BUFFALO — Don Sweeney won’t say if he’s holdin’ ’em or tradin’ ’em ahead of this weekend’s NHL Draft.
The Bruins’ second-year general manager, whose club plucked three first-round picks out of last year’s teenage mixer, said only that he has been part of the ever-present GM buzz on draft week and he expects the hubbub to heat up ahead of Friday night’s first round.
“I think there’s a lot of chatter,’’ said Sweeney, his club slated to select 14th and 29th in Round 1, then to follow with five more picks Saturday. “Some teams are trying to move up. Some are trying to move back.
“Obviously there are a lot of people in play around the league, whether they’re in the draft, or by hockey trades. There’s a lot of exploration going on at this point in time, and I expect that will only continue, if not get ramped up even more between now and Friday.’’
After missing the playoffs the last two seasons, the Bruins cannot address all their roster needs over a two-day stretch here at the Sabres’ home arena at the edge of Lake Erie. They are in particular need of bolstering the upper end of their defensive corps, where top blue liners Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg noticeably wore down as the 2015-16 season wore on.
Up front, they also need to add more consistent scoring punch, particularly if veteran Loui Eriksson (30-33—63 last season) walks as an unrestricted free agent come July 1. Sweeney was planning to talk again with agent J.P. Barry about a deal to retain the 30-year-old right winger.
As in all pro drafts, projected impact players are but a handful, which leaves the Bruins, at the moment, challenged to land elite or, ideally, ready-to-play talent at No. 14.
The most conventional trade option Sweeney could explore in hopes of pushing higher into the mix would be to bundle Picks 14 and 29 for a chance to select, say, in the 8-12 range. Such a play would give them an excellent shot at landing standout Boston University defenseman Charlie McAvoy, who finished sixth in Terrier scoring last season (3-22—25) as the youngest player in Division 1 hockey (entering as a 17-year-old freshman).
Sweeney was in a similar position last year with Boston College’s slick 6-foot-3-inch defenseman Noah Hanifin high on the board and Sweeney holding three first-rounders (13, 14, 15). And with Dougie Hamilton headed to Calgary, Boston’s need for back-end support was severe. Turned out the asking price to vault that high in the pecking order was too high for Boston’s liking, and Hanifin was gobbled at No. 5 by Carolina.
“I’ve had a lot of different discussions to move in a lot of different directions,’’ said Sweeney, who left the 2015 draft with first-rounders Jakub Zboril (D), Jake DeBrusk (LW), and Zach Senyshyn (RW).
“Last year it took all three first-rounders to get into where we thought there might be a player we had targeted. I wasn’t willing to do that. That’s just what the cost was, and every year is different, and how everyone evaluates.
“We have sort of a calculator, where we’d like to slide, one way or the other, on the value side of it — and we stick to it.’’
McAvoy, a Long Islander who came to BU after two seasons with the US National Team Development Program, already has an NHL build (6-1, 208 pounds), one that BU coach David Quinn likens to the thick-bodied Ray Bourque (“big rear end, big legs’’).
Entering BU, McAvoy was pegged as a second-rounder for the 2016 draft, but his poise and range of game — particularly his ability to deal the breakout pass — pushed him up the charts.
McAvoy undoubtedly will go in Round 1, perhaps with only one other member of Hockey East, Connecticut’s Tage Thompson, a 6-5 center whose 14-18—32 ranked him second in UConn scoring. Question is, if McAvoy were to tumble to No. 14, would the Bruins like someone else more? There is virtually no chance he remains in play at No. 29.
“Charlie’s a big, strong, powerful kid,’’ said Quinn. “I can’t tell you how many times during the course of the season that he’d go into a corner against a guy who was 23 years old and he won a battle, or got in a physical confrontation with a guy who is six or seven years older — and he won the battle. That is hard to do.
“He really takes pride in trying to be a well-rounded defenseman.’’
Bernie Corbett, the Terriers’ decades-long play-by-play announcer, likened McAvoy’s overall game to that of Kevin Shattenkirk, the onetime Terrier standout who was selected 14th overall by Colorado in 2007 (and was quickly dealt to St. Louis his rookie year).
“Similar skill set,’’ noted Corbett. “But Charlie’s got more of a natural physicality — that aspect comes really easily to him. For overall defense, I think McAvoy’s ahead of the curve, compared to Shatternkirk, at this point.’’
Sweeney, as to be expected, offered minimal insight as to how the organization views McAvoy’s talents.
Such is the close-to-the-vest nature of NHL GMs, who must all pan for the few legitimate gold nuggets fed into an oft-shallow talent stream. If Wayne Gretzky’s career doppelganger were up for grabs, even the GM holding the No. 1 pick might say, “Yeah, decent sense for the game . . . interesting to see where he goes, you know, if he fills out physically.’’
“Charlie’s a very good player,’’ said Sweeney, interjecting some humor when adding, “Physically, he is pretty well developed. Quinny would probably say he’s ready in three more years.’’
The Terriers would like to see McAvoy leave BU with a diploma, and perhaps an NCAA championship or two, in the spring of 2019. They only have to look farther west on Commonwealth Avenue, and the mass defection of talent from Boston College this spring, to realize again how difficult it is to keep players from resisting the NHL’s call to arms at ATMs.
Meanwhile, Sweeney & Co. — specifically, director of amateur scouting Keith Gretzky — wait for the market to take shape.
Asked if he is inclined to deal, Sweeney said, “Depends on what presents itself. Like everyone else, I am making calls as to what may or may not be available.
“We feel very good about the top 15-20 guys in the draft. We are getting a player we’ve really targeted. We feel very good about that, whether we move in one direction or the other.
“So I’ve had a lot of different discussions to move in a bunch of different directions. We’ll be getting good quality players, that’s for darn sure, and we are happy about that.’’