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GM Chiarelli has reconstructed the Bruins from the bottom up

Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs (center), flanked by son Charlie, said he likes how Peter Chiarelli (left) does business. Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs (center), flanked by son Charlie, said he likes how Peter Chiarelli (left) does business. (Winslow townson/Associated Press)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / October 8, 2008
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Now it's really Peter Chiarelli's team. Player personnel. Front office employees. Scouting staff. His people, his thumbprint, top to bottom, on the ice and in all key decision-making positions of the spoked-B franchise.

The Bruins of 2008-09, for better or worse, are Chiarelli's making, and with only this year and next remaining on his contract, the 44-year-old former Harvard captain has three postseason victories for tenuous proof things are turning around for the storied-but-struggling franchise after two seasons under his watch.

Just as with coaches, the clock ticks loudly these days for NHL general managers, which is to say that more than ever it's a performance-based job and not the safe harbor it was for decades throughout the league.

"I guess it does . . . but I like to think we have a made a lot of good progress here," said Chiarelli, eschewing the prospect that this season carries particular pressure with his contract dwindling. "I don't focus on that. The way the business is, managers are like coaches now. I realize that."

Chiarelli's boss, owner Jeremy Jacobs, was at the Garden Friday for the team's annual media day. Now three decades-plus into ownership, the senior Jacobs has seen the franchise's fortunes sink through the late '90s and continue to drag along the bottom during and after the league's infamous and inglorious 2004-05 lockout.

When asked where his franchise stood, and whether Chiarelli should feel more pressure now after two seasons of mixed results, the senior Jacobs said, "I don't have the same fixation with the timeline."

In fact, said Jacobs, he "likes how [Chiarelli] does business, and I like how he runs the team." The owner said he figures Chiarelli will continue as GM beyond the length of his current contract, and believes his man in charge has done a "great job" in the hiring of Claude Julien as coach and with "the addition of the youth he has brought into the lineup" (including free agent signee Blake Wheeler, officially added yesterday to the season-opening roster).

No excuses

Quietly, as he does all of his business, the studious, bespectacled Chiarelli also yesterday made one of his boldest moves since taking over the office formerly filled by Mike O'Connell, who was fired in March 2006. Chiarelli essentially fired Peter Schaefer, the left winger whom he obtained just one summer ago in a swap with Ottawa for spare winger Shean Donovan. Chiarelli was convinced the ex-Senators corner and boards impresario could fill a valuable role on one of Boston's top two lines. Most nights, Schaefer was ineffective, barely noticeable on the ice.

The Schaefer heave-ho, which could lead to the Bruins paying the 31-year-old a total of $4.6 million the next two years to play in Providence (AHL), pales in weight only to the firings of coaches Dave Lewis and Marc Habscheid following the 2006-07 season, Chiarelli's first on the job. In concert, three difficult and pricey decisions, reflective of miscues and growing pains on Chiarelli's part, but also telling in that they show his willingness to admit mistakes in an attempt to build a winner.

"I will say it wasn't the ideal circumstance for me to make my decision, but I'm not making excuses," said Chiarelli, reflecting on how the parameters of his hiring here in Boston, restrictions set forth by his former employer, the Senators, limited his ability to interview coaching candidates in June and July of 2006. "But, yes, it was my plan to have Dave and Habby be the staff, and it didn't work out. Again, that's my mistake, no one else's."

In retrospect, said Chiarelli, he should have "paid closer attention" that rookie season to how the coaching staff interacted, and how the team's play began to fade in late December, then bottomed out over the final three weeks of the season.

"I let some things slide on a team perspective, things I saw happening in practice that should have been corrected," he said. "Little things that should have been addressed. We lost, what, 10 of the last 11 that year? But in December, we were in fifth place, and I began paying attention to other things with the team. Some of the things that were missing in practice began to slip into our game."

