Zdeno Chara (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Don Sweeney takes over a Bruins team that has some vital pieces, but also needs a lot of revamping. As the former assistant GM of the team, he knows the organization better than anyone. But is he willing to make a bold, earth-shattering move it might take to improve the roster?
At first blush, the hiring of a guy like Don Sweeney by the Boston Bruins doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. After all, will the new boss be really all that different than the old boss. Sweeney has worked in the Bruins front office for almost a decade, the last six of them as the assistant to deposed former GM Peter Chiarelli. Presumably, he was an integral part of the decision making team that got the Bruins in this situation in the first place.
Well, thank you Brian MacLellan for smashing that particular notion. MacLellan was part of the Washington Capitals front office for even longer than Sweeney has been a part of Boston’s before he was named as George McPhee’s replacement almost a year ago. And all MacLellan did was distance himself from the former regime by making a big splash with his coach and in free agency and took the Capitals in a bold new direction.
And that is the same challenge Sweeney faces with the Bruins. That’s because the Bruins didn’t only miss the playoffs last season, they lost some of their identity. They became a far less imposing opponent and had all kinds of trouble with teams that have speed and can make quick transitions.
Sweeney’s to-do list for this off-season is huge. The first order of business, of course, is deciding the fate of head coach Claude Julien. (Note to Toronto Maple Leafs: This is how most teams actually do this. They hire a GM first and allow him to make key decisions on personnel. You’re welcome.) There’s little doubt Julien would not be on the unemployment line for long if the Bruins decided to cut him loose – is there still time for Sweeney to get in touch with Mike Babcock? – but he was also unable to coax this team to play with any sort of high tempo and failed at getting his players to create enough offense to win games.
But the coach is only part of the equation here. The Bruins, quite simply, did not score enough this past season. They dropped from third in the league in goals to 22nd and had all kinds of trouble creating offense both at 5-on-5 and on the power play. By the time the Bruins realized they should have been playing David Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner more both at even strength and on the power play, it was too late. The Bruins fourth line, once the best in the league, dried up completely and now has to be completely replaced.
The Bruins do not require an overhaul, but there are significant renovations to be done. And that will take a bold move. And how much more bold can you get than by moving captain and defensive stalwart Zdeno Chara? That, of course, is far easier said than done, since Chara has a no-movement clause in his contract, which has three years remaining. Would Chara follow Chiarelli and Andrew Ference to Edmonton and spend the final years of his career teaching the likes of Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall what it takes to become a winner? (In fact, how about Chara and say, Brad Marchand, for one of those aforementioned Oilers? That would shake things up.)
If not, finding a landing spot for Chara that is in a place other than Boston has to be explored. The Bruins are on the hook for $63.6 million in contract commitments, but $4 million of that is off the books with Marc Savard on the long-term injury list. So, it’s actually almost $60 million, which doesn’t leave much room if the salary cap is set somewhere in the $71 million range. Particularly when they have to re-sign Dougie Hamilton, who is their No. 1 defenseman and their future on the blueline, and either re-sign or replace the likes of Adam McQuaid and Matt Bartkowski. Up front, the Bruins will not want to disrupt Spooner’s momentum by being embroiled in a contract dispute when training camp opens and, as mentioned before, there’s the entire fourth line that needs building.
Chara is one of the most respected players in the NHL, has outstanding leadership skills and apparently played much of last season with a broken foot. That’s bound to affect a guy’s speed, but to these eyes, Chara has not been the same defender since the Chicago Blackhawks started to dump the puck in his corner and wear him down during the Stanley Cup final in 2013. Chara has trouble with players who have speed, with his massive reach and physical advantage sometimes not even enough to make up for his lack of quickness.
The challenge for Sweeney, if he decides to and can deal Chara, is to make the fan base in Boston realize that the team might not get much, if anything, in return for him. What you do get, though, is $6.5 million more in cap space for each of the next three seasons, space you can use to sign the young players you have and perhaps acquire others who can help with the scoring burden.
It will be up to Sweeney to decide the future of this roster, and the moves must be bold and decisive. Otherwise, the Bruins should have just kept Peter Chiarelli.