BOSTON (CBS) — Give general manager Don Sweeney credit for transparency.
One day before the NHL trade deadline he took to a stage in the bowels of TD Garden on Sunday and declared that he was prepared to hold on to Loui Eriksson after the deadline, even without a new contract for the potential unrestricted free agent.
Sweeney also mentioned he was willing to give up draft picks to add to his roster.
When 3 p.m. Monday passed, Sweeney was 2-for-2. Eriksson remained unsigned and part of the Bruins’ roster. And Sweeney traded draft picks to the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils for defenseman John-Michael Liles and forward Lee Stempniak, respectively.
So Sweeney gets an A for honesty. And he gets a D for managing wisely. By not trading Eriksson, and maybe one or two veteran players, Sweeney missed a golden opportunity to really put the Bruins firmly on the right track toward a return to prominence in the NHL.
First off, Sweeney needed to maximize Eriksson’s value if he wasn’t going to get the player signed. Instead, the GM has relinquished most of the leverage to a player who figures to be the most sought-after free agent forward July 1, if Eriksson doesn’t take the Bruins to the cleaners before then.
Sweeney was willing to risk losing Eriksson for nothing in order to keep the Bruins’ miniscule hopes of a long playoff run alive. And he’s betting the negotiations will go better on their own or be helped by a management-friendly market come summer.
“We made a significant offer, there’s a gap there. I’m not really concerned with leverage at that point and time,” Sweeney said. “If the player believes between now and the end of the year that this is where he wants to be and if we find the right deal that fits, then we’re going to be able to find common ground. And if we don’t, then maybe we’re looking at a marketplace that we’re looking at other teams that did exactly the same thing in all honesty.”
Second, by adding Liles and Stempniak, Sweeney has reduced the number of future assets in his coffers for players who may help make the playoffs but aren’t going to be able to push the Bruins past the second round. Both will probably be gone after this season (although Sweeney might be interested in retaining Stempniak) and are blocking younger talent from gaining experience.
Liles, who cost the Bruins a third-round pick in 2016, a fifth-round pick in 2017 and minor-leaguer Anthony Camara, is 35 and is just three years removed from being demoted to the American Hockey League by Toronto (yes, that bastion of stud defensemen, Toronto). He might still be able to move the puck but he’s a tire fire in his own end. It’s doubtful he’ll be able to succeed in coach Claude Julien’s system, which requires time to get adjusted. He’s a potential healthy scratch by mid-March. If this trade is some sort of message to Joe Morrow, then shame on the Bruins for not letting the kid settle into his role, especially since he started to play with confidence lately.
Stempniak, who cost the Bruins a fourth-round pick in 2016 and a second-round pick in 2017, is 33 and on his ninth NHL team. So the general manager who gave up a third-round pick for Zac Rinaldo and then waived Rinaldo seven months later has surrendered a second-round pick for a journeyman who could’ve been had as a free agent last fall when Stempniak was skating with the Bruins. Better later than never I guess.
He has 16 goals this season but he’s not a piece that will help the Bruins when they’re ready to contend. Stempniak might help the Bruins get their coveted playoff spot this season but he’s also in the way of playing time for 23-year-old Brett Connolly, not to mention Frank Vatrano and Seth Griffith, who are both tearing it up for Providence in the AHL.
When the Bruins hired Sweeney, they supposedly empowered him to a form a competitive team with the caveat that the success would be sustainable. Typically that doesn’t mean throwing draft picks around the League in trades to add bit players to the lineup. And it doesn’t include paying to the nose to retain free agents like Eriksson. Eriksson is 30. When the Bruins are contenders again, he’ll be three or four years older. There are just so many guys in their early and mid-30s you can lean on in pursuit of a title. Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Matt Beleskey and Brad Marchand (if re-signed before summer 2017) are the veteran core of the forward group, which should feature David Pastrnak and the aforementioned prospects when championship dreams are more realistic.
The Bruins could’ve maintained their playoff position with Eriksson out and other player filling in the gaps. If they wanted Eriksson back, they could’ve signed him in the summer. If ownership is pulling Sweeney’s strings to make sure he does everything to get a low-level playoff spot and a couple home games rather than look at the big picture, shame on them.
Sweeney, however, sounded like a man making his own decisions about putting the playoffs as a priority over stockpiling the type of assets that could benefit the Bruins both as prospects or chips to use when the right stud defenseman comes available via trade down the road (and there’s always a chance a Dougie Hamilton type will want out of his city in June or at a later date).
“This team has performed as such that we’re in a pretty good position if we can take care of business between now and the end. I think that’s important,” Sweeney said. “The ownership group from the time I was interviewed from this position expected certain things to be addressed, be it the cap and flexibility there, to acquire some younger players that would be implemented to our group because of the cap situation on the horizon that it may not be increasing.
“So we’ve tried to attack it in different ways. But part of the exercise of being a competitive team right now and being in playoff positioning was to try and improve our hockey club. And hopefully we did that today.”
The Bruins might be improved but they’re still far from being legitimate contenders. And banking on the upcoming pool of prospects and draft picks to all bloom is risky. There’s strength in numbers and Sweeney would’ve been wise to add to that group, or at least retain the draft picks he had.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.