Asked for specifics, Chiarelli said he saw bad habits creep into practices, with too much emphasis on skating flow and not enough on contact and toughness around the net. Upon hiring Julien, Chiarelli said he emphasized the need for the ex-Devils bench boss to be a teacher.

"I didn't see that," said Chiarelli, in reference to Lewis.

Trusted assistance

The management team he has in place now has Chiarelli advised closely by assistant GM Jim Benning, director of hockey operations Don Sweeney, and VP Cam Neely. Chiarelli canned Jeff Gorton, O'Connell's longtime assistant GM, after one year on the job. Sweeney, one of his first hires, has been an emerging influence the last two-plus calendar years. Neely, with roles both in business and hockey operations, also has become a trusted, valuable contributor.

"Cam has a good, reasonable sense of a lot of issues, and that's a good voice of reason to hear," said Chiarelli. "He sees a lot from a forward's perspective. He has a sense of the pulse of the fans, the pulse of the game. I see a lot of similarity between Cam and Steve Yzerman."

In fact, soon after Neely came aboard in a management role last year, Chiarelli arranged for Neely and Yzerman, one of Chiarelli's longtime friends, to hook up by phone. Yzerman is a key component of the Red Wings front office.

"They have a good model in Detroit with guys like [Ken] Holland, [Jim] Nill, Jim Devellano, and Steve," said Chiarelli. "I see a lot of similarities with Cam and Stevie. They're both reserved. They both digest information well. They're both smart, with good common sense."

With Chiarelli on the job, the Bruins have formed a player personnel core framed by his two top free agent hires, top defenseman Zdeno Chara and top-scoring pivot Marc Savard. Patrice Bergeron, center 1A, was put on the job by the prior regime, and his contract soon was extended by Chiarelli. His most recent free agent hire, ex-Habs winger Michael Ryder (three years/$12 million) will make his debut in Black and Gold tomorrow night.

Personnel skills

One key difference in the Chiarelli regime has been the relative ease with which players are signed, absent threats of holdouts or bitter arbitration hearings, or advice to take yodeling lessons (Harry Sinden to Joe Juneau, 1992). Take, for instance, the summer signing of Dennis Wideman, who filed for arbitration as a formality, but easily came to terms on a four-year deal worth an eye-popping $3.875 million per season.

Of all the deals Chiarelli has made since arriving, the Brad Boyes-for-Wideman swap with St. Louis remains the most controversial. Boyes was a fan favorite here, but he played as one of the many lost souls in Lewis's one-year tenure. Since going to St. Louis, he has scored 47 goals in 101 games, including 43 strikes last season. Wideman was kept out of the starting lineup for the season opener in Dallas last season, but he emerged as a competent, if sometimes flawed, puck-mover on the back end.

"I can understand why it's a lightning rod," said Chiarelli. "People liked Boyes, and he has done very well in St. Louis. Again, part of the reason we made the deal was because we knew we were losing Brad Stuart - he wasn't going to re-sign here and we didn't know who was going to move the puck. We knew Wides can move the puck.

"Boyes, to be honest, if you said he was going to score 40 goals, no, I wouldn't have believed you. But remember, we got a player who was playing 25 minutes a night [at least before Andy Murray's arrival as coach in St. Louis], and he was a year younger [than Boyes]."

Two-plus years on the job, Chiarelli remains reserved, not an unwilling spokesman for the franchise, but one who likely never will be the quotable, if sometimes bombastic, personality Sinden was for decades. Although, no one on the Bruins watch has ever had to deal in a time when so much success has coursed through the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics franchises.

"You come in, and you're full of vinegar, and confident that you can do anything," said Chiarelli, asked if the job has been more daunting than he expected. "If there is one thing, I'd say I wasn't prepared for the enormity of the presence of the other teams. It can be something. And it absolutely has made us work harder. It's the constant comparison. I mean, the Celtics come in, bam! make a trade and win the championship. And, hey, I have no ill feeling here at all. I think it's great they have done it.

"Like I say, it makes you work harder."

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