The Bruins have been without a general manager since April 15. The NHL combine starts in less than two weeks. The draft will take place June 26-27.
Normally, this would not be an ideal time for a franchise to operate without a GM. This is a stretch in which teams prepare for two important events under the direction of their GMs.
But the Bruins are not dashing to name Peter Chiarelli’s replacement. Don Sweeney, the favorite to assume the title, is the Bruins assistant GM. Cam Neely, likely to have final say on personnel matters, is the team president. The two executives who will have the most influence on hockey operations in the organization’s next phase are already in place.
It would be a different situation if the Bruins’ top candidate worked elsewhere. If he were an outside hire, the next GM would be in a full sprint to acclimate to his new organization. He would bring in new staff to fill the front office and scouting departments before the draft. Time would become a precious resource.
But it has been business as usual for the Bruins amid their search.
Neely is speaking with other GMs about league matters. He is involved in negotiations with Edmonton regarding draft compensation for hiring Chiarelli. Sweeney is talking with agents about future contracts. The assistant GM, whose background is in player development, is preparing for the combine and draft.
The only reason the search has lasted for over a month may be that the Bruins are seeking an opportunity to interview Rangers assistant GM Jeff Gorton, whose team is still playing.
“They’ve been waiting for something, and that’s Jeff,” said an NHL source. “That much is clear.”
Gorton, who was the assistant GM in Boston for seven seasons and interim GM in 2006, has two strong backers among his former employers: CEO Charlie Jacobs and former GM Harry Sinden.
Jacobs approved of Gorton’s decisions as interim GM after Mike O’Connell was fired and before Chiarelli could officially join the team. In that window, the Bruins signed Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard, acquired Tuukka Rask, and drafted Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic, and Brad Marchand.
Sinden, the team’s senior adviser, is serving as counsel during the search. Sinden, according to one NHL GM, is also a Gorton supporter.
Gorton’s powerful advocates may not matter, though. Rangers GM Glen Sather has not granted the Bruins permission to interview Gorton. Toronto is also interested in Gorton.
The Rangers and Lightning are tied in the Eastern Conference finals, 1-1. If the Rangers advance, Gorton might not be available to interview until after June 17, the last possible day for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Personnel around the league insist that Gorton does most of Sather’s heavy lifting (“de facto GM,” said one agent). In fact, Gorton may be in line to become Sather’s successor, especially if the Rangers win the Cup this season.
Gorton and director of player personnel Gordie Clark have been involved in building New York’s core — trading for Rick Nash, extending Ryan McDonagh, signing Mats Zuccarello — while introducing young players such as Chris Kreider (Boxford) and Kevin Hayes (Dorchester).
“It would be the NHL’s ultimate screw job,” said one league source, “if Slats doesn’t let him interview then doesn’t make him the GM.”
The Bruins are exploring other options if Gorton is unavailable. A league source confirmed that they have interviewed former Washington GM George McPhee. McPhee assembled the core (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Braden Holtby) that took the Rangers to seven games in the second round. McPhee was fired on April 26, 2014.
But the No. 1 candidate remains Sweeney. He played 1,052 games as a Bruin. He is Neely’s former teammate. He was one of Chiarelli’s first hires in June of 2006, a year before Neely joined the front office. He is familiar with every niche of the organization, from the draft, prospects, personnel, and contract negotiations.
Sweeney is similar to Chiarelli, his ex-Harvard teammate: smart, patient, objective, and thorough in his actions.
John Ferguson, the Bruins’ executive director of player personnel, would take Sweeney’s position. Scott Bradley, the other assistant GM, would keep his title.
If Sweeney lands the promotion, he will have to make a decision on Claude Julien. The coach’s extension activates in 2015-16, and the Bruins would be responsible for Julien’s contract if they let him go.
Bruce Cassidy, Providence’s head coach the last four seasons, would be a candidate to replace Julien. Sweeney holds Cassidy in high regard.
Chances are that Sweeney, with Neely’s input, has already been thinking about Julien’s future, just as he has been studying the roster. This is the luxury of promoting a GM from within. Sweeney is familiar with everything. Daily activities will not change abruptly once he lands the job. The Bruins do not need disruption.