Bruins

Haggerty: Time for Bruins fans to put their full trust in Sweeney

Haggerty: Time for Bruins fans to put their full trust in Sweeney

It may not be quite up to “In Donnie We Trust” levels yet, but the time has arrived for fans to feel good putting their full trust in general manager Don Sweeney, and consequently in the direction that the Bruins franchise is headed these days.

The latest blue check mark for Sweeney arrived earlier this week when he and his staff stood their ground armed with comparable players and fancy stats as far as the eye could see, and found a way to sign David Pastrnak to a six-year, $40 million contract extension. It was obviously a good deal that gives Pastrnak one of the biggest deals handed out to a player coming off their entry-level contract.

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But for the Bruins, it was a coup allowing them to hone in on Johnny Gaudreau as one of the lead comp players for Pastrnak, and avoid overextending to other comparable contracts given to Vladimir Tarasenko ($7.5 million per season) and Leon Draisaitl ($8.5 million) over the last few years. Sweeney and Co. shied away from the seven- or eight-year offers that would have pushed Pastrnak’s annual cap number over $7 million. In doing so, they made certain their own internal salary structure was still held in place with the 21-year-old falling short of the salaries for Cup-winning, long-established veterans like Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.  

Above and beyond that it also continues a commendable run for Sweeney when it comes to retaining his own players, and making sure the B’s talent no longer gets sprinkled around the rest of the league. Instead, the Bruins now have their top two offensive players locked up long-term with each of them being paid under $7 million per season, and they hold over $3 million in cap space this season with an eye toward their bright future.

“It’s a testament to the work and time, not only looking at comps across the league but also in discussions with their representation explaining why he’s come up with his [figures]. It’s really trying to find a fair landing spot, but you also need to forecast when other players come out of their entry-level deals and forecasting the salary cap,” said Bruins President Cam Neely to CSN New England. “It’s a personality trait of believing in how you ended up with the number that you did [for a contract]. With Don it’s always about how do we start off with something fair, and then go from there.”

"Fair" is a word you hear quite a bit when you ask around the league about Sweeney, who has now had dealings with most agents and most of his fellow 30 league managers at this point as he enters his third season managing the Bruins. Agent Murray Kuntz has worked closely with Sweeney with both Matt Beleskey and Ryan Spooner currently on the B’s roster, and says his fairness is the one overriding thing more than anything else he’s come to expect when doing business with Boston.

“I have always enjoyed dealing with Don, he's fair and you always know where you stand,” said Kuntz, who nearly went to arbitration with the Bruins over Spooner prior to an eleventh-hour deal this summer.

That’s a long way from the rookie GM that snapped off a third-round pick in exchange for the useless Zac Rinaldo, and consistently fell short in his efforts to land a young top-4 defenseman before eventually drafting and developing his own in 19-year-old Charlie McAvoy and 20-year-old Brandon Carlo.

In less than three full years, Sweeney has gone from inexperienced executive learning on the job to a tireless, methodical manager that benefits from the exact same driving work ethic he formed as an undersized NHL defenseman out of Harvard University.

Bruins President Cam Neely told CSN New England that watching Sweeney attack the GM job on a daily basis has been a pleasure to watch, but isn’t a surprise given what he knows from their time sharing the same Bruins dressing room as players.

“Knowing him as long as I have and having been witness to the time and effort he put in to become an NHL player and to go all the way to playing 1,000 games in the NHL, it all happened for a reason. It happened because his work ethic is as high as it is, he’s methodical and he understands what he needed to do there,” said Neely. “The time and the effort that he puts in [to the GM job] isn’t a surprise to me. The [Marchand and Pastrnak] contracts are very important parts of our hockey club, and he’s putting that same level of work and effort into executing them.”

These days the mistakes and ill-fated decisions have become lessons Sweeney now uses to inform his choices. He has undoubtedly gotten the hang of running the day-to-day hockey ops for the Black and Gold, and has developed enough confidence to show patience when it’s called for in a patently impatient business. The job goes beyond the B’s securing their own homegrown players like Marchand or Pastrnak, of course, and Sweeney has really begun putting together a good track record in all aspects of the job.  

