The 2019 NHL Awards Show happened tonight in Las Vegas and Don Sweeney captured the hardware as the league’s General Manager of the Year as voted on by his peers and a smaller/more select panel of media broadcasters.
Sweeney earned it with a steady, methodical build of the Bruins from an organization that was in disarray at the end of the 2015 season, to coming within one game of a Stanley Cup championship four years later.
To be sure, it hasn’t been perfect- you had the Zac Rinaldo misstep right out of the gate, followed by the well-intentioned but ultimately fruitless Jimmy Hayes trade that sent Reilly Smith to Florida. And of course- you still have people twitching online about the 2015 draft, when the B’s could’ve had Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor. Or is it Thomas Chabot? Or Travis Konecny or Sebastian Aho or (insert the name of every player taken after the B’s sandwiched Jake DeBrusk between Jakub Zboril and Zach Senyshyn who has had some NHL success to date) but we digress…
The successes, by and large, have been prolific.
Sweeney has been a top negotiator at contract time, getting core players Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak under cap-sparing team-friendly deals when compared to other forwards around the league. He also scored with Torey Krug, still having a year left on a bargain basement $5.25M per contract he signed before breaking out as a 60-point D and premier PP weapon. Krug’s 2019 playoffs was his finest defensive performance yet, and just may have been the tipping point in the realization that he is and should be a part of this Bruins team going forward. When it comes to the delicate dance of balancing the constraints of the modern world of the NHL’s salary cap and the requirement to pay top players their market value when unrestricted free agency or bank-breaking restricted free agency beckons, few have handled those challenges better than Sweeney has. Time will tell if it continues.
He has presided over the drafting of two key defensemen in Boston- Charlie McAvoy in 2016 at 14th overall, and Brandon Carlo in the second round a year earlier. Again, the overall draft record is incomplete- he gets high marks for DeBrusk, but will forever be questioned about the other picks of his first round. However, players like Jeremy Lauzon Swayman and Oskar Steen (2016), Urho Vaakanainen and Jack Studnicka (2017) and Jakub Lauko (2018) drafted without the benefit of premium draft position, could be pieces that cement the Sweeney drafts into the net positive category. The jury is still out.
He’s traded for Sean “Clutch” Kuraly, Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson– all important pieces of the puzzle in Boston’s Eastern Conference championship squad. His 2018 offseason free agent finds- Jaroslav Halak, Chris Wagner, John Moore and Joakim Nordstrom all paid dividends, as did undrafted free agent Karson Kuhlman and free agent (drafted by Arizona) gem Connor “Cliffy Hockey” Clifton. Moore was a lightning rod for criticism until discovered that he was playing the postseason with essentially one arm…he’ll be fine going forward as a mobile, veteran 2-way stabilizing player on the blue line whose bargain cap number and term will help offset future costs as younger ELCs expire.
Of course- you can’t leave out the fact that the David Backes signing has not worked out as hoped, and to be fair- there were many concerns expressed about his age and lack of tread on the tire at the time of the signing- those critics were justified in their negative analysis. As much of a warrior and team glue guy Backes has been, not being in the lineup for the decisive games against the Blues underscored the miss. It’s a tough situation, but Sweeney (and his inner circle) has proven himself adept at the reset and ability to turn a negative into a net positive. The trade for Rick Nash didn’t work out either, derailed by a concussion that forced the former 1st overall pick in 2002 into early retirement, and left us all wondering what might have been if he’d been in Boston’s lineup and healthy in both 2018 and 2019.
Finally, Sweeney’s hiring of Bruce Cassidy after letting Claude Julien go right in the middle of the 2016-17 season when the foundering Bruins were in danger of missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season was his masterstroke. Sweeney, after years of being around Cassidy as he worked his way up the ladder in Providence and then was in his first year as an NHL assistant in Boston under Julien, took a chance on the former 1st-round pick turned coach who had been vilified during his first NHL head coaching stint in Washington. Cassidy, who grew up dreaming of playing for the Bruins and following in the legacy of his idol Bobby Orr, never skated in a game in the Boston organization but has been one of its most impressive bench bosses: he’s a whopping 117-52-22 in his 2.5 seasons since taking over for the team’s all-time coaching wins leader.
Probably missed a few things here and there, and the B’s are still looking for a stalwart 2nd-line RW, but in Sweeney the team has the right kind of manager- one with a vision and the willingness to act for the betterment of his team when needed. We’re still waiting for a true signature trade- one with far-reaching implications in the present and future of the Bruins, but if nothing else- it has shown that Sweeney is deliberate enough in his processes that he’s not going to make trades for the sake of making them. Charlie Coyle may be the closest he has come to that, but the reality is- based on what we have seen from Sweeney, his biggest, most productive deal still exists somewhere in the future.
For now, we’ll deal in the present: Sweeney is the NHL’s top GM. He’s done it by surrounding himself with an excellent support staff, a hands-on approach and the vision to build an organization around specific values and attributes. This is his ship- after coming so close, the course for the next couple of years will be crucial to his legacy beyond that as a player who had more than 1,000 games under his belt in the Black and Gold.
Patrice Bergeron was a finalist for the Selke Trophy as top defensive forward, but did not win- Conn Smythe MVP Ryan O’Reilly took the honors with a career-best 77-point season for the Blues, and Mark Stone came in second. It was a terrific season for Bergeron, but in not wanting to take the attention away from Sweeney in this post- will just congratulate O’Reilly on his 1st such award and extend kudos to Stone and Bergeron, who came up short in his quest to be the first player ever to win five Selke trophies in a career.