Here’s how Don Sweeney built the Bruins into Stanley Cup contenders
Few teams are the product of straight-line construction. The 2018-19 Bruins, now poised to play in their third Stanley Cup Final in nine seasons, have no fewer than three general managers embedded in the brick and mortar of their success.
Mike O’Connell was on the watch when elite forwards Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci were drafted.
Peter Chiarelli, in tandem with then-assistant GM Jeff Gorton, made the moves to acquire Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask, all within days after Brad Marchand was drafted No. 71 in June 2006.
Don Sweeney one day could be remembered best as the guy in charge when Charlie McAvoy was drafted at No. 14 in 2016. Sweeney was promoted in the spring of 2015 to untangle a stale roster, a payroll gone awry, and a coaching message gone fallow.
Sweeney, the 52-year-old former Harvard defenseman, is the re-engineer and makeover architect of a roster that next will try to beat San Jose or St. Louis for the seventh Cup in team history.
“Bottom line is, my dad’s a math teacher,” Sweeney said during a news conference over the weekend, pondering the key moves that have brought his club back to the Cup Final. “You look at the equation. It’s a word problem, so you try and find the equation.”
To that point, mused Sweeney, his players and coaches are fully invested, and he believes he has a staff and ownership group that also are all in. Top that all off with hard work, he stressed, and ideally it adds up to the kind of success that can lead to challenging again for a championship — six years after falling a couple of wins shy in the ’13 Final vs. the Blackhawks.
“The guy wearing a suit,” said Sweeney, dressed leisurely during the offday media scrum, “generally looks better when things go right.”
Sweeney’s moves, ample portions of right and wrong, have been many since taking over in the wake of Chiarelli’s firing.
It began in the summer of 2015, just weeks into his new gig, with the rework of the club’s stifling, tight-to-the-cap player payroll, leading to the offloading of fan favorites Milan Lucic on the Kings and the injured Marc Savard on the Panthers in a span of five days.
Prior to the Lucic deal, Sweeney dealt Doug Hamilton, believed to be the franchise’s defenseman in waiting, to the Calgary Flames for the three picks that became Zach Senyshyn, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Jeremy Lauzon. The Lucic deal to LA included the acquisition of Martin Jones, but when the elite goalie prospect made clear his salary request was too high, Sweeney dealt him four days later to San Jose for Sean Kuraly, now the club’s Energizer-bunny No. 4 center, and the draft pick that became Trent Frederic.
“We tried to do some things, call it on the fly, [to] deepen the prospect pool [and] integrate younger players — all the things we talk about and plan out and implement,” said Sweeney. “We had some bumps, made some mistakes and learned from them, tried to correct them, tried to move forward, tried to continue to make the promise to our leadership group that we believe we could get there again.”
One of the costliest miscues, the signing of unrestricted free agent Matt Beleskey, came amid the massive, frenetic makeover in the summer of ’15. With the Lucic and Savard money cleared, Sweeney rolled out a five-year/$19 million deal for the ex-Ducks winger, who proved in very short order that he was barely a bottom-six spare part.
The end came in February 2018, when Beleskey was tucked neatly into the Rangers deal that brought Rick Nash here for a Cup run that fell short, in part, because the ex-Ranger winger suffered a concussion upon his arrival on Causeway St. Beleskey has one year left at $3.8 million, and looks destined to spend it in the AHL, with the Bruins still responsible for half of that salary. A pricey bump.
Sweeney’s best move to date — pending the arc and outcome of McAvoy’s career — has been his decision in February 2017 to promote Bruce Cassidy to head coach, ending Claude Julien’s long tenure, one that included the Cup win in ’11 and the return to the SCF two years later.
Far more willing to engage in today’s speed game, and withstand the inherent risks of sometimes trading chances, Cassidy in his two-plus seasons has posted a robust 117-52-22 (.670 winning percentage) mark, and this season fell but one victory shy of recording a second consecutive 50-win season. All of it after inheriting a roster that had to be reprogrammed from Julien’s conservative, defensive game plan, and integrating a handful of young key draft picks: Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen up front, and Matt Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo, McAvoy, and a sprinkling of Connor Clifton in the back.
Next Monday, when the Cup Final begins at the Garden, Cassidy will be coaching his 36th postseason game for the Bruins.
“We’ve done a pretty good job integrating, allowing opportunity, providing opportunity, I should say, for some younger players,” said Sweeney. “Our staff deserves a lot of credit for recognizing and scouting and just working hard. It comes down to the investment at a player level, a coaching level, an organizational level, ownership support. It’s really the whole piece of it.”
Sweeney’s work at this year’s trade deadline could prove the equal of promoting Cassidy. Without adding Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle to the equation, which now has the two riding as a highly effective pairing on the No. 3 line (typically with Heinen at RW), it’s possible the Bruins fail to get by either the Maple Leafs or Blue Jackets in Rounds 1-2.
Coyle and Johansson now stand 9-12—21 through three rounds, adding to an offense that has produced 19 different goal scorers — tying a club playoff record set in 1988. As of Sunday morning, the Blues had goals from 18 players this postseason, while the Sharks had 13 (including playoff leader Logan Couture with 14).
“You just don’t know until the deal is consummated, and then you hope and cross your fingers that you’ve done the right thing,” said Sweeney. “Because you’ve done a lot of that planning, and you go home at night and think, ‘OK, if it lines up this way are we good?’. . . They fit in very well with our group. I think they balanced our lineup. Fortunate to get Marcus back [from early injury] and healthy, they’ve developed some chemistry, he and Charlie [Coyle]. And it’s certainly presented some challenges for the other teams.”
Sweeney inherited the core group already with names etched on the Cup here: Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand, Chara, and Rask. As is often the case in Cup play, it’s their goalie, Rask, who has stood out the most in this run. Much the same was being said at this time in ’13 — his numbers near identical to what they are now at this point in the run — but Rask’s stout work was soon forgotten in a 17-second span of Game 6, third period, when the Blackhawks clinched the deal with their pair of lightning-quick strikes.
Just as Chiarelli found out in 2011 amid the Tim Thomas heroics, nothing makes the guy in the business suit look brighter than a goalie playing lights-out into June.
“I think the biggest change in terms of the context of the 82-game schedule, and how we balanced the goaltending, is Tuukka’s taken the ball and obviously played very well and our team has benefited greatly from that,” said Sweeney.
Credit there to Jaro Halak, noted Sweeney, because the backup tender allowed Rask ample rest during the season.
“You have to attribute, you have to spread around the fact that everybody’s pulling on the rope,” said Sweeney. “Not just to throw out the clichés, but we’ve really worked hard to try and get here and earned the chance to get back here, and we’re going to try to take advantage of it.”
And his dad, the math teacher, how would he grade the Boston GM to this point?
“Not very good,” said Sweeney. “Because he’d still wonder how you’re balancing it. But overall he’s given me a thumbs-up to get here, and he wants to see us win.”