Don Sweeney said the No. 1 item on this summer’s improvement plan for the Bruins was reeling in a “transitional defenseman” by any means necessary that could quicken Boston’s attack and bring more skill and snap to a blue line group that simply wasn’t good enough last season.
So, what did the Bruins general manager do in the week leading from the NHL draft into the opening of NHL free agency?
Well, he drafted a transitional defenseman of the future in BU’s Charlie McAvoy, who will start impacting the Black and Gold a couple of years down the road. He also re-signed John-Michael Liles on Friday to a one-year, $2 million contract that ensures the Bruins will at least six bodies on opening night capable of playing defenseman.
But re-signing Kevan Miller, Torey Krug and John-Michael Liles, while buying out 35-year-old warrior Dennis Seidenberg, did absolutely nothing to upgrade an area of weakness that dragged the Bruins into the also-ran abyss.
Once again, a 40-year-old Zdeno Chara will be asked to play as a No. 1 defenseman when he would be a middle pairing shutdown D-man on a playoff-caliber team at this point in his career. As it is right now, the Bruins will also re-sign youngsters Colin Miller and Joe Morrow. That would be the opening night group of D-men in October for what’s beginning to feel like a Groundhog Day-type of master plan in Boston.
Jason Demers was snapped up by the Florida Panthers on Saturday and everybody should be skeptical that the Bruins plan on keeping all of the centers on their current roster with David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, Ryan Spooner, Riley Nash and Noel Acciari in the fold. Chris Kelly still is also a free agent consideration as well.
The surplus of centers combined with the $7.5 million in remaining cap space should be clear signs that the Bruins are poised to jump on a top-four puck-mover when the time is right. Sweeney’s passing reference on Thursday to a defenseman “by committee” mindset and contentedness with his current group are warning signs the Bruins are prepared to ice another substandard D-corps to start this season.
One of the sad realities of the B’s current situation is that they didn’t have the Taylor Hall kind of ammunition to even land Adam Larsson. That part of the inflated D-man market is enough to kill even the strongest Black and Gold buzz.
“There’s not a level of disappointment [in not adding a D-man]. If deals don’t materialize you understand the type of players that were exchanged, and the quality of players in the last few days. Things have to line up. People do not want to part with those types of players,” said Sweeney. “We’ve set a course here to identify some areas that we needed to strengthen. We’re almost to a year on the job here for myself and the number of young players, in particular in defense and some of the center positions that we’ve added, will complement the young players of skill that we have on the wings.
“You have to exercise some patience in this regard. These players don’t just grow up overnight, and turn into NHL players. We’re going to have to exercise patience, you know? Our group as it stands has a balance to it with hardness of [Zdeno] Chara and Kevan Miller and [Adam] McQuaid. [John-Michael] Liles brings a veteran savvy that he can play with Colin Miller. Joe Morrow is an emerging player and Torey [Krug], we’re very happy to have him signed. That being said, we have other young players in the pipeline that are going to be welcoming an opportunity. We have to at some point in time continue to provide that, and let them step up. Will it stop me from pursuing conversations that I’ve maybe planted seeds, or whatever? But it’s going to take…you know…there’s a high acquisition cost for these types of players. I think you’re better served to identify them, grow them and put them in the lineup when they’re ready to play.”
For now, none of Tyson Barrie, Kevin Shattenkirk and Cam Fowler have moved and those are the three top defensemen candidates to be traded prior to the start of the season. There are strong indications that the Oilers are closing in on a deal for the Avs’ Barrie, and the Ducks have been awfully quiet with their surplus of blueliners. St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong was publicly posturing on Friday afternoon that the Blues would start the year with Shattenkirk on their back end after watching both Backes and Troy Brouwer walk away in free agency.
All three could be possibilities for the Bruins if Sweeney and Co. stepped up what they’re willing to offer in trade, and that might mean making some tough decisions on players. After all, Sweeney reminded everyone on Friday that trades are hard in the NHL.
“They’re difficult, as I mentioned, to acquire. I think that in a perfect world you have to find [high-end defenseman] and develop them, and put them in the lineup so that they grow along with you. Hopefully we’ve identified a couple of those players in the last couple drafts and what we have currently in some of our players, they have to emerge as that and grow and develop into that,” said Sweeney. “I think that some of the parts here that we’re moving into the right direction and have some balance. But anybody would stand up and say, ‘Well, I’ll take a top two guy’ and raise their hand. But I do believe it’s very difficult. You saw what the acquisition costs were for a couple of those players and I don’t think the prices are going to drop. We have to be in a position to allow our players to grow, and protect and keep them from here on forward.”
Keeping the status quo and playing the kids on the back end is going to be another exercise in disappointment this season for the Bruins. Sweeney should immediately step down as the team’s GM if he isn’t keenly aware of that. As a Harvard-educated hockey player, he’s too smart to really believe that, so one should hope he’s simply projecting strength and confidence in an area where the Bruins should have none. There are executives, scouts, agents and players watching the Bruins from the other 29 teams in the NHL and many honestly wonder what in the wide, wide, world of sports is Boston’s grand plan to reverse the downward trend.
“It seems like the Bruins are half pregnant. [There are] some real good people [there] but someone has to make a tough call,” lamented one NHL insider of the B’s, who have been stuck between rebuild and reload mode for the past two seasons that ended in failure. “Toronto and Ottawa have been going through the same thing for the past decade.”
Judging by the Bruins’ complete non-reaction to the biggest weakness on their flawed roster, comparisons to Toronto and Ottawa should be a sobering one for anybody that cares about the Black and Gold on even the tiniest of levels.