Don Sweeney had been on the job for only a month when his first crisis erupted. In June, the Bruins' new general manager learned the young defenseman he projected to be Zdeno Chara's replacement wanted out.
Sweeney could have tried reasoning with Dougie Hamilton. He could have waited for former colleague Peter Chiarelli to sign Hamilton to an offer sheet and match the number. He could have stared down Hamilton, not signed him to a summertime extension, and made him reconsider his wish when training camp arrived.
Instead, Sweeney acted swiftly to show Hamilton the door. It was something his former boss might have done had a player said he didn't want to be a Bruin.
"He had guts. He had guts to do it," Harry Sinden said of the executive who holds his former title. "He could have signed him, then figured out some way to make us meet the salary cap. I don't know what would have happened. I shouldn't say it this way, but I don't think I could have done it any better than that."
As senior adviser to the owner, Sinden helped to shape the process that resulted in Sweeney's promotion. With Sinden's counsel, president Cam Neely interviewed candidates, ultimately selecting his former teammate as Chiarelli's replacement. For Sinden, participating in hockey operations was an opportunity that did not arise often under Chiarelli's watch.
"He showed me a great deal of respect, which I was happy for," Sinden said of Sweeney's predecessor. "He was really nice to me. But we never really had any conversations. He was going to do his thing, which he should have."
Sinden can't help feeling more engaged with colleagues he once considered employees. Sinden drafted Sweeney in the eighth round in 1984. Two years later, Sinden traded for Neely.
Sweeney and Neely have become like sons to the 83-year-old Sinden. That they're calling the shots like he once did is just fine with the Hall of Fame builder.
"To see them come here and do so well as players, and then move into the management of this team and run this whole operation," Sinden said, "I've got to feel good about it. I do. I feel good about it."
The NHL has turned upside down since Sinden served as GM from 1972 to 2000. The salary cap shapes most of Sweeney's decisions. Goalies have turned into armored giants. The game rewards speed and skill more than size. GMs make their calls with analytics, not just their guts, as guidance. Players demand communication from their bosses instead of accepting benchings or demotions without a word of explanation.
But Sinden still knows what he sees. His description of the 2015-16 Bruins is spot on.
"It's not quite a real contender at the moment," Sinden said. "But it's shown signs that it can move into that second level of contention. As we all know, there's nothing like the Stanley Cup playoffs for upsets. There's just nothing like it. Eighth seeds win sometimes. I think we're on the edge of that. We've shown improvement. We're showing signs of playing offensively, which I wasn't sure we were going to show."
To Sinden's eye, Claude Julien has steered an in-flux roster in the right direction. Julien has designed and implemented a transition game with a higher metabolism. He's welcomed rookies Colin Miller and Frank Vatrano and helped them become effective players. Julien's challenge is to figure out how to squeeze more complementary production out of Brett Connolly, Jimmy Hayes, and Ryan Spooner.
"What we have is a real good coach," Sinden said. "He controls this team. He controls our players."
But what Julien can't control is roster composition. Sinden sees a class structure that has not expanded since 2006-07 when Chara joined the organization. Sinden terms Chara as a Category A player along with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask, and Brad Marchand.
The Bruins are fortunate to have their skills. But they have been in the organization for a long time. Bergeron was drafted in 2003. They took Krejci the following year. On June 24, 2006, the Bruins acquired Rask from Toronto. On the same day, they drafted Marchand in the third round.
Since then, their Category A players have gone elsewhere. They traded Phil Kessel, Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, and Hamilton. How they'll refill their top-tier bucket remains to be seen.
David Pastrnak could develop into a first-line wing. Malcolm Subban might become an ace goalie. Based on their draft positions, 2015 first-rounders Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk, and Zach Senyshyn should turn into high-impact NHL players.
In Sinden's day, it was easier to acquire Category A players. Some of Sinden's top-end in-season acquisitions included Jason Allison, Adam Oates, Andy Moog, and Brad Park. Two months into 2015-16, zero trades have taken place. Only three players have played for two NHL teams this season: Bobby Farnham, Landon Ferraro, and Chris Wagner. All three were claimed on waivers by their current clubs.
