Don Sweeney

Bruins face plenty of salary cap pressure

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Boston Bruins. 

The Bruins have been a contender for quite some time in the NHL. Inevitably, that comes with the price tag of salary cap headaches.

On the bright side, they’re in a better spot than many of their peers. Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand don’t just comprise arguably the best all-around line in the NHL; they’re also all getting paid far less than market value. Those values are the headliners, yet they also have other team-friendly deals with Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, and Charlie Coyle.

Yet, as fair as it is that Don Sweeney won GM of the Year, he faces some tough work ahead — during the rest of this offseason, and also through the next one.

[MORE: 2018-19 in review | X-factor] | Three questions]

By Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Bruins have approximately $7.294M in cap space heading into 2019-20, but that number is misleading, because key RFA defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo still need to get paid.

Bruins legend and exec Cam Neely spoke of what Sweeney and the team are currently going through in an interview with NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty.

“Across the league, [negotiations with RFAs] has been like sweeping mud. Unfortunately, it’s still status quo [with Carlo and McAvoy],” Neely said. “The history since Don [Sweeney] has been here is that when we negotiate, we do it from a position of fairness. We do a lot of work at comps around the league and try to get a deal done that’s fair. We start with initial offers that are fair and that’s been no different with Brandon and Charlie.”

One can debate McAvoy’s value – he’s a star in my opinion, while the Bruins argue that injuries hurt his case – but the bottom line is that a defenseman of his caliber could eat up close to $7M alone, even without the (dubious) threat of offer sheets.

Recent history shows that the Bruins have deftly found ways to use their own limitations and leverage to get bargains. The dream is probably for McAvoy to sign the sort of relatively cheap bridge deal Torey Krug did, as Krug signed for just $5.25M per year when things were tight in 2016.

The downside of bridge deals is that they only buy you so much time, and the bill is coming for Krug, as he’s entering a contract year. So, beyond finding immediate answers for McAvoy and Carlo, the Bruins must also ponder their approach for 2020-21.

For all of Sweeney’s many wise decisions, contending teams feel the sting of mistakes.

  • David Backes struggles to even crack the top 12 forwards, and while his contract only lasts for two more seasons, it comes at the whopping cost of $6M. If his rugged career isn’t enough to eventually land him on LTIR, then he’s the biggest headache going forward. Maybe the expansion draft would save Boston, even if it meant bribing Seattle and convincing Backes to waive clauses?
  • John Moore would be another bribe case, although his $2.75M AAV lasts through 2022-23, which is tough to fathom.
  • Moving Kevan Miller seems the most doable, as his $2.5M cap hit expires after 2019-20.

Chances are, the Bruins will find a way, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Will they eventually need to wave goodbye to Charlie Coyle, whose bargain $3.2M cap hit evaporates after 2019-20? Could we see David Krejci trade rumors crop up again?

It’s one thing to get under the cap, yet the Bruins also want to contend, making this a challenging juggling act. To the Bruins’ credit, they’re at least not juggling chainsaws like peers who are in even bigger binds, but they’ll need to exhibit serious skill (and enjoy some serious luck) if they’ll end this exhibition with the crowd going wild.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins’ Don Sweeney wins GM of the Year Award

Don Sweeney took over as the Boston Bruins’ general manager in 2015 and has guided them to three straight playoff berths and a 49-24-9 record in 2018-19. On Wednesday night during the 2019 NHL Awards, his efforts were acknowledged with the GM of the Year Award.

A panel of NHL exclusives, print and broadcast media, as well as the 31 GMs annually give the award “to the general manager who best excelled at his role during the regular season.” Though the award focuses on the season, the voting does take place after the second round.

Sweeney made two significant moves before the trade deadline, acquiring Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle. Though the two had a limited impact during the regular season, they provided valuable secondary scoring during the Bruins’ run to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

One of his big moves though came before the campaign when he signed goaltender Jaroslav Halak to a two-year, $5.5 million contract. That move played off beautifully for the Bruins as Halak was an ideal backup in 2018-19. He took the pressure off Tuukka Rask during his early season struggles and allowed Boston to use their starting sparingly enough that he was fresh for the postseason.

Here is the full results for the 2019 vote:

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Stanley Cup Final: Kuraly breaking through for Bruins

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If you handed out an MVP trophy for the best player of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final (rather than the full postseason, with the Conn Smythe), then Sean Kuraly would be the unlikely frontrunner for the Boston Bruins.

Kuraly’s been crucial in the Bruins taking a 2-1 series lead through the first three games against the St. Louis Blues, scoring two goals (both of Boston’s game-winners) and two assists.

