We live in a prove-it world, and you know what that means. Before anyone believes in you, you have to prove it. And then once you do, you have to prove it again.
All of which brings us to the Bruins, and Don Sweeney in particular – the latter of whom is having a better year than anyone in Boston, including Tom Brady.
As usual, let’s back up here for a second. Three years ago this spring, the Bruins missed the playoffs, fired general Peter Chiarelli, and installed Sweeney as his replacement. The task was clear – and difficult. Sweeney was to keep the Bruins in playoff contention while rebuilding the Boston player development operation, which is the sports equivalent of satisfying church and state. In pro sports, the present and the future are often mutually exclusive, because you have to surrender one to serve the other.
Did Sweeney do it the right way? Heaven knows. Had he traded more veterans, the Bruins might have finished worse, had higher draft picks, rebuilt more quickly. But then, some of those veterans might not be here now. In Sweeney’s first two seasons, the Bruins missed the playoffs and got bounced in the first round. (It should be noted that they were really no worse than they were under Chiarelli, finishing with 93 and 95 points after accumulating 96 in Chiarelli’s final, playoff-free season.) All of this set up the 2017-18 season as a critical tipping point.
That said, the Bruins’ future looks blindingly bright at the moment, and the play of Ryan Donato on Monday night only added to a list of promising young players who are impacting the present and fortifying the future. Think about it: Donato. Jake DeBrusk. Danton Heinen. Charlie McAvoy. Maybe Anders Bjork. Trent Frederic. Jack Studnicka. Urho Vaakanainen. Jeremy Lauzon. Maybe Brandon Carlo. The list goes on. And on. And on.
So let’s keep this simple: when he took over the Bruins, Sweeney’s No. 1 task was to draft and develop young talent, particularly after Chiarelli failed to do so. Nothing in sports is more important, particularly in the only true hard salary-cap league among the four major sports. The Bruins have decisions coming, as every organization does. They can’t pay everyone. They have to choose.
To date, not all of Sweeney’s draft moves have been perfect. In 2015, Sweeney’s first as GM, the Bruins took Jakub Zboril, DeBrusk and Zachary Senyshyn with picks 13-15. Only DeBrusk has materialized so far. Meanwhile, the Bruins passed on the Islanders’ Matthew Barzal (No. 16) and the Jets’ Kyle Connor (No. 17), among others. If you think the Bruins are stacked with young players now, think of where they would be with those two instead of Senyshyn and Zboril.
Of course, we all know that no GM hits on every pick. That’s why Sweeney stockpiled selections that might have made Danny Ainge envious.
Regardless, getting to the Bruins to this stage was one thing – but getting to the next level is something altogether different. In acquiring Rick Nash from the Rangers at the trading deadline, Sweeney made the first of many decisions involving his collection of young talent. If Ryan Lindgren (whom the Bruins gave up for Nash) turns out better than Lauzon or Vaakanainen (both, like Lindgren, left-shot defensemen), Sweeney won’t be the only one regretting the decision. He’ll have an entire slew of fans right there with him.
One more thing: as we all know, development, as one baseball talent evaluator once told me, is not linear. Players just don’t keep improving. They have ups and downs. The last two years with Brandon Carlo, for one, have taught us that. Where the Bruins go from this very spot is open to debate, and one can only hope this isn’t as good as it gets. Sweeney has effectively nailed the Bruins rebuild thus far, but it’s only the first step in getting the Bs where they ultimately want to go.
That step leads to consistent and sometimes successful runs at championships.