Sweeney getting better all the time . . . and so are Bruins

Sweeney getting better all the time . . . and so are Bruins

Building Back the Bruins is a five-part series in which we'll examine the slow, difficult process of turning the team back into a perennial Stanley Cup contender. Today in Part 2, we look at Don Sweeney's role in turning things around, and improving on a rocky first year. 

Just like the Bruins team that rebounded on the ice this year, Don Sweeney was much improved in his second season as general manager.

It was a bumpy ride for Sweeney in his first year, as he attempted to extricate the Bruins from a suffocating salary cap situation, reseed a prospect garden that had withered under the previous administration, and learn on the job while making some fairly substantial mistakes along the way.


Mistakes like trading for cheap-shot artist Zac Rinaldo, or signing the mostly useless Jimmy Hayes to a three-year contract extension after acquiring him from the Panthers for Reilly Smith, or failing to move Loui Eriksson at the trade deadline a year ago before eventually losing him to free agency. Add in a fruitless two-year search for an established top-4 NHL defenseman and there are certainly things that Bruins management knows could have been done better in the last few years. 

“When he sat down with us [at the beginning, Sweeney] kind of laid out what he thought was a vision of how to get our team back to where we want to be and in a sustainable period of time,” said Bruins president Cam Neely at the end-of-the-season press conference. "Having said that, he also said there would be some bumps along the way, especially early, and there has been. Would everybody like to look back and make different decisions? Yeah, we all would. Don’s no different. 

“But the overall package for me, with Don, is I think he’s done a really good job of directing certain people in the organization to what we’re looking for. Where the team is right now and where it looks to be going, I think the future is bright.”

The future is bright largely because of the sweeping moves Sweeney made when he first took over hockey operations, trading Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton while stockpiling nine first- and second-round draft picks. Those picks have already delivered Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy to the NHL level, with another wave of prospects -- Jake DeBrusk, Zach Senyshyn, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Jakub Zboril -- expected over the next couple of seasons. 

Still, the value of draft picks as assets hasn’t been perfect. Sweeney shipped away a boatload of secondary picks for rentals John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak two years ago. But through that experience, Sweeney learned and didn’t repeat the same mistake this season. At the deadline this year he gave up only a conditional late-round pick in exchange for rental winger Drew Stafford, who did the job nicely for the Bruins down the stretch as a hired gun on the wing.

And in the end, it was the strength of the Bruins core players and a replenishment of youth that pushed the team into the playoffs. 

Sweeney made it clear he wasn’t satisfied with a first-round playoff exit and vowed to continue molding the B’s into a “deeper, more talented team.” Those are the words of a manager who sees the possibilities with his improving hockey club, and knows there's plenty to work with if he can pull the right strings. 

“We want to become a deeper, more talented team from top to bottom," said Sweeney. "Taking one step forward, in my opinion, is not successful. It’s a good step, but we have work to do in a lot of areas that we want to continue to get better. The commitment to winning in this organization, it’s the first thing that our core players who have won and have lifted the Stanley Cup . . . it’s the first thing they ask. They make sure the commitment, top to bottom, is there.

"Our younger players need to continue to understand that and they need to grow. It’s great to have young players and you’re committing to it. But if they’re not good enough and they don’t deserve to be there, that’s not a good plan to have. I go back to what Adam Creighton, one of our pro scouts, said to everybody at the table at the trade deadline. He said, ‘We need to be a deeper, more talented team, and that’s the bottom line.’ That’s the onus. It’s on [me] right here, right in this chair.”

The biggest, most impactful move that Sweeney made this season, however, wasn’t with any of his draft picks, or with a trade, or a free-agent signing (even though Riley Nash and Dominic Moore provided very good value). Instead it was the difficult, if perhaps a bit too tardy, decision to sever ties with longtime head coach Claude Julien and promote Bruce Cassidy.

Cassidy was the right man in the right place at the right time, leading the Bruins to an 18-8-1 record down the stretch and qualifying for the playoffs. The Bruins played at a higher pace, scored more goals, allowed fewer goals, had consistently better special-teams groups and generally looked like an inspired hockey club that was having fun again. From a business standpoint, they were also more entertaining . . . and winning at a much higher clip on their home ice as well. 

All of those things matter in a big way to a Bruins organization that is both a business and an important part of the Boston sporting community. 

It was undoubtedly a tough call for Sweeney, given that the Bruins had won the Stanley Cup during the 10-year role of Julien, who earned more wins for the B’s than any head coach in franchise history. But it was the right call, and Sweeney deserves credit for it even if it was infamously, awkwardly announced on the day the New England Patriots held their Super Bowl parade in Boston. 

“The decision was very much made here in Boston, the leadership here,” said owner Jeremy Jacobs. “My own impression is that it was overdue – maybe a little late. Maybe I precipitated part of that [with a] misplaced loyalty in that sense. But it was the right move. Coaches have a definite [shelf] life, it seems to be. [Julien] had been a long-serving coach. He spent a good bit of his career with us . . . 

“But it was a very prudent move and it was very prudent there. Under those circumstances, I would say that Don did a terrific job in selecting [Cassidy] and motivating him and motivating the team.”

Making the coaching change could have been done the month prior after a shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings or during the NHL All-Star break, as alluded to by the Bruins owner, but it was made with enough time to still push into the postseason. The B’s also managed to find their next head coach in the process as well, and that’s no small feat.

