Don Sweeney understands assets. He knows he has a good coach in Claude Julien. He’s identified Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask, and Zdeno Chara as lead dogs.
The trick the general manager has to execute is to supplement a top-heavy lineup that fell one point short of qualifying for the playoffs.
“It’s on me,” Sweeney said of the team’s failure to make the postseason. “It’s not on anybody else to improve our roster. That’s on me.”
On Thursday at TD Garden, five days after the team he built laid a 6-1 season-ending egg against Ottawa, Sweeney peeled back the curtain on the four-day post-mortem process.
Sweeney’s conclusions do not qualify for thunder-and-lightning status like some of his bloodthirsty customers are seeking. Sweeney did not uncover enough deficiencies with Julien, his star players, or the system to identify them as broken components.
The GM wants to reinforce the defense, add depth at forward and behind Rask, and monitor the development of his prospects. He will leave the public apologies, self-flagellation, and pledges to serve the fan base better to CEO Charlie Jacobs and president Cam Neely. The GM has more important work to do than to speak meaningless words. It will not be easy for Sweeney to land a top-four defenseman.
“If you’re not one of those elite, upper-echelon teams – which we aspire to be and certainly hold ourselves to that standard – you’re going to be subject to very small margins,” Sweeney said. “That’s what it came down to. It came down to an ROW (regulation plus overtime wins). We held it in our fate if we won our last game because Detroit had lost. We didn’t execute.”
You know what kind of teams don’t execute at important times? Teams that aren’t very good.
This is Sweeney’s problem. Firing Julien would have made it worse.
The solution lies within the 23-man roster and subsequent organizational depth. This means fringe NHLers such as Jonas Gustavsson, Zach Trotman, or Joonas Kemppainen need not apply. The Bruins require capable players, especially on defense, to insulate themselves against ill-timed slumps next year.
“It’s incumbent upon me to make sure I’m in a position where we have depth for when we go through our patches,” Sweeney said. “Or you go out and acquire players that can help you. We have gaps there. We’re not a team that’s playing for the Stanley Cup. We clearly have areas we need to improve upon.”
It’s not good enough to depend on a 38-year-old Chara, Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid, a fast-fading Dennis Seidenberg, and a bunch of shoulder shrugs such as Colin Miller and Joe Morrow. Youngsters Jakub Zboril, Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk, Rob O’Gara, and Jeremy Lauzon could develop into adult defensemen. But they are still sleeping in figurative cribs. Somehow, Sweeney has to bridge the gap between Chara’s final years and the arrivals – if they make it – of his futures.
The kick below the belt is they had one in Dougie Hamilton. The defense absorbed a wallop this past season once Sweeney and Neely washed their hands of a 22-year-old who didn’t want to be a Bruin. They still might not recover next year.
On the watch of Julien and assistant coach Doug Houda, Hamilton defended stoutly, retrieved pucks, moved them up swiftly, and supported the attack. That Hamilton regressed following the trade reflects on the coaching he received in Boston that is missing in Calgary.
In Boston, Julien never coached a right-shot defenseman with Hamilton’s skill set. He may never do so again. The Bruins will not be the only team hunting for blue-line help this summer. They will have competition, including Edmonton and former GM Peter Chiarelli, who has a deeper supply of NHL forwards to wheel for defensemen.
The Bruins have cached futures, including two 2016 first-rounders, they could use as trade capital. Whether they spend any of it to acquire defensive help has yet to be determined.
A big part of the Bruins’ two-year skid is the blanks they shot at the draft. They have nothing to show from the 2007-09 drafts besides Tyler Randell. Elsewhere, picks that hit have matured into mid-career, foundational pieces such as P.K. Subban, John Carlson, and Ryan O’Reilly – all players who were available for the Bruins to draft.
Sweeney does not want the Bruins to be caught with their pants down again. But there’s also a balance between hoarding every prospect and dealing them all away. The Bruins have prospect collateral to trade to improve next year’s team.
It’s a more impactful team-building tool than signing unrestricted free agents on July 1. Brian Campbell, Keith Yandle, and Alex Goligoski are complementary defensemen for whom the Bruins would have to outbid competitors. Building through free agency is neither cost effective nor efficient.
If they can’t trade for a top-four defenseman, they’ll be in a tough spot again next year when another offseason eats away at Chara’s career. They’ve said goodbye to a lot of talent from their 2013-14 Presidents’ Trophy team: Hamilton, Milan Lucic, Johnny Boychuk, Jarome Iginla, Reilly Smith, and Chad Johnson. They’ve yet to restock the varsity roster.
They’ve executed poorly forecasted trades such as Smith and Marc Savard for Jimmy Hayes. They’re waiting on picks to develop into NHLers, if they do at all.
Replenishing requires time, not emotional firings or trades. Sweeney is showing his patience by doubling down on his coach. Now it’s on him to give Julien better players. That’s easier said than done.
Follow Fluto Shinzawa on Twitter at @GlobeFluto