Every time Sweeney talks trade, the cap comes up before names.
"It's really hard. Really hard," Sinden said of making trades. "I don't know how you do it today. I don't know how they do it. Trades in November? That was a good month to make trades. Nobody does that anymore. The salary cap makes you think before you do anything."
The Bruins' best route for continued relevance is internal. Sinden acknowledges there are no alternatives for team building in the cap age.
"We've got to find a way to add — either from people like Connolly and these guys we have already — one or two players to come into what I call the A category of players," Sinden said. "We might have had one in Hamilton. We probably had one in Lucic. Maybe in Seguin, but in a different way. We need to have these drafts he's making, all these picks come into this team and be pretty good players. That will improve this team a lot."
Third forward wise to stay put
When forwards work the puck low in the offensive zone, it seems natural to send in as many reinforcements as possible.
But coaches are especially mindful about keeping a third forward high when the cycle is flowing low.
Even savvy players like Patrice Bergeron need reminders about staying high. Forwards who get excited about creating offense cluster around the puck or even drift behind the goal line. Good for support, but not for spacing or preparing for a turnover.
Before the Bruins departed on their three-game trip to Western Canada, coach Claude Julien drilled into his forwards, including Bergeron, the importance of stretching out the defense.
"Those are small adjustments we've seen in our game where sometimes we get dragged in a little too deep," Julien said. "When the puck gets turned over, you don't have that guy there. At the same time, I really find that when our third man has been high, he's also been in great position to receive a pass."
Julien used Bergeron's goal against the Rangers on Nov. 27 as an example of what can happen when the third forward stays high. After winning a faceoff, Bergeron held his ground at the right dot. Oscar Lindberg remained close on Bergeron in coverage. As Torey Krug wound up for a shot, Brad Marchand and Frank Vatrano drove to the net, taking defensemen Marc Staal and Kevin Klein with them.
Bergeron was in position to fend off a counterattack if Krug's shot didn't get through. He also was in the right spot to take advantage of open ice. Lindberg blocked Krug's blast. But by staying high, Bergeron was stationed to find the rebound and whip the puck into the net.
Keeping a third man high may seem like a good scheme to slow counterattacks. But it's just as much about scoring as defending.
Lundqvist has saved Rangers
From Oct. 25 to Nov. 15, the Rangers ripped off nine straight wins, mostly thanks to Henrik Lundqvist. Without that winning streak, they might be in even deeper trouble.
Derek Stepan (ribs) could be out for a month. Kevin Klein will not be available until later this month because of a strained oblique. The Rangers were already in a tough spot before their No. 2 center and a dependable defenseman went down.
Lundqvist has been under siege all season. Through 21 games, he had seen 684 shots on his net, the most any goalie has faced. It's not just because of his workload. It's because his teammates never have the puck.
Only Colorado is a worse possession team than the Rangers. The Avalanche are out of the playoff picture because their goaltending hasn't approached Lundqvist's level.
Dan Girardi, under contract through 2020, is fighting the puck in a big way. He's been up and down the lineup because of inconsistency. Captain Ryan McDonagh is not playing as well as he should, partly because he's had to carry Girardi as a partner. Keith Yandle's game is about counterattacking, not controlling the puck.
The Rangers' issues are just as grim up front. Rick Nash is still playing with presence, but the No. 1 left wing (8-9—17 through 25 games) is off his 42-goal pace from last year. Opponents are training their best players against Nash because No. 2 left wing Chris Kreider's in-your-face game has gone missing for too many stretches.
When Kreider is playing with confidence, he's skating better than most players in the league. He has no fear about going to the net and possibly knocking goalies into suite level. But the Boxford native has just four goals in 27 games. Something about his game isn't right. Losing Stepan as his disher won't help.
The Rangers have banked enough points to weather a dip. Even though Lundqvist is playing above his standards, he's good enough to stay at a sky-high trajectory.