Even for those of us who targeted Kuraly as a potential surprise breakthrough candidate really didn’t see this coming.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In a way, Kuraly’s getting all the bounces he wasn’t enjoying during most of this postseason, all at once. His two goals during the past three games came on just five shots on goal, good for a 40 shooting percentage. Kuraly’s 3-0 goal from Game 3 qualifies as a head’s up play, but there was also some luck involved in catching Jordan Binnington by surprise with such a quick release (and maybe partial screen?), not to mention the luck of surviving the offside review.

But, again, there’s an argument that Kuraly has been “due.”

Through the first 13 games of his postseason run – Kuraly missed some time due to hand surgery – Kuraly fired 38 shots on goal, matching Blues forwards Ryan O'Reilly, Oskar Sundqvist, and Brayden Schenn, who generated that many in 19 games (and more average ice time, most glaringly for ROR and Schenn). Even if you chalk up some of that shot volume to quantity over quality, Kuraly had been unlucky, only scoring two goals and five points, giving him just a 5.3 shooting percentage.

Delightfully, the deeper you dig into Kuraly’s stats, the more it looks like the Bruins unearthed another gem.

Any scoring from Kuraly should be considered gravy, because he’s really been asked to do a lot of the dirty work for the Bruins.

So far during the postseason, Kuraly’s begun an absurd 89 percent of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone. (According to Natural Stat Trick, he’s had 48 defensive zone starts, 68 in the neutral zone, and just seven in the offensive zone.)

Considering his heavy workload, it’s impressive that Kuraly’s largely broken even in the possession game, and the Bruins have actually generated more high-danger chances for (35) than against (32) at even-strength with Kuraly on the ice.

That’s … pretty remarkable, especially for a nominal “fourth-liner.”

One of Kuraly’s defining skills is his speed. As The Point noted heading into his postseason debut, Kuraly uses his skating to be an absolute beast in transition, which is likely part of the reason that Bruce Cassidy loves deploying him in such heavy defensive assignments.

Cassidy also singled out Kuraly as a player who deserved more recognition in April:

Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final likely ranks as the high point for Kuraly, along with his linemates Joakim Nordstrom and Noel Acciari.

Not only did Kuraly score a gritty game-winning goal and set up Connor Clifton with a tremendous pass, but that trio drew the occasional assignment against the Blues’ top line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, and Jaden Schwartz. It says a lot about Kuraly’s line – and Cassidy’s confidence in that line – that they got that opportunity, and didn’t just earn a draw, but occasionally actually won the matchup against Tarasenko’s group.

Looking forward, it’s tough to tell if Kuraly might be a more regular scorer.

The 26-year-old managed eight goals and 21 points in 71 regular-season games, managing a solid 134 SOG considering his modest TOI average of 13:46 per game, but his shooting percentage was low at six percent. Kuraly’s career shooting percentage is even lower at 5 percent, and the sample size isn’t tiny at 154 games. It’s fair to wonder if Kuraly may be lacking a bit as a shooter.

Of course, opportunity plays into the discussion.

Kuraly saw his ice time climb significantly once January rolled around, a lot like Sundqvist with the Blues, he’s seen a prominent role during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kuraly’s averaging 15:37 TOI per game, fifth-most among Bruins forwards, ahead of Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, and Danton Heinen.

The Bruins probably aren’t sweating the question of whether Kuraly can ascend in the lineup, or if he’ll merely remain a really, really good depth player.

That’s because Kuraly has the contract that figures to give Boston a competitive advantage. Via Cap Friendly, Kuraly’s cap hit comes in at a measly $1.275 million, and it runs through 2020-21, with no sign of performance bonuses.

Boston’s shown an uncanny knack for supplementing top players like Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron with smart late first-rounders like David Pastrnak, and hidden gems such as undrafted Torey Krug. By getting Kuraly in the Martin Jones trade, and locking him up to an extremely cheap contract, the Bruins seem to have struck it rich again with Kuraly.

If he keeps scoring, even better, but the Bruins will gladly take the version of Kuraly who was quietly winning tough matches for them.

Game 4 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Monday (stream here).

BREAKING DOWN BLUES-BRUINS GAME 3:
Bruins blast Blues, take 2-1 lead in Stanley Cup Final
Blues special teams continue to be sour note 
Berube keeping the faith in Binnington after rough Game 3

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins built Stanley Cup contender by doing everything well

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

If there’s a central theme to how both the Bruins and Blues build themselves into 2019 Stanley Cup Finalists, it’s that you don’t need to tank to build a great team. That’s the comforting part for the NHL’s other 29 teams, not to mention the one soon to sprout up in Seattle.

The less-comforting news is that the process can be best labeled “Easier said than done.”

