By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
At the NHL scouting combine in Buffalo last week, Bruins’ general manager Don Sweeney told the press that he would be willing to trade his first-round pick – the 18th overall – if it meant he could improve his team for next season. In a somewhat self-congratulatory way, he noted the team’s success in selecting players in the draft that are expected to make their mark on the big club in the near future as a reason why he would consider dealing such an asset.
“We have had a number of selections the last couple of years, and we feel that they’ll all materialize into very good players for the Boston Bruins, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t explore what could improve our hockey club now in the shorter term,” said Sweeney. He added, “I owe it to our players and the organization to continue to do that.”
Perhaps the fact that the team that they lost to – the trap happy Ottawa Senators – made it to the 7th game of the Eastern Conference finals – and, in fact, should have won the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins – is influencing the third-year GM’s thinking. If that is indeed the case, that line of thought can be summed up in one word.
By all reports and appearances, Sweeney and his staff have shown they have an eye for talent in their two drafts they have been in charge of to date. What isn’t known, is whether the reason for their success with their selections is a result of the organization itself? Or was it due to the work of Keith Gretzky, who was the director of amateur scouting for the Bruins, and was responsible for the 2014, ’15 and ’16 draft picks made by the team.
Last summer, Gretzky was hired away from the B’s by the guy who brought him to Boston in the first place, former Bruins and current Edmonton Oilers’ general manager Peter Chiarelli. Under Gretzky’s time as director of amateur scouting, the Bruins selected the crop of players that Sweeney spoke of, including budding superstar, David Pastrnak and top pairing defenseman in the making, Charlie McAvoy.
According to Sweeney at his end of season press conference in April, assistant general manager Scott Bradley with take over the duties associated with running the Bruins draft board. Bradley has been with the B’s since 1993 in various roles, and the team website states in his bio, “It was under his watch that the club drafted key current players such as Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, both of whom were second round selections, and Brad Marchand, who was a third-round find.”
Whether or not the team will continue to identify the right players on draft day will likely take years to discover. What is clear for all to see, is how poorly this management group track record has been when it comes to making moves at the NHL level.
His list of trades includes sending a third-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Zac Rinaldo – a player whom they were just days away from releasing – and packaging Reilly Smith and Marc Savard’s contract to Florida for the waste of space that is Jimmy Hayes. He sent a fourth-round pick in 2016 and a second-round pick in this year’s draft to the Devils for Lee Stempniak at the trade deadline a year ago; a journeyman player who was in the Bruins training camp that fall, and could have been had for a veteran’s minimum contract to start the season.
In that same ’16 trade deadline, he burned another two picks (a third last year and a fifth this year) for an aging offensive defenseman in John-Michael Liles; all for a team that didn’t have a snowball’s chances in hell to do anything in the playoffs, which they ultimately missed, anyway.
He hasn’t done much better in free agency, either. The Matt Beleskey five-year, $19 million deal has been a complete bust. And last year’s David Backes five-year, $30 million reach has looked horrible from the get go.
So, what should Sweeney do? Stay the course. As I stated before, the NHL’s Eastern Conference is weak. The Rangers are aging, and the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are being exposed by a Nashville Predators team that made the eighth seed in the West by the skin of their teeth; proving, yet again, that hockey’s regular season is a joke.
What he should do is continue to build depth throughout the organization. The salary cap era – more than any other in the history of the game – is about player development, not selling off the future for somebody else’s unwanted players.
If they continue to be successful drafting prospects, they can pick and choose who they would like to keep – and pay, just the way they have with Brad Marchand last year, and will do with Pastrnak this year – while enjoying the benefits of having players like Brandon Carlo and McAvoy playing big roles on the team, while drawing small paychecks.
Quick fixes don’t work in the NHL, and just because the Bruins took a trapping team that was led by the best defenseman in the game today, Erik Karlsson, to the 6th game of the first round of the playoffs, doesn’t mean that Sweeney should go off script now.
Make the pick, continue growing the young talent, and become a team that is built to contend for years to come. Otherwise, you will become what put you in this position in the first place. A top-heavy team in salary cap jail, with no direction to go but down.