The Boston Bruins brought a 1-0-0 record, distinct new look and more importantly improving culture around the team as they hosted the Colorado Avalanche Monday in their annual Columbus Day matinée at TD Garden. During their season opening 4-3 win over the Predators this past Thursday, a longtime NHL pro scout was asked ‘what’s the biggest difference you notice about the Bruins this season?’
“They’re freaking fast!” he told Murphy’s Hockey Law. “They push the tempo, they attack and they’re fast.”
One could also argue now, that describes the success of Don Sweeney’s plan (which was to do exactly what that scout described) he put into action on May 20, 2015, when he replaced Peter Chiarelli as General Manager of the team Sweeney played 15 seasons for as a steady, hard-working defenseman. However, that wasn’t the majority opinion (yours truly included), the last two Columbus Days as he and the Bruins were coming off consecutive non-playoff seasons, major changes and from all accounts, an inner tug of war between moving on from the successful, cup-winning, but clearly fading Peter Chiarelli-Claude Julien regime days to the team President Cam Neely and Sweeney regime that has rearranged the present and the future of this organization.
“Don Sweeney has done a great job of focusing on the draft and not rushing the developmental process,” NBC and TSN hockey analyst Pierre McGuire told Murphy’s Hockey Law recently. “Players who go to the AHL and do their chores will know that they will have a chance to make it up to Boston. He also hires top end coaches to work in the AHL. Bruce Cassidy, of course now their head coach in Boston and Kevin Dean, their new assistant. He was drafted by the Bruins and cares about being a Bruin, so young players learn to realize what being a Bruin is.”
When Sweeney was hired though, at least from the outside, it appeared that young players weren’t interested in what being a Bruin is all about. Restricted free agent defenseman Dougie Hamilton, then 22, made it clear to Boston management that he didn’t want to be a part of the Bruins or Sweeney’s plan to rebuild on the fly, like successful teams in the cap era had and were doing. Sweeney ended up dealing Hamilton to Calgary for the Flames’ 2015 first round pick (No. 15 overall) and two 2015 second round picks (No. 45 and 52). He then — for apparent current and potential cap issues — dealt then 27-year old winger and a key cog in the Bruins’ Stanley Cup Final teams in 2011 and 2013 — Milan Lucic to the Kings for the 2015 13th overall pick, goaltender Martin Jones and then prospect defenseman Colin Miller.
That gave the Bruins the 13th, 14th and 15th overall picks in that draft and they used them to select defenseman Jakub Zboril and forwards Jake DeBrusk and Zachary Senyshyn. After another playoff miss in 2016, Sweeney was able to nab highly touted defenseman Charlie McAvoy with the 14th overall pick and had another solid draft, but the jury was still out on Sweeney and whether the Bruins would remain competitive or fall into an abyss and miss the playoffs. Two questionable signings in Matt Beleskey (five years; $3.8 million per season) in 2015 and David Backes (five years; $6 million per season) only increased the criticism. Sweeney didn’t waver though, and with support from above — that seemingly wasn’t always there from owner Jeremy Jacobs but was from Neely — he blocked out the external noise and stuck to his plan.
“In markets like these, you better learn how to block out the noise,” Neely said during the team’s Media Day last week. “We have a very passionate fan base. Fortunately we’ve got a lot of great coverage of the team and there are going to be opinions, either way, so you have to be able to find a way to block it out and Don has done that. He’s got a plan in place that he’s sticking to and we constantly talk about, is this what we’re continuing to do? And the answer is yes, so I think it’s really just being confident in what you think we need to do to be successful, and that’s where Donny’s at.”
Sweeney himself knew the criticism could and would likely come. It’s part of the job and furthermore, as he told Murphy’s Hockey Law in a recent one-on-one interview, he deserved some of it.
“You know the noise is coming. …and I created some of that,” Sweeney acknowledged. “Some of the decisions we’ve made, I knew they were going to reverberate to some degree, but the path was and has been laid out. Can we hope to accelerate it? Of course. Our core guys want to win and that’s what it’s all about because at the end of the day, it’s about winning.”
Now with a return to the playoffs last season, 2015 picks DeBrusk and defenseman Brandon Carlo (second round), McAvoy and 2014 fifth round diamond in the rough Anders Bjork in the 2017-18 Bruins lineup and already making an impact, and plenty of high end prospects on the way, the consensus opinion on Sweeney has swayed to one of cautious optimism and hope. What if the Bruins hadn’t missed the playoffs and forced eventual Eastern Conference finalist Ottawa – who came within one game and goal of the Stanley Cup Final to a Game 6 – to a Game 6? Would he had been here as Bruins GM for a third straight Columbus Day?
“I don’t speculate on that,” Sweeney quickly said. “I set a course to take advantage of an opportunity that I was presented with and that I felt that I had earned. Nobody deserves it but I felt I had earned and if it happens that you have success, then that’s great. But I’ve also kept it mind that most of the time these jobs don’t end well and there’s an end point for everyone. I just expect us to have the success along the way that I planned to have and I felt that way as a player too.”
