By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
DALLAS — You have to appreciate the empathy Bruins general manager Don Sweeney showed for his scouts leading up to and after the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft on Friday at American Airline Center.
Sweeney is tight with his drafting and developing people, they’ve done a great job to turn around the franchise, and he felt like he slapped them in the face when he didn’t give them a first-round pick to work with after trading the Bruins’ pick for Rick Nash in February.
“Excruciating. Try not to let that happen again,” Sweeney said after the 31st pick was made with the Bruins left to watch like millions at home in their man caves.
But at the same time, Sweeney’s pain should’ve been more of a stubbed toe in the dark against the bed post rather than a chronic back issue. Once the first round was over and Sweeney left empty-handed, he didn’t need an aspirin or alcohol to dull the pain, all he needed to do was look at his cupboard full of talent and the place some of his closest competitors are in relation to the Bruins.
However, Sweeney wasn’t biting when offered the chance to put a positive spin on Friday night’s festivities.
“Yes and no. It means that they had a chance to improve their hockey club,” Sweeney said. “And the pain part of it, teams … are going to close the gap, if there is a gap. Like I said, we all start back at the same base of the hill again. It’s a challenge, they got an opportunity, they paid a price for that during the season, and they got to take advantage of that tonight. And we missed that opportunity.”
Nonetheless, the Bruins integrated five rookies into their lineup on a regular basis last season and reached the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, two years after they missed the postseason for a second straight year. They have 2017 first-round pick Urho Vakanainen in the fold, Anders Bjork coming back from injury and Ryan Donato ready for his first full NHL season after an impressive cup of coffee last season. Those are just a few names the Bruins will have to provide competition and maybe take the club to another level in 2018-19.
Beyond the younger players, the Bruins are bidders among four teams for Ilya Kovalchuk’s services. If they add the sniper, they’ll be improved; if not they’ll be able to spend their ample salary-cap space different ways. Sweeney said talks with several of his own unrestricted free agents, including goaltender Anton Khudobin, seem “to be inching rather than moving in the direction I’d like it to” but again, the Bruins have the cap space to move on to Plan B and Plan C, if necessary, to improve the team in free agency the way they didn’t in the draft Friday. Plus they’ve shown the ability to find hidden gems in the second round and beyond before.
Compare the Bruins to some of the teams that were in the spotlight Friday. Buffalo picked first and selected Rasmus Dahlin, a defenseman everyone expects to be a cornerstone. The Sabres should be better, but it’s doubtful they’ll even be able to make a New Jersey-like turnaround considering that at the same time they’re adding Dahlin, they’re reportedly looking to get rid of Ryan O’Reilly. And the Sabres’ predicted turnaround after they first drafted Jack Eichel never materialized, so there’s no telling when the Sabres will be a threat.
Montreal is so desperate for centers it drafted Jesperi Kotkaniemi third overall. He may round into a great player, but there are few out there expecting him to play in the NHL next season. The Canadiens need help down the middle now, and the price they’ll have to pay to add that might limit the amount of improvement they can make.
And then there’s Ottawa, which may have got a steal with Brady Tkachuk landing with them at No. 4. The Boston University forward might be able to make the type of impact his brother Matthew made in Calgary last season, but that didn’t get the Flames into the playoffs or into contention beyond early March. They’re a franchise in disarray with their franchise defenseman Erik Karlsson probably on the trading block and their owner possibly cutting salary in order to facilitate an eventual sale.
Detroit picking at No. 6, landed Filip Zadina but they still have a lot of holes. Toronto is loaded with talent but picked 29th and is still without their cornerstone defenseman that can make all those forwards’ motors go at an even more effective pace.
The real pain wasn’t just felt by the four Atlantic Division teams that picked in the top six Friday. The real pain is ahead as they try to squeeze the most out of their new prospects and avoid picking this high next year. That’s a pain that may be difficult to shake.
Sweeney wasn’t decimated by the pain of his boring Friday. He admitted he doesn’t regret the move for Nash, even though he took blame for it not having the desired result, which ultimately would’ve been a Stanley Cup championship. He’s not eager to pull a similar deal in 2019, but under the right circumstances he’d do it.
That’s the right attitude, Sweeney should never rule anything out. The pain of losing after making a big trade involving a first-round pick should hurt more than not making a pick. And nothing ever compares to the pain of being sellers at the deadline, a position the Bruins don’t project to be in for some time.