobs still believed in Chiarelli’s ability to get the Bruins back into the NHL elite or was just blindly loyal to a man he hired in 2007 with the idea that maybe some day Chiarelli, in the time before Cam Neely’s decision to return to hockey, would ascend to the presidency of the organization. One couldn’t blame Jacobs’ belief in Chiarelli, who constructed the only team to win the Stanley Cup in Jacobs’ 40-plus seasons as owner. In fact, until he fired Mike O’Connell and hired Chiarelli, the Bruins had had just two GMs in more than 30 years of Jacobs rule.
Finally Jacobs relented because he lost faith in Chiarelli. One month after Chiarelli was fired, Don Sweeney was promoted as the replacement with Jacobs’ blessing.
“When I realized he wasn’t prepared to make the changes that needed to be made. But that wasn’t so much my recognition as Cam and Charlie’s,” Jacobs explained after the Winter Classic press conference at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday. “That’s their leadership that you have to talk to. You’re going to ask me the instant date and time and all, that’s not a question for me, that’s a question for them.”
When asked how quickly Charlie Jacobs and Neely wanted to show Chiarelli the door, the elder Jacobs admitted he was late to the party.
“Before I did,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs’ reluctance didn’t cost the Bruins as much as it could have. Neely prevented Chiarelli from making future-mortgaging trades at the deadline last season. None of the major free-agent decisions were made until after the GM switch. Re-signing Torey Krug and Reilly Smith didn’t handcuff the Bruins.
Now although the Chiarelli-Sweeney shift is sort of old news, it should serve as a lesson to the Bruins’ brass going forward about trusting the people who are closest to the situation and thinking about the long-term health of the organization. At least in Jacobs’ eyes, the perception that Chiarelli was loyal to a fault to the players that won the 2011 Cup was accurate. We’ve seen since the GM switch that Sweeney’s loyalty is more to the financial health of the Bruins within the salary-cap structure and into a future that features younger, cheaper replacements as veterans outgrow their usefulness or price themselves out of the Bruins’ budget.
Jacobs envies the Chicago Blackhawks, who have won the Cup three of the past six seasons. Over the course of their run, the Blackhawks have retained the services of their best players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, et al.) but done a better job of changing over their support players (Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, et al.).
“If you watch the success of the Chicago team, and I do admire them quite a bit, they dealt with their high-priced players early on and they kept creating room,” Jacobs said. “And every year there was a change, not too unlike the change we see here. We see some great players going elsewhere. Even to this year, you’ll see that those really successful teams have met that problem. We didn’t deal with it in a timely enough manner and we found ourselves in a cap situation that wasn’t attractive to us.”
The jury is out as to whether the Bruins are better after Sweeney’s offseason maneuvering that shipped Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton out and imported Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes and a rich pool of prospects. It’s a fact, though, that they now have more flexibility under the salary-cap ceiling for this season and especially for next summer, when there’s a free-agent class that as of now includes Steven Stamkos, Mark Giordano, Anze Kopitar and Jakub Voracek.
Jeremy Jacobs is a proud man and he’s been a successful man, especially in the business world. The salary cap he helped bring to the NHL relieved him of the criticism of being too cheap, as the Bruins have spent to or above the salary-cap ceiling every season since 2005-06. He seemingly has stayed out of the hockey operations mix, and the leadership of Neely and Chiarelli made sure Jacobs’ financial commitments paid off with the 2011 Cup.
By hiring Neely and then promoting him to president, Jacobs proved his loyalty was already shifting to one person in his front office over another. Jacobs’ belief in Neely is still strong.
“Cam is the leader for a very long time. He aspires to do that and he’s willing to engage in the tough decisions,” Jacobs said. “And that’s what he wanted to do. … That’s one of the things that, perhaps, If anybody’s going to be faulted, I should be faulted for retaining [Peter] and not letting them move as quickly as they wanted to.”
Jacobs nearly waited too long to take the car keys away from Chiarelli before he drove the Bruins mobile off the road. He should be sure to let Neely take the wheel and decide on all the turns the franchise has to make.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.