By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Don Sweeney and the Bruins are making other teams look stupid.
This probably isn’t what you expected to read about a general manager who gave Matt Beleskey five years and waive-and-then-traded him halfway in, gave $30 million to a 32-year-old David Backes, swapped Reilly Smith for Jimmy Hayes, and traded a third-round pick for Zac Rinaldo. Or a general manager whose back-to-back-to-back picks in his first draft on the job are looking a little rough (the B’s are currently one-for-three there) in what’s proven to be an otherwise loaded 2015 first round.
The Bruins are still being haunted by some of these moves and non-moves. Nobody can deny that. Not even after a deep playoff run that took the Bruins all the way to Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
But when it comes to re-signing his own guys, Sweeney is currently shooting at a 100 percent clip.
Just rewind back to where the Bruins were before their four-round run this past spring. Everybody knew that a cap-crunch was looming over this club, and you thought that the Bruins would be lucky to get Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy in at a under $9 million. Then the postseason happened, Carlo and McAvoy shined throughout, and you thought (read as: feared) that the Bruins would be lucky to get them in at under $10 million. That increase also meant entertaining the idea of parting with valuable assets — Torey Krug, the league’s fifth-highest scoring defenseman since signing his four-year extension in 2016, was a name frequently brought up as a potential victim of the crunch — to fit that defensive duo in at this number.
Nope. Sweeney instead fit Carlo ($2.85 million cap hit for the next two years) and McAvoy ($4.9 million cap hit for the next three years) in at under $8 million, and retained restricted free agent rights at the conclusion of their respective contracts.
“Trying to keep the type of team that we have together, and the type of individuals as players together, that’s what the goal is,” Sweeney offered after making the Carlo signing official on Tuesday morning. “Continue to build our franchise to be a competitive team each and every year, and to reward the players.”
It felt like a Sweeni Mind Trick.
But it’s also been the most consistent element of Sweeney’s tenure as Boston’s general manager.
Sweeney’s first big re-signing came with Krug’s four-year, $21 million deal in 2016.
That deal made the 5-foot-9 Krug the team’s highest-paid defenseman, which would appear jarring at first, but there’s no doubt that Krug has rewarded the Bruins throughout that signing. In fact, since signing that deal, Krug has been the fifth-highest scoring defenseman in the entire NHL, with 163 points in 221 games. Only John Carlson, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, and Brent Burns have been more productive. Their average cap hit is a whopping $8.84 million per year. In fact, the salaries of the five players directly below Krug in scoring among defensemen averages out to a $5.37 million cap hit. Put those nine skaters together and it averages out to a $6.91 million cap hit. This means that the Bruins have had one of the game’s top power-play quarterbacks — Krug has had direct involvement in 44 percent of the total production on a Boston power-play group that’s been the league’s third-best unit over that span — for over $1.7 million under market value.
That same year, Sweeney signed Brad Marchand to an eight-year deal with a $6.125 million cap hit.
Marchand has been one of the league’s most effective scorers over that span, of course, totaling 109 goals and 270 points in 227 games. Those 109 goals are the seventh-most among all NHL skaters over that span, while his 270 points are good for the fifth-most. The agitator-turned-MVP candidate has put himself in truly elite category, as you’d expect, too. Only Patrick Kane, Nikita Kucherov, Sidney Crosby, and Connor McDavid have been more productive from a points standpoint, while Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, McDavid, John Tavares, Kucherov, and Alex Ovechkin are the only goal scorers that have bested Marchand’s 109 tallies. There’s no shortage of eight-figure cap hits among that group.
Break it down by all-situation usage and it’s hard to find someone who maximizes their ice-time quite like Marchand, as his 3.64 points per 60 minutes of all-situation hockey is the third-best in hockey since 2016, trailing only McDavid (3.68) and Kucherov (4.03). Consider the shorthanded time Marchand logs compared to those guys and it’s even more impressive.
Then there was the 45-minute “holdout” Sweeney worked through with David Pastrnak in 2017.
Signed to a six-year contract with a $6.66 million cap hit, Pastrnak’s contract successfully created a Boston first line that counts against the salary cap for less than $20 million. And Pastrnak has certainly rewarded Sweeney’s willingness to give up RFA rights at the conclusion of Pastrnak’s deal was being one of hockey’s top snipers, with 73 goals in 148 games with that contract. That’s more goals than talents such as Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane, and Vladimir Tarasenko. Look at it on a per game production basis and Pastrnak’s 1.09 points per game ranks as the 15th-best mark in hockey among qualifying players.
But for Sweeney, it’s as much about who they sign and for how much as it is who they do not.
The Bruins decided to let Riley Nash walk after a career-year in 2017-18, and while it left the Bruins short a third-line center for half a season, Nash plummeted down to Earth with just three goals and 12 points in 78 games last year. The Bruins also decided to walk away from Tim Schaller after a similar breakout year in 2017-18, and Schaller’s first year of a two-year, $3.8 million deal with the Canucks saw the Merrimack, N.H. native record just three goals and 10 points in 47 games. The Bruins are “hoping” their success in not overextending themselves continues with Noel Acciari’s three-year, $5 million deal in Florida, and could find themselves in similar situations should Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner — both free agents in 2020 — continue this recent trend of Boston bottom-sixers sniping their way into riches the Bruins don’t want to match.
This extends just beyond the realm of pending unrestricted free agency, too.
Part of the B’s relatively subdued dip into the free agent pool in 2018 was done with the belief that Scituate, Mass. native Ryan Donato, who showed signs of being a legitimate scorer for Bruce Cassidy’s club upon his jump from Harvard to the NHL, was going to be part of their RFA bonanza/headache in 2019. But when Donato couldn’t play right wing, fell out of favor, and bounced to Providence, Sweeney made sure he got something real for a player they weren’t keen on having to eventually pay.
More of those decisions are on the way, too, with a 2020 summer currently headlined by decisions on Krug and Charlie Coyle, the team’s top two pending unrestricted free agents, as well as restricted free agents Jake DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk.
“I’ll attack each and every one of them when they finalize [next year],” said Sweeney. “Either here or somewhere else.”
If it is indeed with the Bruins, though, it is almost guaranteed to be at a number that allows Sweeney to stay on the attack.