Don Sweeney is a realist.
The Bruins general manager, just over a year into his organizational stewardship, understands the boundaries of his current roster and futures.
The defense requires reinforcement. His stars are at their peaks or on the descent, Patrice Bergeron being an example of the former and Zdeno Chara the latter. Sweeney’s NHL prospects — assuming they hit at all — are several years short of varsity status. Aside from David Pastrnak, Sweeney does not have young, high-ceiling NHLers who could persuade a GM dangling a 200-foot defenseman to look up from his phone.
So instead of a moonshot, Sweeney is chasing incremental, across-the-board efficiencies to squeeze a few more points from the 2015-16 version of the team that fell one slot shy of postseason qualification. Sweeney is like a racecar driver seeking better performance by increasing horsepower, reducing weight, and hastening pit stops instead of replacing the entire vehicle.
On Tuesday, Sweeney replaced Doug Houda and Doug Jarvis on the coaching staff with Bruce Cassidy and Jay Pandolfo. He re-signed Kevan Miller to a four-year, $10 million extension on the assumption that the 28-year-old defenseman with 159 career NHL games has yet to express his full portfolio. He hired Paul Whissel, a former Boston University hockey consultant, to fill the new position of director of sports performance and rehab.
“We identified that we think Kevan has room for continued growth and development,” Sweeney said during a Wednesday conference call. “We saw that in his play this year when he had an extended role.”
Of the transactions, promoting Cassidy will have the most significant impact. As a Providence assistant to Rob Murray, Cassidy helped prepare Johnny Boychuk, Adam McQuaid, and Matt Bartkowski for Boston. In his five years as head coach there, Cassidy developed future NHL defensemen in Miller, Torey Krug, Joe Morrow, Zach Trotman, and David Warsofsky.
Cassidy reinforced existing strengths and targeted areas requiring enhancement. He wanted his stay-at-homers to develop quicker feet and faster puck movement. He demanded efficient net-front positioning and robust box-outs from the offensive-minded defensemen. Cassidy built in these amplifications by overseeing repetitions in practice, managing play from the bench, and issuing corrections via postgame video.
Claude Julien’s vision is a defense that is up the ice, quicker to close on opponents, and initiates the transition with more options than the D-to-D breakout that became standard — and predictable — operating procedure.
Julien wants his defensemen to use more of the ice when it’s available, both by applying heavier pressure when chasing the puck and by rushing the other way upon retrieval.
“What we’d like to grow in our game is the ability to move the puck out of the zone quicker and cleaner,” Cassidy said. “It may involve more one-man breakouts with players who have the ability to beat the first forechecker with their feet and make a good outlet pass.”
The objective is to improve last year’s goals-against rate (2.78, No. 20 in the NHL) while feeding enough up-ice pucks to satisfy the offense (2.88 goals per game, No. 5). It will be Cassidy’s job to drill these habits into his defensemen during practice and ensure proper in-game execution when he joins Julien on the bench.
Such approaches, Julien believes, are in Cassidy’s wheelhouse in the way he thinks the game and the manner in which he played it as a 36-game NHL defenseman.
“The plan is to be a little bit tighter,” Julien said. “A lot of our D’s excel with big sticks. I’m not just talking about Zdeno Chara. We’ve got McQuaid and a lot of guys who are hard to get around.
“If we can get a little bit tighter and have better gaps and better retrievals, D’s can wheel the puck and have good support from our forwards. That will definitely help.”
In future years, the Bruins believe their new assistant’s pupils will include Brandon Carlo, Jeremy Lauzon, Rob O’Gara, and Matt Grzelcyk. Collectively, they have 13 games of professional experience. None is ready for prompt NHL immersion without a proper AHL dip.
So for 2016-17, it’s hard to say whether Cassidy and Julien will have upgraded pieces to play with. Chara, McQuaid, Miller, and Dennis Seidenberg are under contract for 2016-17. Krug, Morrow, and Colin Miller will be restricted on July 1. Krug and Miller will be re-signed, even if it requires arbitration for the former. Seidenberg’s future is cloudy, given his diminishing presence and $4 million annual cap hit.
The Bruins need a three-zone defenseman, a resource Sweeney has regularly acknowledged wanting. But a wish-list asset is much harder to turn into a tangible element.
Consider Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton, Nikita Zadorov, Griffin Reinhart, and Tyler Myers, some of the young 200-foot defensemen traded in the past three seasons. The respective returns have been Ryan Johansen; first- and second-rounders used on Zach Senyshyn, Lauzon, and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson; a package that included Ryan O’Reilly; first- and second-rounders used on Mathew Barzal and Mitchell Stephens; and a package that included Zach Bogosian.
The prices are higher than the Bruins can pay, either because they don’t have such pieces or can’t afford to let them go. It’s where the hasty Hamilton trade has deferred their window of winning and perhaps closed it altogether. If the returns hit, they might graduate to the NHL by the time the current core is using walkers.
In the absence of a roster-shaking trade, Sweeney will pursue additional small upgrades. It’s his best shot at making the playoffs.