Sweeney was quick to credit his surrounding cast in management and coaching.
“It definitely starts with the communication; it starts with the support,” Sweeney said. “I’ve tried to effectively communicate what the plan was, but clearly you go through some twists and turns. We’ve tried to remain competitive because we felt we had a core group that deserved that, but also at the same time, getting deeper and that was all part of it. Charlie [McAvoy] and some of these guys coming online, that’s what we were hoping for. They dictate the trajectory of it so at times you do have to just grin and bear it.”
But could the younger players being groomed and injected into the NHL roster grin and bear it? Could a rising superstar like winger David Pastrnak also block out the noise and see the light? Sweeney and his staff did their best to make sure they would and last month, just as training camp began and with talks of a holdout at a crescendo, Pastrnak gave a clear signal they are, signing a six-year, $40 million deal.
“Communication is probably the area that you need to be every cognizant of,” Sweeney said. “The players have questions and they want answers. You can’t give them all the information and details but you made sure they understood what we were trying to accomplish. Is it at the pace they would like? Maybe not. But in continuing to make sure they know we have a direction and plan. Pastrnak was a good example of this.”
While it’s been no small secret during Sweeney’s reign that, much like almost every NHL team, the Bruins were looking to bring in a puck-moving defenseman like Milton, Mass native Keith Yandle or former Boston University defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, that wasn’t Sweeney’s primary focus. Yandle signed a long-term contract with the Panthers two summers ago and Shattenkirk signed with the Rangers this past July. Some may have seen losing out on those two offensive blue liners as a failure, but not Sweeney.
“The last two years at the draft, it was supposedly us trying to go find a good defenseman,” Sweeney pointed out. “But I kept saying we’re trying to find really good, young and talented players that want to play here. Just like ‘Bergy’ [Patrice Bergeron]; just like ‘Krech’ [David Krejci]; or ‘March’ [Brad Marchand], and when we’ve done it really well, everyone of those players have moved through the course we’re describing. That’s what I wanted to get back to; I wanted players excited about the next guy coming and that’s part of the bigger picture.”
Part of that big picture was not necessarily rebuilding but reinvigorating the culture of the team, and as Sweeney pointed out, he couldn’t have done that not only with the infusion of youth but also the veteran core of his team that over the last five years had gone from perennial Stanley Cup contender to a playoff bubble team.
“The culture piece, we’re very fortunate to have Zdeno [Chara], ‘Bergy’ and ‘March’ [Brad Marchand] growing into that role,” Sweeney said. “You look at Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid, two character guys that take a lot of heat, but boy oh boy, they show up every day wanting to win and trying to get better. That helps a Carlo and all those younger guys get in a position where they can succeed.”
Sweeney appreciates the mutual appreciation between the team and the veteran core left over from the Cup Final years.
“I call it investment, he said. “They’ve invested in this organization and I wanted to prove to them that we were invested in being the best organization we could be from top to bottom. If that meant improving areas like this facility [Warrior Arena]; if that meant adding to our medical staff and improving there; whatever small little details where could help them realize that there was a mutual investment going on. I think our players, as I’ve recognized to them, ‘you guys have invested, so we want to make sure we’re always matching that’, and the younger players coming in and realizing how they’ve invested and how much more they need to put forth to be the player and part of the organization we aspire to be.”
Sweeney admitted that investment could’ve been rescinded last February when he had to make probably the hardest decision he’s made as a GM and in his post-player career, firing Julien, a future hall of famer and mentor for many of this core, in an effort to salvage the season and continue his plan.
“I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit,” Sweeney said of his veteran core. “They really did help us then. You’re talking about players that in some cases, like Brad [Marchand], had never played for another NHL coach, and they won a Stanley Cup with that coach. Claude’s a damn good coach and with our players, there was a shock associated with it. They took ownership of some of it, feeling like I did when I played for coaches that happened to, you want to be part of the solution, you also understand you’re part of the problem because you weren’t as good as what maybe you were capable of being. I think our players and our leadership deserves a tremendous amount of credit for getting us through that.”
Thanks to their loyalty, a faster and skilled lineup and his patient, yet willing to adapt approach, Sweeney has the envy of NHL colleagues and media a like now as the 2017-18 season kicks into full swing. Just as it did for him as a player, persistence and hard work is paying off for the humble Harvard alum and New Brunswick native.
“I saw what he had to do to become an NHL player and the time and effort and energy that he put in to making sure that he could play at the National Hockey League level and he survived well over 1,000 games,” Neely said of his current colleague and former teammate. “So I knew that same work ethic would be in a hockey op’s perspective. I saw him when I came back to the team, whether it was from a development roll and the effort he put in that; whether it was eventually becoming GM of Providence and running that franchise the way he did, it showed me that he’s certainly qualified, it was just the experience.”
Well with two years of experience under his belt as he begins another, Sweeney is, as Flogging Molly sings, ‘The Man With A Plan and it’s moving ‘freaking fast’ in Boston.