Now Cassidy is a major part of the effort to get faster, younger and more aggressive in the new NHL, while still holding onto some recognizable aspects of the traditional Bruins. 

Sweeney and his group still need to pull off at least one substantial trade to help give this Bruins team what it needs (a left-shot top-4 D-man, a top-6 left winger scorer, or both) to truly get over the top. Now they’re also going to need patience in fighting the temptation to trade some of their prospect supply for what could become enticing short-term gains as they look for deeper pushes in the playoffs. 

But there’s clearly more trust now in Sweeney, and by extension Neely, that the Bruins will do the right, and smart, thing both short term and long term. That’s a change from where the Bruins were just a year ago, and much of that can be chalked up to Sweeney growing into the considerable responsibilities running the day-to-day hockey ops over on Causeway Street.

Bruins start strong and don't look back vs Lightning

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Bruins start strong and don't look back vs Lightning

GOLD STAR: Torey Krug assisted on all three goals and finished off with a couple of strong games while stepping up in the absence of Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. Clearly all of the D-men stepped up knowing that their top pairing wasn’t going to be available against the Lightning, but it was Krug at the offensive end with his three assists that put him over 50 points for the second straight season. They were big plays too, whether it was finding David Pastrnak in the slot for the first goal or firing wide of the net on the second score that David Backes pumped into the net. The third goal was once again a PP shot from the outside circle that Andrei Vasilevskiy kicked out and was eventually shot past him by Riley Nash. Pair that with a couple of hits and a blocked shot in 19:37 of ice time, and it was a full night for Krug.

BLACK EYE: Nikita Kucherov was not his MVP self in this one. Instead he managed just a single shot on net in his 18:43 of ice time, and missed the net with three other shot attempts in a harmless, invisible kind of game. Kucherov also didn’t really do much of anything else in a game where the Bruins didn’t have defensive stoppers Zdeno Chara or Patrice Bergeron, which has to start making the Lightning wonder how difficult it’s going to be for them when those two players return ahead of the postseason. The Lightning were rested and waiting for the Bruins for a couple of days and should have been at their absolute best. Kucherov was among a number of Bolts players that were far from that, including goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. 

MORE - Scary incident involving Backes

TURNING POINT: The Bruins came out of the starting gate firing and roared past the Lightning with a strong opening period. They outshot Tampa Bay by a 12-5 margin in the opening 20 minutes and didn’t even allow a single scoring chance to the Bolts while playing letter perfect hockey for pretty much the entire time. That led to a David Pastrnak goal little more than three minutes into the game, and then the Bruins doubled their lead with a power play strike midway through the game. Once the Bruins had built up a two-goal lead with the kind of strong defense that they were dealing out on Saturday night, it was going to be awfully difficult to beat them. And Tampa didn’t even come close. 

HONORABLE MENTION: Riley Nash was dropped from the top line to the third line to start the game, and responded with one of his best all-around games of the season. Nash scored on a power play strike from the slot after a big rebound bounced to him there, and that pretty much iced the game in the second period. But he was good all night with a couple of shot attempts, a couple of hits and a couple of takeaways in 18:30 of ice time, and was excellent in the face-off circle while winning 9-of-11 draws in a big performance for the Black and Gold. Nash also stepped back into his usual spots once Backes was lost to injury at the end of the first period, and resumed the kind of solid play that’s allowed him to have his best NHL season in Boston this year. 

BY THE NUMBERS: 15-6-1 – the career record for Tuukka Rask vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning after another shutout win on Saturday night. 

QUOTE TO NOTE: “I’ll play a second period one of these days.” –a smiling David Backes as he limped out of the visitor’s dressing room in Tampa after leaving tonight’s win over Tampa with a laceration above his right knee caused by a skate blade. Backes was also tossed from Thursday night’s game in Florida with a match penalty in the first period as well.


Bruins make a statement with 3-0 win over Lightning

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Bruins make a statement with 3-0 win over Lightning

TAMPA – The undermanned Bruins went into Saturday’s big showdown with Tampa Bay missing four of their best players, and they lost another in the game when David Backes exited after catching a skate blade above the right knee. 

MORE - A scary incident involving Backes

But as adversity hasn’t stopped the Bruins all season long, it didn’t stop them against on Saturday against the best team in the NHL. Instead it inspired them as the Bruins scored a pair of goals early and rode that fast start all the way to an impressive 3-0 victory over the Lightning at Amalie Arena. The victory closes the Bruins to within two points of the Lightning for the NHL’s top spot with two more meetings with Tampa over the season’s final dozen games. 

The Bruins scored little more than three minutes into the game when Torey Krug fed David Pastrnak cutting down the middle of the slot, and Pastrnak slid a backhanded bid underneath Andrei Vasilevskiy for his 29th goal of the season. Backes got on the board next prior to his exit from the game, and hammered a loose puck in the slot after Krug had missed wide with a point blast that rocketed off the end boards. 

Krug was at it making plays again in the second period when he fired a shot from the outside of the face-off circle that Vasilevskiy kicked into the slot area where Riley Nash corralled. Nash put it home for his 14th goal of the season, and that was enough for the Bruins to hold on for victory as the Lightning threw everything at the net in the third period looking for some offense. 

Rask was solid at that point in the game as he stopped everything in front of him and made 22 saves to add to his gaudy lifetime record against Tampa Bay over the course of his B’s career. There was no update on Backes following the game other than his laceration required “several stitches” and that he was done for the night after the incident late in the first period.