Both the Bruins and Blues have made shrewd free agent decisions, found stars outside of the “no-brainer” picks in drafts, and swindled other teams with fantastic trades. Neither team has been perfect, but they’ve piled up enough smart decisions to build regular contenders … and now here they are.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This two-part series looks at the key moves for both teams, from lopsided trades to finding gems in the draft, not to mention making crucial decisions in free agency.

Drafting

The Bruins have been a competitive team for a long time, which means they’re not often getting lottery picks in the draft, and they’re often trading away first-rounders or high-round picks to improve at the trade deadline. They didn’t have their first-rounder in 2018 or 2013, as the two latest examples.

With their most recent high picks traded away over the years (Dougie Hamilton [9th in 2011], Tyler Seguin [2nd in 2010], and Phil Kessel [5th in 2006]), it’s remarkable how much of their core comes from the mid-first round and later.

  • Patrice Bergeron was a second-rounder (45th overall) in 2003.
  • David Krejci was a second-rounder one year later (63rd in 2004).
  • The Bruins selected Brad Marchand in the third round (71st overall) during the same 2006 draft where they also snared Kessel and Milan Lucic.
  • The 2014 NHL Draft ended the Chiarelli era in style, most notably with Boston landing star David Pastrnak all the way at the 25th pick. Sorry Robby Fabbri, but the Blues would love a do-over at pick 21. That draft also included Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen, and Anders Bjork.
  • The 2015 NHL Draft is infamous in that new GM Don Sweeney didn’t just pass on Mathew Barzal; he passed on Barzal three times from picks 13-15. While Jake DeBrusk has become a gem worthy of the 14th pick, Bruins fans can drive themselves up the wall imagining this already-strong Bruins core with one or more of Barzal (16th), Kyle Connor (17th), Thomas Chabot (18th), and Brock Boeser (23rd). That said, the Bruins did find solid defenseman Brandon Carlo in the second round (37th overall) so that 2015 crop still harvested talent.
  • And Sweeney’s group really redeemed themselves a year later, snatching fantastic blueliner Charlie McAvoy with the 14th pick.

It’s honestly pretty mind-blowing to consider all of the talent the Bruins found over the years, particularly in the non-obvious spots, and particularly since they traded away the few non-obvious stars they did land on.

Boston also landed Torey Krug as an undrafted player, so they’ve found ways to add serious pieces with apt scouting.

(Hockey db’s draft history listing is a great resource if you want even more, but be warned: you might fall down a rabbit hole or two.)

Trades

Yes, Peter Chiarelli deserves some ridicule for trading away Tyler Seguin in what ended up being a huge boon for the Dallas Stars. Blake Wheeler‘s one of the Bruins other “What if?” players, as he put up solid numbers from 2008-09 to 2010-11 before becoming a star for the Thrashers-Jets.

Overall, the Bruins’ best work hasn’t necessarily come in trades, but there have been some wins.

The biggest one came long ago, as the Bruins landed Tuukka Rask in a trade for … Andrew Raycroft back in 2006. (That groan you heard came from Toronto.)

Via the Bruins website, enjoy this amusing explanation from interim Bruins GM (and current Rangers GM) Jeff Gorton.

“We had an opportunity, with three good, solid goaltenders who are all number one goalies in the NHL, and they couldn’t all play for us,” Gorton said. “Andrew had some value and we were able to move him for a player we really like, who is along the lines of Hannu Toivonen.”

Heh.

More recently, the Bruins traded for Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, two deadline acquisitions who’ve scored some big goals during this playoff run after beginning their Boston run a little cold (and/or injured).

Mostly paying the right price in free agency

No doubt about it, landing Zdeno Chara as a free agent in 2006 was absolutely pivotal, and soothed some of the wounds from the Joe Thornton trade from 2005. Signing Chara ranks right up there with the most important moves of the last decade-plus.

As far as Sweeney’s run goes, things started off a lot like they did with the draft: a little bumpy.

The David Backes signing didn’t seem ideal when it happened in 2016, and that $6M price tag becomes a bigger drag with each passing season. That was an example of the Blues pulling off addition by subtraction.

Luckily, the Bruins have mostly avoided such setbacks. They wisely parted ways with Milan Lucic rather than signing him to a deal that’s become a nightmare for the Oilers. The addition of Jaroslav Halak was also very helpful when Tuukka Rask was struggling a bit earlier in 2018-19.

Really, the Bruins have done their best free agent work in locking up core players to team-friendly deals.

The biggest bargains come with the big three. Bergeron’s cap hit of $6.875M is almost insulting to the two-way star, and while he’s 33, the aging curve doesn’t seem too threatening with the deal running out after 2021-22. (Even if he hits a wall, the Bruins have been making out like bandits for long enough for it to be beyond worth it.)

