How Don Sweeney built the Bruins into a Stanley Cup finalist

Sweeney's success didn't happen overnight.

Don Sweeney's success in building the 2018-19 Bruins didn't happen overnight.
Don Sweeney's success in building the 2018-19 Bruins didn't happen overnight. –Angela Spagna/Bruins Daily

Don Sweeney didn’t inherit an ideal scenario from his predecessor, Peter Chiarelli.

The fourth-year Boston general manager knew success wouldn’t come overnight. And he hit plenty of speed bumps along the way.

“We tried to do some things, call it on the fly, deepen the prospect pool, integrate younger players, all the things we talk about and plan out and implement. We had some bumps, made some mistakes and learned from them, tried to correct them, tried to move forward, tried to continue to make the promise to our leadership group that we believe we could get there again,” the GM of the Year finalist said.

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“We’ve done a pretty good job integrating, allowing opportunity, providing opportunity, I should say, for some younger players. Our staff deserve a lot of credit for recognizing and scouting and just working hard. It comes down to the investment at a player level, a coaching level, an organizational level, ownership support. It’s really the whole piece of it.”

Sweeney, as he alluded to during his session with the media Saturday at Warrior Ice Arena, had his missteps in his first two years at the helm. Signing Matt Beleskey, trading for Zac Rinaldo and Jimmy Hayes in 2015, and inking a productive, but aging David Backes to a five-year deal one year later left many Bruins fans scratching their heads.

The Bruins once again missed the playoffs in 2016. Sweeney kept then-head coach Claude Julien behind the bench after the team’s second consecutive postseason-less year. And the roster he put together in 2016-17 wasn’t much better compared to Year 1.

But even a roller coaster ride in the final 55 games under Julien saw progress. David Pastrnak blossomed into a bonafide playmaker. Brad Marchand was well on his way to another 30-plus goal campaign. And Brandon Carlo began his development under the tutelage of Zdeno Chara.

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That wasn’t enough, though. The Bruins needed a change with a roster still in flux. Sweeney had no other choice, and on a chilly winter Tuesday in February — on the same day the Patriots paraded through Boston celebrating their Super Bowl comeback for the ages against the Falcons — he relieved Julien of his duties.

The timing was bad, sure. But Julien did all he could with this squad. It was time for a new voice after 10 years. It was time for the Bruce Cassidy era.

The Bruins haven’t looked back.

Sweeney still needed to tweak his roster during his time. Both Beleskey and Hayes occupied a roster spot and the Bruins GM needed to spearhead his talented youth movement. He bought out the latter’s contract on July 1, 2017, paving way for the likes of Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, and Sean Kuraly. The former netted Rick Nash as part of a package with the New York Rangers at the 2018 trade deadline.

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The Nash deal didn’t really pan out for the Bruins late last season, but the youth movement took center stage. DeBrusk, Heinen, Kuraly, Anders Bjork, and Ryan Donato all earned playing time up front over the last two seasons. And Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, and Matt Grzelcyk both made the most of their opportunities on the back end.

That leads to this year’s roster. The Bruins had several pieces in place for Cup contention a year after their second-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. But they needed an upgrade in the middle of the lineup to complete their puzzle, even if it meant parting ways with the raw, but talented Donato.

That’s where Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson came in. Neither provided a marquee splash — a la Mark Stone, Tyler Toffoli or Wayne Simmonds (to name a few) — that Bruins fans hoped for at this year’s trade deadline. But the Weymouth-born forward and the Swedish winger indeed filled in those missing holes.

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Now Cassidy can roll all four lines at any given moment. The 12 forwards all bought into the system.

The top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak are a marvel to watch. Backes, in his plug-in role on line two with Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci, filled a physical spark the Bruins lacked at times in the first two rounds. Johansson and Coyle found instant chemistry upon arriving in Boston, and Heinen complements the duo perfectly on line three. Kuraly, Joakim Nordstrom, Noel Acciari, and Chris Wagner all provided clutch moments on the fourth line during the first three rounds.

A perfect blend of puck movers (McAvoy, Grzelcyk, and Torey Krug) and physical, stay-at-home defensemen (Carlo, Chara, and Connor Clifton) gave Cassidy a well-rounded blue-line.

Then of course there’s goalie Tuukka Rask, who’s been lights out in the postseason. His workload decreased during the regular season thanks to Jaroslav Halak’s arrival from Long Island. Rask, the hands-down Conn Smythe favorite through the first three rounds, reaped the benefits of staying fresh compared to years past thanks to the push from Halak during the 82-game slate.

The perfect mix of the youth movement and a solid core left over from the 2011 Stanley Cup run and subsequent return to the Cup Final two years later — including Chara, Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, and Rask — is a testament to Sweeney’s tenure. His unheralded signings of Halak, Wagner, and Nordstrom this past offseason — after falling short in the John Tavares sweepstakes — along with the Coyle and Johansson deadline day deals all took center stage at certain times during their first 12 postseason victories.

It took a while to get here, but Sweeney’s patience paid off. It all culminated with Boston’s third Stanley Cup Final appearance of the decade.

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