Boston Bruins

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 23: Boston Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney meets with the media following the NHL general managers meetings at the Bellagio Las Vegas on June 23, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Don Sweeney and the Bruins need to strike a new deal.

The team’s general manager for the last seven years, Sweeney is entering the final days and weeks of his contract, and has yet to come to terms on a new agreement. That’s not by design on the part of the former GM of the Year, of course. Sweeney has made it clear that he wants to remain with the Bruins, and the Bruins finally made it known that they feel the same.

And though the sides have yet to hammer out a new deal, a quick read of the proverbial tea leaves have already confirmed Sweeney is almost certainly returning to the Bruins. They let him trade futures (and sign a pair of players to extensions) at the deadline, and Sweeney was part of the player and coach exit interviews conducted last week. He also signed defenseman Jakub Zboril to a multi-year extension. These are things that could be done organizationally, of course. But at a certain point, you’d think that the keys would have been taken away from Sweeney if he wasn’t going to be driving the bus.

But the forever-restless natives, meanwhile, have made their feelings on Sweeney known. Again and again and again: It’s time for a change. Sweeney’s heard the criticisms, too, and though he doesn’t believe that all of them would file under “constructive,” he is aware of the pressure that comes with the gig.

“I think I’ve been around this town long enough for people to know in terms of pressure and what I’m necessarily going to lump in myself and hold myself hopefully to the standard that is why I’m in this job,” Sweeney said at his year-end media availability last week. “The Jacobs family, the organization, the history of the Boston Bruins, the standard that we’re being held to is exactly what I aspire to. And again, to be perfectly clear and honest, it’s the aspiration to be the best in class, on and off the ice. And when we’re not, we want to hear about it.

“And we stand here today acknowledging we fell short. And that’s on me to try and pull the right strings and hopefully make the right decisions. And that’s part of professional sports, both as a player and management.”

But should Sweeney be the guy to lead the charge as the Bruins enter these potentially strange, strange days?

Well, that depends on what you value.

  • CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 24: General Manager Don Sweeney of the Boston Bruins attends the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

    CHICAGO, IL – JUNE 24: General Manager Don Sweeney of the Boston Bruins attends the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

    If you’re anti-Sweeney, odds are that your No. 1 reason comes back to Sweeney’s drafting missteps. It started right off the bat in 2015 with the three straight first-round draft picks that could’ve been so much more for the Bruins given the talent that went off the board immediately after Boston’s selections. DeBrusk and Zboril have turned into NHL players for the Bruins, sure, but when you see some of the names that went right after those selections (Mat Barzal, Kyle Connor, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Thomas Chabot just to name a few) and how they contrast with the Bruins’ needs, it stings. A whole lot.

    2015 hurts beyond the first-round, to be honest. The Bruins were as equipped to restock the pipeline as any team could have been, with another three second-round picks in that 2015 draft. They used their three second-round selections on Brandon Carlo, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Jeremy Lauzon. The list of players drafted between Carlo and Lauzon includes forwards Roope Hintz, Jordan Greenway, Daniel Sprong, defenseman Eric Cernak, and goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. Second-round picks after Lauzon include Rasmus Andersson, Yakov Trenin, Vince Dunn, and Oliver Kylington. Imagine if the Bruins hit on even one more player with six of the first 52 picks in that stacked-as-hell draft? Pain.

    The Bruins also went with ‘safer’ first-round picks in third-line types such as Trent Frederic (2016) and Johnny Beecher (2019), which meant passing on high-ceiling offensive threats such as Alex DeBrincat (2016), as well as Arthur Kaliyev (2019) and Bobby Brink (2019). Again, when you look at Boston’s needs over this run (namely the need for more scoring and high-end skill in the pipeline), it makes it harder to stomach “playing it safe.”

    Jeremy Swayman is looking like the only win from the Bruins’ 2017 class following the trade of Urho Vaakanainen, and 2018 also looks unlikely to produce a legit NHL contributor anytime soon.

    Part of that is what happens when you’re consistently trading for deadline help, but it also force you to hit on the picks you do have. Consistently. More than a handful of misses and you’re swimming against the current.

  • NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 28: Fabian Lysell #68 of the Boston Bruins skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on September 28, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

    NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 28: Fabian Lysell #68 of the Boston Bruins skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on September 28, 2021 in New York City. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

    That said, the Black and Gold may be approaching an improved window in terms of their prospect pool.

    Talking to people who I a) trust and b) am confident saying know more about prospects than you or I, there seems to be a belief that the Bruins have changed for the better when it comes to their drafting philosophy. ‘Safe’ is out the window and it’s about talent and upside. People like the 2020 selection of Mason Lohrei (29 points in 30 games as a freshman at Ohio State this past season), and they think the Bruins got something special with 2021 first-round pick Fabian Lysell. Even late-round picks like 2021 seventh-rounder Ty Gallagher, Oskar Jellvik (149th overall, 2021), Ryan Mast (181st overall, 2021), Riley Duran (182nd overall in 2020), and Matias Mantykivi (185th overall in 2019) are looking like potential finds for the B’s.

