Charlie Jacobs is a rookie CEO. Cam Neely is an emotional and angry ex-player.
They are a combustible combination. Peter Chiarelli felt the burn.
Jacobs and Neely decided to fire their general manager on Tuesday. They told Chiarelli on Wednesday. Later in the day, they held a decaf news conference at TD Garden. Neither of the leaders atop the Bruins’ masthead saw fit to illuminate their decision to their customers, who were likely left scratching their heads over future ticket, apparel, and television investments amid the absence of direction, answers, and confidence.
“Cam, do you want to help me on this one?” Jacobs asked his employee when pressed about the firing.
It required between-the-lines reading to conclude why, a year after the Bruins won the Presidents’ Trophy, Jacobs and Neely determined Chiarelli had to go. Jacobs and Neely were not happy with the team’s style of play. They didn’t like the club’s snugness against the salary cap. They weren’t satisfied with the next wave of young players to occupy spots once filled by Jarome Iginla and Johnny Boychuk. Chiarelli’s draft whiffs from 2007-09 are catching up.
These are worthwhile concerns. The Bruins couldn’t score because they didn’t have enough players who could play with skill and pace. They carried nearly $5 million of dead money because of their bonus overage, mostly because of how they signed Iginla. Out of training camp, their youngsters couldn’t even push to make the fourth line, which was begging for overhaul. Picks from 2007-09 are core players around the league. These are the GM’s responsibilities. For one season, Chiarelli came up short.
But ultimately, the firing was about Neely’s power — and how he’s itching to use it.
As all organizations pledge to go, the Bruins will go about an “exhaustive process” to find their next GM. It’s the right thing to do. By interviewing candidates such as former Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero or Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton, Jacobs and Neely will hear a lot of ideas. There will be some good ones. Fresh, clear, level-headed thinking is always welcome.
Then they’ll turn the keys over to Don Sweeney, Chiarelli’s assistant for the last six seasons. Sweeney will be a good GM. But he will have to answer to Neely, his former teammate.
For now, it’s business as usual for Sweeney, fellow assistant GM Scott Bradley, executive director of player personnel John Ferguson, and director of amateur scouting Keith Gretzky. This is an important time. Bradley is scouting the world championships. Sweeney is in charge of Providence, which qualified for the AHL playoffs. Ferguson and the pro scouting department will monitor the NHL playoffs. Gretzky is preparing for the June draft.
They will report to Neely during the GM search.
“Anything that comes in, any hockey-related issues across the league or internally, come to me,” Neely said. “Then I’ll decide where they go from there.”
This will not change when the next GM is in place.
Neely said he’s not a micromanager. He has no intention of negotiating contracts, adjusting draft boards, or conducting viewings on 15-year-olds in the USHL.
He’ll leave the heavy lifting to his GM. Neely likes his title of president. It comes with perks. Right after a game at the Garden, Neely exits the elevator on the third floor, walks to his SUV, and drives away. The GM cannot leave the rink so quickly.
As president, Neely will instruct his GM to build a roster according to his vision. The GM will then execute the trade calls or draft picks to acquire the players Neely prefers.
“Get this guy,” Neely will say, or, “I don’t like that guy. Move him.”
Neely acknowledged the Bruins need skill and speed. But he also doesn’t want to go short on muscle. That could mean heavier legs. The Bruins don’t need any more of those.
“We got away a little bit from our identity that we had in the past,” Neely said. “I don’t think we were as hard a team to play against as we like to be and were in the past. I thought that got us some success. Our transition game probably needs some improvement, so getting the puck out of our end and through the neutral zone. I think we’ve got to find ways to create more offense.”
This would lead to a shift in on-ice philosophy, as well. Neely has his doubts about Claude Julien’s defense-first system. On Wednesday morning, Neely and Jacobs met with Julien to discuss his options, which most likely included an invitation to resign.
“Charlie and I brought that up to him and we told him the situation,” Neely said when asked about Julien’s coaching options elsewhere. “We asked him. He said, ‘I signed a contract to coach here. I want to coach here.’ He made that clear when he left. We had planned to meet with him in the next couple days to sit down about the season and talk to him about this past season. That’s next on our agenda with Claude.”
It will be the next GM’s decision to fire or retain Julien, and rightfully so. Julien, then, will be in limbo until the Bruins hire Chiarelli’s replacement. Julien has some protection with his multiyear extension, which becomes active next season. But his eight seasons in Boston are unlikely to become nine with Neely in charge.
Neely had influence before. Before the trade deadline, Neely told Chiarelli he should retain high picks instead of dealing them for rentals. Chiarelli listened. He kept the 2015 first-rounder and traded a pair of second-rounders for 22-year-old Brett Connolly.
On Jan. 4, when he traveled to a road game against Carolina, Neely called several high-level players into a meeting to find answers for underperformance. Neither Chiarelli nor Julien was aware of the meeting. The Bruins landed just four shots on the net in the first period. They lost to the Hurricanes in a shootout, 2-1.
But Neely had restrictions. He didn’t have final say on personnel. He was not authorized to fire Julien earlier this season, which he wanted to do.
This is Neely’s show now. The direction of the organization is in the hands of a Hall of Fame player who was used to influencing his team’s outcome on every shift. Things don’t work that way in the front office.