Bruins

Grading Sweeney's tenure as Bruins GM with new contract on the horizon

Bruins

The Boston Bruins' 2021-22 season ended in disappointment with a first-round playoff exit, but it doesn't sound like the lackluster finish will cost general manager Don Sweeney his job.

Bruins president Cam Neely revealed Thursday that the franchise intends to work out a new contract with Sweeney. 

Sweeney took over as general manager in 2015 after Peter Chiarelli was fired. The Bruins have been a great regular season team during Sweeney's tenure as GM, but playoff success has often eluded the franchise.

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Now that we know Sweeney is staying, let's grade his performance so far and assess whether keeping him is the right decision for the Original Six club.

NHL Draft

Grade: D

The area where Sweeney has really failed is the draft. The Bruins had one of the best veteran cores in the league from 2011 through 2020, led by players such as Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Torey Krug, Tuukka Rask and others.

The draft is where teams add talented, young, cost-controlled players to surround their veterans and create the amount of depth needed to win in the playoffs.

For the most part, Sweeney and his staff have missed on their draft picks.

 

The most notable example is the 2015 draft, where the Bruins held three consecutive selections at No. 13, No. 14 and No. 15. The Bruins took defenseman Jakub Zboril, plus wingers Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn. Zboril has barely played at the NHL level. Senyshyn was a massive bust. DeBrusk has three 20-goal seasons but requested a trade in 2021

The next three picks were Matthew Barzal (No. 16, Islanders), winger Kyle Connor (No. 17, Jets) and Thomas Chabot (No. 18, Senators). If the Bruins had taken these players, they probably have at least one more Stanley Cup title.

Sweeney's draft misses go beyond 2015, though. He's traded three first-round picks since 2015, which means he's only made eight Round 1 selections as general manager. The results have been poor.

Taking Charlie McAvoy over his Boston University teammate Dante Fabbro was a home run. McAvoy has turned into one of the five-best defensemen in the league and a franchise cornerstone for Boston. He is signed for the next eight years with a $9.5 million salary cap hit.

There are no star players outside of McAvoy in this group, though. DeBrusk is the next-best player and he might not even be on the team next season. Trent Frederic was a reach at the end of the first round in 2016. He likely will never be more than a bottom-six forward. John Beecher struggled at the University of Michigan and scored just six goals in 34 games last season. Lysell looks like a great pick, but he's only played one season in the WHL.

The second round hasn't proven fruitful for the B's under Sweeney, either. He's traded so many second-rounders that the Bruins have made just four picks in Round 2 over the last six drafts. Brandon Carlo is the only one of seven second-round picks made by Sweeney who played 10 or more games for the Bruins in 2021-22.

Only five players from the Bruins' Game 7 lineup against the Carolina Hurricanes were drafted by Sweeney. Everyone else was drafted by a previous GM, or brought in via trade/free agency.

The Bruins are near the bottom in many of the recent prospect pool rankings. Lysell and Ohio State defenseman Mason Lohrei are the only top-tier prospects in the system. Fixing this will be difficult for the Bruins because they don't have a first-round pick in 2022 and they are without second-rounders in both 2023 and 2024.

The draft is ultra important in a salary cap league. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they are among the league's worst teams when it comes to drafting and developing young players. It's likely cost the team at least one championship over the last 10 years.

Free Agents

Grade: C+

Free agency has been a mixed bag for Sweeney. He's done a great job signing his own free agents. He was able to sign Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak to long-term deals worth less than $7 million per season. That's tremendous value for two of the league's best forwards. Inking left winger Taylor Hall and defenseman Hampus Lindholm to extensions of four and eight years, respectively, for less than $7 million per season was impressive, too. 

 
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But when it comes to finding key players on the open market, Sweeney hasn't enjoyed the same level of success. Outside of Jaroslav Halak and Dominic Moore, there haven't been many wins.

The big miss was David Backes. The former St. Louis Blues captain was supposed to bring secondary scoring, toughness and leadership to the B's when he signed a five-year, $30 million deal on the first day of free agency in 2016. Backes proved to be a massive disappointment and was even scratched when the Bruins lost to the Blues in Game 7 of the 2019 Cup Final. His performance and contract were so bad that the Bruins had to attach a first-round pick to help get rid of it in a trade with the Ducks in 2020.

A year earlier, the Bruins signed power forward Matt Beleskey to a five-year contract worth $19 million. Beleskey played two-plus seasons in Boston before being included in the Rick Nash trade with the Rangers.