Sweeney played last season’s trade deadline perfectly when he gave up just a fifth-round pick for hired gun Drew Stafford, who jumped in and helped the Bruins make the playoffs last spring before giving way to young wingers like Anders Bjork and Jake DeBrusk this fall. That’s the natural cycle for veterans and rookies in the NHL salary cap world, and the Bruins have fallen right in line with that after not always doing so under Peter Chiarelli. Clearly, Sweeney had also taken a lesson from the season before when he gave up a bevy of draft picks for rentals in John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak. He then watched as the Bruins fell short of the playoffs in 2015-16 after giving up those draft pick assets. He made certain not to repeat the same mistake twice.  

Sweeney also had the courage to make the biggest decision of all last season in relieving Claude Julien of his duties, and breaking the Bruins away from the most successful head coach in the franchise’s history. That was a significant risk for a GM that carefully deliberates over such decisions, but it overwhelmingly turned out to be the right move when Bruce Cassidy stepped in, energized the team with a creative, risk-taking approach and helped push them into the playoffs.

So it’s another right move in a growing line of them as of late for Sweeney and the Bruins. It feels like more are on the way given the B’s draft-and-development pipeline starting to pump out talented NHL players on the regular. Now feels like the time to stop complaining and cease grinding the ax about miscues made early in Sweeney’s tenure as GM, and instead trust that Bruins management in is qualified, fair hands for the foreseeable future.

It may not be time to say “In Donnie We Trust” quite yet, but it’s certainly high time everybody showed a great deal more faith in the promising direction Sweeney has things pointed in with good move made for the Black and Gold. 

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Bruins shuffling the deck looking for answers up front

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Bruins shuffling the deck looking for answers up front

BRIGHTON, Mass – It would appear that Bruce Cassidy is ready to start shuffling the deck up front after a slow start to the season.

With the Bruins ranking among the league’s worst both offensively and defensively just a handful of games into the season, they are both introducing a few new forwards to the mix while hoping for full health to a couple of other ones. 

First off, the Bruins appear that they might get David Backes back for Thursday night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks after his bout with diverticulitis, supplying some badly needed size, strength and net-front tenacity on the wing. Patrice Bergeron (lower body) might not be too far behind after going through a full practice wearing a no-contact jersey. The return of No. 37 would help in any number of different areas once he’s good to go, and would have a cascade effect on the rest of the forwards.  

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Getting both players back in short order would give the Bruins a toughness around the net that was certainly missing against Malcolm Subban and the Golden Knights, and hasn’t been there consistently this season with No. 37 and No. 42 out of commission.

“[Bergeron] is progressing. In the past we’ve ruled him out ahead of time, but we’re not ruling him out for [Thursday vs. the Canucks]. Backes looks closer to being ready to play,” said Bruce Cassidy. “Some of the games that have gotten away from us, those guys are glue guys that really add that element to us to keep us on the rails without the game getting away. Some nights you just need their offense or some hard defending, and you miss their leadership obviously. They’re all good players, but most of them you know they’re bringing that North/South game and a few good shifts here or there could have got us back on track.

“[Bergeron] is underrated in his ability to get to the front of the net especially with Marchand and Pastrnak on his wings. So we miss that part of it: Getting there on time, making plays and finishing off plays. Backes is just a big body there and you certainly miss that part of it. With Vegas the other night that was one of the biggest things we were missing was getting second chances, shooting for second chances, hitting the net and getting those rebound chances against a team that was harder to get inside on.

A few moves on Wednesday might also suggest some on-the-fly changes with some forwards that haven’t been working out with the Black and Gold. Ryan Spooner suffered a lower-body injury on Sunday night against Vegas, and it sounds like it might not be a short-term injury for the center with just one point in his first five games. Matt Beleskey and Frank Vatrano also haven’t produced much in the first couple of weeks of the season, and could be in danger of losing roster spots to Providence call-ups Kenny Agostino and Peter Cehlarik.  

Both players were late cuts from training camp and were showing the blend of size, strength, skill, experience and production that Boston needs more of as they search for answers among their forward group. Beleskey, Spooner and Vatrano have combined for one point, a minus-6 rating and just 12 shots on net in a combined 14 games this season, so clearly that is one of the first spots to look for upgrading the roster from within.