Brad Marchand must regret licking the envelope* when he signed the deal that locked him to a ridiculous $6.125M cap hit through 2024-25. At 31, Marchand might eventually decline enough for that to be a problem, but he’s delivering at such a rate that most of the NHL should really envy the Bruins’ bargain.

* – Sorry.

The best deal might actually be for David Pastrnak, whose satanic $6.66M cap hit sure feels like a deal with the non-New Jersey devil. Pastrnak’s more or less a $10M forward making that discount rate, and the 23-year-old won’t need a new deal until after the 2022-23 season.

Getting the best line in hockey for less than $20M per year is honestly kind of absurd, and other contracts (beyond Backes) don’t really drag the team down, either. Trade rumors have swirled around Krejci and Rask for years, yet both are fairly paid, and their deals don’t really look like problems at all.

There’s probably a mixture of luck and timing to explain some of these bargains, but the bottom line is that the Bruins have been able to keep their core pieces together without breaking that bank. Doing so allows them to supplement those top players with the Charlie Coyle and Jaroslav Halak-type electrons who really boost this impressive nucleus.

If there’s any lesson to other teams, it’s to try to be proactive whenever possible when it comes to locking down your best players. Again, “Easier said than done.”

(As always, Cap Friendly served as a key resource for salary structure and contract information.)

Coach Cassidy

There was at least a slight fear that, when Claude Julien left the Bruins, it felt like an end of an era. Would the Bruins take a step back?

Nope. Instead, Bruce Cassidy’s been a breath of fresh of air for Boston. The Bruins remain a stout defensive team, and have been able to integrate young players into their system in fairly seamless ways. That’s a testament to Cassidy, who seems willing to innovate, as you can see from this piece from The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa (sub required).

As bright as Julien can be, it sure seems like Cassidy’s taken the Bruins to another level, or maybe a crucially different level. Either way, he’s been a stunning success so far.

***

To circle back, it hasn’t been one move, or even one type of moves that’s powered the Bruins’ success.

Instead, it’s about getting a lot of things right, from crucial decisions to smaller tweaks. It’s also important not to attribute the success to Don Sweeney alone, or even his staff, as key pieces were also put in place by Chiarelli and even Gorton.

It’s all easier said than done, but the Bruins have been doing a lot right, and for a long time. We’ll see if that hard work pays off in a second Stanley Cup for the core they’ve built during the past decade-and-a-half.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Armstrong, Sweeney, Waddell are 2019 GM of the Year finalists

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Last but not least in the list of major NHL awards to be handed out next month in Las Vegas is the 2018-19 General Manager of the Year.

Doug Armstrong of the St. Louis Blues, Don Sweeney of the Boston Bruins, and Don Waddell of the Carolina Hurricanes are the three finalists for the award, which was first handed out in 2010.

Voting was conducted by the NHL’s 31 GMs, a panel of League executives, and print and broadcast media following the end of Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Case For Doug Armstrong: After firing Mike Yeo in November, he promoted Craig Berube from the organization’s AHL affiliate, and later did the same with Jordan Binnington as Jake Allen struggled in net. Both moves defined the 2018-19 season for the Blues, who went from being dead-last in the NHL in early January to reaching the Western Conference Final. Berube is now a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, while Binnington is up for the Calder Trophy. Also contributing to this Blues’ turnaround, and were moves made by Armstrong, are Ryan O'Reilly, who was acquired from Buffalo over the summer, and Game 7 hero Patrick Maroon, who was signed during free agency. Having won the GM of the Year Award in 2012, Armstrong is looking to be the first to win the award multiple times.

The Case For Don Sweeney: The Bruins finished third overall in the NHL with 107 points and are back in the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2013. Injuries forced the team to use 37 players, with production from their depth being a major contributing factor for their success this season. Some of that depth came via trades Sweeney made before the February deadline with Marcus Johansson (via New Jersey) and Charlie Coyle (from Minnesota) coming in and making impacts during their playoff run.

The Case For Don Waddell: The former Atlanta Thrashers boss is in his first season as Hurricanes GM and helped guide them to their best performance (99 points) since 2005-06 when they won the Stanley Cup. Following his hiring in May 2018, Waddell signed key pieces Petr Mrazek and Calvin de Haan in free agency; acquired Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and Nino Niederreiter via trade; and picked up Curtis McElhinney on waivers in October. Each players has played a big role in helping get the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in a decade.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS
• Selke Trophy
Lady Bing Trophy
Masteron Trophy
Norris Trophy
Ted Lindsay Award
Calder Trophy
Jack Adams Award
Hart Trophy

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.