The Bruins signed defenseman John Moore to a six-year deal in July of 2018. It was a strange deal at the time. There was no reason to commit to an average d-man for six seasons. Moore has played in just 36 games over the last three years.

The list of Sweeney's notable July free agent signings is not great, to say the least.

  • 2015: Matt Beleskey
  • 2016: David Backes, Riley Nash, Tim Schaller
  • 2017: Nothing notable
  • 2018: Jaroslav Halak, Chris Wagner, John Moore
  • 2019: Nothing notable
  • 2020: Craig Smith
  • 2021: Linus Ullmark, Nick Foligno, Tomas Nosek, Erik Haula, Derek Forbort

Sweeney was pretty busy last offseason. He signed goalie Linus Ullmark to a four-year, $20 million contract even though there was a chance of Tuukka Rask returning and rookie Jeremy Swayman looked like the future in net. In fairness to Ullmark, he played very well in his debut season with the B's. But if Swayman is the No. 1 netminder going forward, and that appears to be the case, $5 million is a lot to be paying a veteran backup. 

Forbort was a solid signing. He gave the Bruins valuable penalty killing, shot blocking and physicality in the defensive zone. Forbort has proven to be a good replacement for longtime B's defenseman Kevan Miller.

The real issue was the forwards Sweeney signed. Foligno was inked to a two-year deal despite an awful finish to the 2020-21 campaign with the Leafs. He scored only two goals for the Bruins this past season. Nosek didn't score a single goal past Jan. 2. Haula had a strong second half of the regular season but struggled to produce in the playoffs, especially on the road.

All three of these forwards are signed through the 2022-23 season and take up a combined cap hit of $7.925 million. That's a good chunk of space that would be better used on other players.

Sweeney's inability to hit in free agency is a huge reason why the Bruins have lacked the right amount of scoring depth in the playoffs since 2017.

 

Trades

Grade: A-

A lot of Sweeney's most impressive work with the Bruins has come in the trade market, where he's consistently made good deals. 

Sweeney became GM in 2015 and got right to work, trading Dougie Hamilton to the Flames for three picks (one first-rounder, two second-rounders). He also dealt Milan Lucic to the Kings for Martin Jones, Colin Miller and a first-round pick. He then flipped Jones to the Sharks for Sean Kuraly and a future first-round pick. The problem, as described above, is Sweeney didn't do a good job with these picks. But he did acquire plenty of assets for Hamilton, Lucic and Jones.

His first major in-season deal came in 2018. The Bruins acquired the best forward available in Rick Nash from the Rangers. The deal ultimately didn't work out because Nash suffered a concussion a few weeks before the playoffs and was never the same player when he returned. Aside from a first-round pick, the Bruins weren't hurt by what they gave up to get Nash.

Sweeney added much-needed bottom-six depth before the 2019 trade deadline by acquiring center Charlie Coyle and winger Marcus Johansson in separate deals. Johansson had a particularly strong playoff run that spring.

Sweeney did a great job at the 2021 trade deadline. He acquired Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar and Mike Reilly for Anders Bjork, a second-round pick and a third-round pick. 

The acquisition of defenseman Hampus Lindholm at the 2022 trade deadline is on track to be another good move. Lindholm has played very well when healthy. The price paid to acquire him was steep, but legit top-four defensemen in their prime are hard to find.

Sweeney, whether it's acquiring depth players or adding legit stars, does a very good job in the trade market.

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Bottom Line

Sweeney has built a competitive Bruins team throughout his tenure. The B's have made the playoffs in each of the last six seasons and won at least one round in four of them. The team came up one victory short of a Stanley Cup title in 2019 and had the league's best record in 2020 before COVID-19 upended the season and the entire world.

Given those results, it's not hard to see why Neely and ownership plan to bring him back.

But the future of the team doesn't look as good. Boston's prospect pool is very weak, it doesn't have a ton of draft picks, and its two most valuable forwards -- Bergeron and Marchand -- are 36 and 34 years old, respectively. Bergeron might not even be back next season. He hasn't revealed his plans for 2022-23 yet. If Bergeron does leave this offseason, the team is woefully underprepared to replace him.

 

If the Bruins are aiming to contend in the short term -- and it looks like that's the plan -- then bringing Sweeney back does make sense. Getting the current roster to another level might require a few trades, and Sweeney's track record inspires plenty of confidence there. But whenever the Bruins decide to rebuild, Sweeney is not the guy for that phase, mostly because of his failures in the draft.