    We’re still a few years away from seeing how these players will make their mark on the NHL game, and that’s if they do at all. But this would be a sign of some much-needed progress on the drafting front, beginning with Sweeney and trickling on down to the Black and Gold’s scouting department both on North American soil and across the ocean.

  • BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 23: David Backes #42 of the Boston Bruins looks on during the first period of the preseason game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on September 23, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 23: David Backes #42 of the Boston Bruins looks on during the first period of the preseason game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    But even if the Bruins have made their strides on the drafting front, another major problem for Sweeney has come on the free agency front, where the Bruins have flushed money down the toilet at an alarmingly high rate.

    The Bruins took the cheese on Matt Beleskey’s career-year in 2015 and gave the gritty winger a five-year, $19 million contract. They then watched as Beleskey scored just 18 goals in 143 games with Boston (including just three in his final 63 games with Boston) before they waived him down to Providence and ultimately ate money to trade him to New York.

    Sweeney’s Bruins then threw $30 million at David Backes the next year, and though it started off well, Sweeney and the Bruins had to once again eat money to move him out of town when he became ineffective and landed on waivers by 2020.

    Oh, and the Bruins also gave five years to defenseman John Moore. The money on Moore wasn’t a massive roadblock by any stretch, but the five-year commitment never seemed to make any sense. It also didn’t help that Moore was somehow where the Bruins landed on what was a multi-year, publicly-stated quest to find another left-shot defenseman to help ease the burden on both an aging Zdeno Chara and undersized Torey Krug. Moore never came close to helping ’em out on that front.

    And with a boatload of cap space available for the first time in his run as Bruins general manager in 2021, Sweeney went on a Day 1 shopping spree that netted forwards Nick Foligno, Erik Haula, and Tomas Nosek, along with defenseman Derek Forbort and goaltender Linus Ullmark. Foligno went down as the second-highest paid among that group ($3.8 million per year), and scored just two goals in 64 games in his first season with the Bruins, and it’s entirely possible that cap-strung Bruins move forward with a Foligno buyout in the summer if they believe there’s an upgrade to be made elsewhere.

    What stings the most about Sweeney’s 2021 spree is that the 2022 class is an undoubtedly better and deeper one, with players such as Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Claude Giroux, Nazem Kadri, Evgeni Malkin, Nino Niederreiter, and Vinny Trocheck among those currently slated to hit the open market. Assuming the Bruins spent just half of what they did in 2021 (which would be about $8 million), that’s enough for a serious impact player to potentially add to this group in 2022.

  • Apr 12, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins left wing Taylor Hall (71) lets go a shot against the St. Louis Blues during the first period at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    Apr 12, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins left wing Taylor Hall (71) lets go a shot against the St. Louis Blues during the first period at TD Garden. (Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports)

    If you’re into silver linings, Sweeney’s free agency failures have forced Boston’s general manager to get crafty when it comes to trades. And it’s an area where Sweeney has certainly improved with significant additions in three of the last four years.

    When the Bruins failed to find an in-house fix in the middle of their third line following Riley Nash’s departure and Backes’ slide out of frame, the Bruins swung a trade for Charlie Coyle. The price paid was a rather insignificant one when compared to the solution it provided, as the Bruins parted with Ryan Donato and a fourth-round pick to bring Coyle to town. Donato is on his third team since the trade, while Coyle is coming off his best year since 2017.

    And in 2021, Sweeney addressed what was basically a six-year black hole organizationally with his move for Taylor Hall. Finally, the Bruins had that second-line answer they longed to find. And all it cost them was Anders Bjork and a second-round pick. The success of the trade required a buy-in from Hall (and he did exactly that), and the Bruins even got more than Hall out of the trade, with fourth-line energy piece Curtis Lazar also thrown into the package.

    But Sweeney’s true home run looks to have come back in March, as the Bruins swiped Hampus Lindholm from the Ducks.

    It was the heftiest price Sweeney’s Bruins have paid — they sent a first-round pick, two second-round picks, and 2017 first-round pick Urho Vaakanainen (along with John Moore) to Anaheim in the trade — but there’s no denying its importance. The Bruins were straight-up desperate for a high-impact left-shot defenseman to add to the mix. Moving on from Chara and Krug and replacing them with Matt Grzelcyk, Derek Forbort, Jeremy Lauzon (for a year), and Mike Reilly wasn’t working. There was no way for the Bruins to ever truly contend until they solved that problem.