But the Rangers are capped out. GM Jeff Gorton will have to send out matching money to upgrade his roster. Improvement must come from within.
Flyers’ blue line is a black mark
Plenty of GMs would raise their hands if they could swap their four best forwards for Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Sean Couturier. But even with four excellent forwards, Flyers GM Ron Hextall is overseeing the worst offense in the league. Through 25 games, Philadelphia had scored a league-low 48 goals, and just 35 at even strength. None of the four forgot how to score. But their blue-line mates aren't getting them pucks in the right places. After 25 games, Mark Streit, Michael Del Zotto, and Luke Schenn were tied with five even-strength points apiece. Their eight defensemen had combined for 23 even-strength points. In comparison, Dallas's John Klingberg (16 even-strength points after 26 games) had outscored Philadelphia's top three defensemen combined. The Stars' eight blue liners totaled 51 points at even strength. It's no surprise, then, that Dallas had the NHL's best offense (91 goals) through 26 games. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Patrick Sharp, and Jason Spezza aren't twice as good as their Philadelphia counterparts. Dallas's defense, however, is way ahead of Philadelphia's.
Backyard rinks not hot these days
Backyard rink correspondent P.J. McNealy checked in regarding the construction of the Falla Forum, his patch of ice in Natick. So far, the news has not been good for local managers of backyard rinks because of the warm temperatures. "We haven't even ordered our rink liner yet," McNealy reported. "Until the ground freezes, the liner can't go down because it will trap the heat in. Then, it's 3-5 days of, say, 15-degree weather overnight, and preferably freezing and cloudy during the day . . . Patience will be the name of the game in the backyard for now." Tough times for those itching to skate under the stars.
Abrupt end to rookie season
Calgary GM Brad Treliving announced on Thursday that former Providence College hotshot goalie Jon Gillies will miss the rest of his first pro season because of upcoming hip surgery. Gillies, who won the NCAA championship last year, closes his rookie season with a 2-3-1 record, 2.31 GAA, and .920 save percentage in seven AHL appearances. Hip surgery is commonplace for goalies. Thousands of drops into the butterfly place heavy load on the hips. So Gillies will be good to go upon recovery. But the native of South Portland, Maine, loses a critical season of development. The Flames need goaltending help. Gillies could have pushed for a spot had he experienced a full first pro season. It will be a lot to ask a second-year pro with only seven games of experience to compete for a varsity job.
Jones starting to set the standard
Four former backups switched teams during the offseason to become starters: Martin Jones, Eddie Lack, Cam Talbot, and Robin Lehner. So far, it's worked out only for Jones and the Sharks. Jonathan Quick's former backup was 12-7-0 with a 2.23 GAA and .921 save percentage through 20 appearances. The other three have not delivered. Lack was 1-5-1 with a 3.54 GAA and .865 save percentage. Talbot was 3-8-1 with a 3.17 GAA and an .889 save percentage. Lehner appeared in just one game before spraining his ankle. There was enough data on all four goalies for their acquiring clubs to project how they would perform. Talbot appeared in 173 pro games. Lehner had 181, Jones had 192, and Lack had 194. But goalies are highly dependent on their teammates. The Sharks are the only team in a playoff spot now. Part of that is because of Jones. But Jones's results are also a result of the strength of San Jose's roster compared with those of Carolina, Edmonton, and Buffalo.
Tim Gleason will be a volunteer assistant coach for the Hurricanes. Gleason tried to launch a comeback by practicing with his former team. But reality set in and Gleason's playing career is over. The 32-year-old appeared in 727 games for Los Angeles, Carolina, Toronto, and Washington . . . Jonathan Bernier is on a conditioning stint in the AHL after starting 0-8-1 with a 3.28 GAA and .888 save percentage with the Maple Leafs. The 27-year-old will be just fine once he gets his head straight . . . John Scott is leading the fan vote for the All-Star Game, which tells you all you need to know about the event.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.