Best and worst free agent deals of the Sweeney era
The three best/three worst free agent deals of the Sweeney era
Don Sweeney essentially decided to punt on the July 1 opening of NHL free agency when he signed depth players in Kenny Agostino and Paul Postma, and avoided any premium payments in a very shallow free agent class after you got past Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner. The decision to lay low is sometimes difficult for an inexperienced general manager, but one learns over time that sometimes the best team-building move a GM like Don Sweeney can make is to make no move at all. With that in mind, here are the three best and three worst free agent signings for Sweeney and the Bruins as they continue their search for a left-shot defenseman.
The Good: Dominic Moore
You’ll find a pattern with Sweeney where the smaller, unheralded signings have been the best, and that is the case for fourth-line center Dominic Moore. The NHL journeyman center signed a one-year deal with the Bruins worth $900,000 in late August on a team that appeared to already have a surplus of centers, and then Moore went out and played 82 strong games as the fourth line center. Moore posted 11 goals and 25 points while holding together a revolving door of fourth line wingers, and he brought high value as a clutch face-off man and a consistently good penalty killer. Moore had a couple of tough offensive zone penalties late in the year that cost the Bruins in big games, and he did have a long offensive dry spell in the middle of the season. But the Bruins got tremendous value from Moore at almost no cost to them, and that’s the definition of a great contract.
The Good: Riley Nash
Nash was an afterthought when on July 1 when the Bruins announced the David Backes contract, and also added more interest by announcing that old friend Anton Khudobin was returning as the backup goaltender. Those July 1 signings allowed the Nash contract to go completely under the radar, but once again he was a player that performed above and beyond the modest two-year, $1.8 million deal he signed with Boston. Nash was more than good enough with his seven goals and 17 points while finishing up the season in really strong fashion, and clearly the B’s thought so as well after protecting the 28-year-old former first round pick in the Vegas expansion draft. Once again the best deals for the Bruins involve little risk and small dollar amounts, and those kinds of contracts are the best route for veteran players to backfill in bottom six roles and bottom-pairing defenseman spots as well. Given how strongly Nash finished the season while getting used to Boston, the expectation is that he’ll be even better in his second season with the Bruins.
The Good: Frank Vatrano
Though this came at the end of the Peter Chiarelli Era in Boston, we’re going to give credit to Don Sweeney and the Bruins scouting staff for bringing the sweet-shooting, undrafted winger into the B’s fold. While it’s true that Vatrano still hasn’t lived up to his highest ceiling as a sharp-shooting forward, the 23-year-old has still produced 18 goals and 29 points in 83 games over the last two seasons with an upside that could/should turn him into a 20-goal scorer at the NHL level. It’s up to Vatrano and the Bruins to see that development through now that he’s in the NHL level, but there’s no question that the B’s beat the rest of the league to signing a young NCAA player that has skills that play in the league. These are the kinds of signings that Sweeney’s draft-and-development Bruins should be focused on rather than high-level hockey trades and big-ticket free agent signings. Those are not the strengths of the B’s at this point in time.
The Bad: Jimmy Hayes
The three-year, $6.9 million contract handed out to Hayes before he’d even played a game with the Bruins continues to be a massive mistake on all levels, and it’s almost appropriate that the same B’s upper management group then subsequently had to approach ownership to buy out this albatross. The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder was merely okay with 13 goals and 29 points in his first season in Boston while clearly not improving on what he’d done in Florida over the last couple of seasons. But Hayes was dreadful last season with two goals and five points in almost 60 games, and often played both seasons as he was a player about half his size trying to compete at the NHL level. Far from a difference-maker or a chaos-bringer in front of the net, Hayes was a big, soft winger that got pushed around and wasn’t hard to play against in any form or fashion. In hindsight, the Bruins should have signed Hayes to a shorter deal after making the trade with Florida in order to get a better idea of what they were receiving. This is one of a series of errors in judgment that the Bruins made once they’d fired Peter Chiarelli, and all of them set them back a little bit.
The Bad: Matt Beleskey
The hard-nosed left winger was one of the premiere free agents in a shallow forward class two years ago, and found himself signing with the Bruins for five years and $19 million as a replacement of sorts for Milan Lucic. In that time it’s become clear that Beleskey is more bottom-6 grinder than top-6 enforcer and that his salary probably outweighs whatever role he’s going to play in Boston. Still, Beleskey was a good player for the Bruins in 2015-16 and the hope is that he can get back to the guy that posted 15 goals and 37 points for the B’s while playing hard each and every shift. Last season a knee injured derailed the left winger and it appeared he was never in the proper condition to be a guy getting after it every shift. At 29 years old and returning to the Bruins, there’s still hope he can at least be the player he was in his first season in Boston. If he can do that and really get into beast mode in the playoffs should the Bruins get there, there’s still hope his five-year contract isn’t going to be as much of a negative on Sweeney’s track record as it’s trending right now.
The Bad: David Backes
The Backes deal is more of the usual, garden variety bad contract because the Bruins will get good value in the first couple of years when he’s still a productive, power forward that brings muscle and offense to the table. The 32-year-old Backes consistently hits, he camps in front of the net and he stands up for his teammates in the best way possible. Still, there was evidence that Backes was slowing down in his first season with the Bruins while injuries also began to gnaw at a player that’s logged a lot of hard miles over his ten-year NHL career. The 17 goals and 38 points were about what one could expect from Backes while moving him around the lineup where forwards were juggled all season. Perhaps he’s better in Year Two after getting more comfortable with his surroundings and if he can stay healthy, and his leadership and toughness were clear pluses for the Bruins in areas where they needed help. But one also knows that Backes is going to have significantly slowed down by the fourth and fifth years of his contract, and that anything beyond three years just isn’t good business for an NHL power forward-type already in his mid-30’s. One wonders if this is the kind of deal that Sweeney, or whoever is in charge of the B’s by then, will be using that buyout option for when they have to begin paying the next generation of star prospects coming up through the system.