“[A tryout period] is a good way to put it. We talked about that in training camp when we had a long look at guys, but not Cehlarik because he didn’t get a chance to play [because of shoulder surgery]. He obviously piqued our interest last year and did a lot of good things for us,” said Cassidy, who has been in a state of constant flux putting forward lines together due to injury and ineffectiveness. “We just went in a different direction at the trade deadline, but we brought him up to give him a look. We have a decision tomorrow and I’m not going to say whether [Cehlarik] is in or out.

“He’s really played well in Providence, and we just thought he might be able to help us. Some of it may depend on the health of the other guys as far as who’s in and who’s out. If both Cehlarik and Agostino are both in the lineup there’s a chance [they might play together]. They were with [Riley] Nash today in the middle, and he has some of the same qualities as JFK down in Providence. But until we sort through who’s in for tomorrow, and that starts at the top with Bergeron and Backes, then stuff will fall into place for all of them.”

Depending on how Don Sweeney plays with his 23-roster spots, perhaps the time has come to put one of those players on waivers for a trip to the AHL. Simply based on merit it would be Vatrano and the total nothingness he’s shown in his first four games this season, but there would also be a legitimate concern they’d lose the 23-year-old Massachusetts native on waivers for nothing.

For their part, players like Agostino and Cehlarik ripped up the AHL while teamed with Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson in Providence, and were just looking for their chance to carve out a role in Boston. Now they may get their chance based on others not really grasping their opportunity, and they’re ready if that’s the case.

“It’s encouraging for me, but I’m just taking things day-by-day. I’m not looking past anything and I’m looking in the past. I just take things as they come here,” said Agostino, who leads the Bruins two goals and seven points in three games thus far. “This isn’t my first time [up at the NHL], so I’m just going to do whatever I can to make the best impression possible.”

What if Agostino and Cehlarik, a career AHL player and a former third-round pick, can’t make the impact that the Bruins are looking for?

Hopefully by then the Bruins will at least have their top two lines healthy and firing on all cylinders, and can continue to mix and match things in the bottom six until they find a combination of forwards that work. But it may come to a point where the Bruins need to look outside the organization for an impact forward or two, or at least find somebody that can make an impact on the ice rather than will themselves invisible.

Only Beleskey has been at all effective this season as he’s dropped the gloves and played physical at times, and certainly can still be an effective third or fourth liner with the right players skating alongside him. For those reasons along with the massive contract money still owed him, Beleskey should be given every opportunity to succeed in Boston. But one thing is clear at this point: There is too much dead weight on the Bruins roster right now at the forward position, and something needs to be done about it if they hope to pull themselves out of their early-season funk.   

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Bruins lose Ryan Spooner for 4-6 weeks with a groin tear

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Bruins lose Ryan Spooner for 4-6 weeks with a groin tear

The Bruins have absorbed another substantial injury to their forward group with the news that Ryan Spooner will be out 4-6 weeks with a torn groin. According to sources, it was something he was playing with for some time before the right adductor muscle in his groin finally tore in Sunday’s loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.

With Spooner out of the Bruins lineup, there will be challenges to both team speed and to a power play unit that the fast-skating center was a key contributor over the last couple of seasons. Sean Kuraly was centering Tim Schaller and David Backes in Spooner’s absence during Wednesday practice, but it remains to be seen how they’ll go about filling the void for the next couple of months.

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“We’re no different than anybody else. We’d like to have our full complement [of players],” said Bruce Cassidy, when addressing the injury situation. “To be healthy and 100 percent in this league is tough, but we’d love to be there.”

Spooner was very clearly slowed by something at the start of the season with just one point and four shots on net in his first five games of the season along with a minus-2 rating, and that’s a tough development for a player like Spooner that relies on his speed and skating for much of his effectiveness at the NHL level. It will be interesting to see if Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson eventually gets a look given his fast start at the AHL Level, and the fact that Spooner is on a one-year deal that may see him playing somewhere other than Boston next season, or perhaps even following this spring’s trade deadline. 

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