    Now, with Lindholm extended, the Bruins have what they believe is a strong under-30 core on defense with Lindholm, Charlie McAvoy, and Brandon Carlo all signed to long-term deals.

    Add that in with two strong-impact middle-six forwards since 2019 and the Bruins have their share of trade wins.

  • Feb 15, 2020; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) celebrates his goal with left wing Brad Marchand (63) during the third period against the Detroit Red Wings at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Feb 15, 2020; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) celebrates his goal with left wing Brad Marchand (63) during the third period against the Detroit Red Wings at TD Garden. (Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports)

    The recent trade wins and strides have been solid, but talent retention is the thing that’s emerged as Sweeney’s far-and-away best quality as a general manager.

    Sweeney’s ability to ink Marchand to a $6.125 million extension and Pastrnak to a $6.6 million extension in about the span of a calendar year gave the Bruins a high-powered first line that counted for less than $20 million against the salary cap. The Bruins also extended their own window when they went ‘bridge’ with franchise defenseman Charlie McAvoy before signing him to the richest contract in team history last year. The extensions for Hall ($6 million per year) and Lindholm ($6.5 million per year) were also solid extensions given their impacts to the Black and Gold. Hell, throw Jake DeBrusk’s two-year, $8 million extension in there, even if it’s likely that DeBrusk still wants a trade out of town this summer.

    Sweeney has also been smart about not overextending for internal bottom-six talents. This was something that became a problem for the Bruins towards the end of Peter Chiarelli’s Boston tenure. Instead, the Bruins have walked away from strong depth options such as Dominic Moore, Tim Schaller, Riley Nash, Noel Acciari, Joakim Nordstrom, and Sean Kuraly. Often after a career-year from one of those players. That’s not an easy call. Chris Wagner’s extension is perhaps the only deviation from this mindset throughout Sweeney’s tenure, and given the way it’s gone, it seems unlikely to happen again.

    But talent retention has also come with its minuses for Sweeney and the Bruins.

    As mentioned earlier, the Bruins made decisions to move on from Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug and didn’t have a plan to replace those players. They were your No. 1 and No. 2 left-shot defensemen. To not plan for their departures properly is borderline unbelievable. They also hung onto Loui Eriksson in 2016 and ultimately watched him leave for nothing when they could’ve recouped some prospects and picks by making the tough call then and there at the deadline when the sides weren’t close on an extension. They relied on David Krejci’s openly-acknowledged plans to return to the Czech Republic coming way later than they did, and they’ve hung onto certain young players and prospects until their values melted to minimal returns.

    Finding that balance will always be a tightrope, but there’s no denying that Sweeney and the Bruins have their biggest ‘talent retention’ test up next, with David Pastrnak entering the final year of his contract and staring down unrestricted free agency.

  • VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - JUNE 21: (L-R) Don Sweeney and Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins attend the 2019 NHL Draft at the Rogers Arena on June 21, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

    VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – JUNE 21: (L-R) Don Sweeney and Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins attend the 2019 NHL Draft at the Rogers Arena on June 21, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

    When it comes to firing Sweeney vs. re-signing Sweeney, I just come back to this: There’s no magic general manager fix out there. Melrose, Mass. native and ex-Bruins (interim) general manager Jeff Gorton is off the market. He went to Montreal and in an executive vice president role, meaning he’s not leaving for a lesser role with a new organization. And the Kings’ Rob Blake, who was in the same boat as Sweeney as a general manager on an expiring deal, just re-upped with the Kings.

    Even if you were to get one of these guys — or any of the other (external) options we’ve deemed to be available — the Bruins are still in the same cap situation, with the same roster construct, and with the same prospect pool. You don’t gain an extra $10 million in cap space or a more attractive prospect pool by switching out general managers. Nothing is changing overnight or reopening a Cup window to its full potential right away. It’d be a half-measure and nothing more. Especially if the man at the top (Cam Neely) remains in charge, as the front office operates with the same objective and mindset.

    It’s like if you order a pizza, and I inform you that the delivery driver is now driving an SUV instead of a sedan. Your first question is going to be if the restaurant still has the same owner and second will be if we are using the same ingredients for our pizza. When I tell you yes to both, you’re going to ask me why the hell you’d care about the delivery method.

    That’s sorta where we are with Sweeney, I think. He’s not as good as his most ardent supporters will claim, and he’s not as bad as his loudest detractors scream. He’s very much an NHL general manager, and the general manager of a team that’s succeeded more than it’s failed, if we’re stacking them up against the rest of the league, whether we want to admit it or not. And if the B’s replace him, the odds and the overall scope of the league’s front office landscape indicates that they’ll be trading A Guy for A Guy, and that this new guy will also have his own set of strong points and weak points.

    And by the time we know what they are, we’ll probably be screaming for a replacement then, too.