WILMINGTON -- Cam Neely knew things might get a little "rocky and bumpy" for the Bruins during the first few weeks of transition to a new management structure. And they did.
Neely, the team president, and new general manager Don Sweeney appeared inexperienced when some attempted big moves fell through on draft weekend. They got less than they probably should have for a 21-year-old prime asset in Dougie Hamilton, and their Friday night machinations -- which included trading Milan Lucic to the Kings -- to move up in the first round, where they could have landed a young franchise defenseman like Noah Hanifin or Zach Werenski, failed. In an odd twist, the Bruins never interviewed or spoke with Hanifin prior to their concerted attempts to package assets for Arizona’s pick, with which they would have selected the Norwood, Mass., native.
That brought a firestorm of criticism that the Bruins didn’t have a long-range plan in place, a notion exacerbated when they sent a third-round pick to the Flyers for cheap-shot artist Zac Rinaldo, of all people.
But they rebounded with impressively strong moves in the July 1 opening of free agency.
They signed the most coveted forward on the market, Matt Beleskey, to a team-friendly $3.8 million-per-season contract, and traded soft winger Reilly Smith to Florida for a big-bodied power forward in Jimmy Hayes. You put all the moves together, along with the four-year contract awarded to Adam McQuaid, and you begin to envision a team that will be much harder to play against than last season’s marshmallow soft crew.
As it stands now, after signing D-man Matt Irwin last week to a one-year deal, the Bruins have 12 forwards and 7 defensemen ready for NHL duty, with goalie Tuukka Rask backed by one of several young netminders under their control. They also have roughly $4 million in cap space, so the suddenly cap-flexible Bruins can also now pounce on any deals that arise from cap-strapped teams, the way the Islanders were able to pick up Johnny Boychuk (from Boston) and Nick Leddy last September. If, say, Brent Seabrook becomes available in a Chicago fire sale, the B’s would presumably have the ability to move.
“If we have any opportunities come up, we now have the flexibility to act on them,” said Neely to CSNNE.com. “If something happens now all the way through training camp where we feel we can improve our club, we have a better chance of adding without saying, 'Okay, now who do we have to subtract?'
“When you’re in a position where you have to move someone in order to acquire someone else, you’re really at a pretty big disadvantage. Anytime you’ve got some [cap] space, it’s a good thing. I’m looking forward to looking at some of the young 'D', and seeing if they can embrace the opportunity. But by no means are we closing the books and saying this is what we’ve got [for a roster].”
There are still major needs, of course.
They have no ready replacement for Hamilton, and don’t have a top flight puck-moving defenseman capable of playing top minutes and quarterbacking the power play. They tried to sign Mike Green, but were outbid by the Detroit Red Wings. But the Black and Gold have been very active in trades and free agency, which is something that wasn’t always the case over the last few years under Peter Chiarelli, and Neely says fans, media and outsiders should be starting to understand Sweeney's strategy.
“Don had a plan that we talked about, that we presented and we really thought we could accomplish,” said Neely. “We knew that it might be a little rocky and bumpy, and we also knew that it would entail [free agency]. There would be plenty of opportunities to second guess (prior to all the moves being made), but we also know that people don’t really know what’s going on inside the four walls [at the Bruins offices], and the conversations that are happening.
“We felt like we had to clean up our cap problems, and get out from under that. We needed a chance to add without subtracting all the time. I think what Don was able to accomplish on July 1, whether it was signing Matt Beleskey or trading for Jimmy Hayes, really assured people that there was some kind of a plan. We weren’t tuned into [the criticism], but we could certainly feel it and were prepared for it.”
Neely spoke about more balance among the four forward lines than recent editions of the Bruins had enjoyed, and a collective effort to improve the B’s scoring (they finished 22nd in the NHL in offense last season). While one would hope it’s a little more complicated than Beleskey and Hayes mathematically replacing the 41 goals scored by outgoing players Lucic, Hamilton and Carl Soderberg, Neely trusts in Sweeney to make these improvements happen.
“I think he’s done a fantastic job," Neely said. "I know it wasn’t easy for him, but you wouldn’t notice it or know that it affected him or bothered him. He kept with the plan he’d put in place, and his work ethic is second to none. His knowledge of the game and players . . . he’s put a lot of time in. I’m not surprised with how he’s handled it, but it was quite an introduction as a new GM.”
With the removal of Chiarelli from the Causeway Street offices, Neely has now emerged as the most powerful voice in the organization. Both he and Sweeney absorbed some shots early on, but anybody who watched them as players -- Neely as a Hall of Fame power forward, Sweeney as a 15-year veteran defenseman -- knows that dusting themselves off and rebounding on July 1 was almost a foregone conclusion.
The waves of initial criticism are over, and now Neely and Sweeney -- who've shown they're not afraid to execute big, bold moves -- are building a team in their image.