Why Bruins GM Don Sweeney Deserves NHL GM of the Year Award

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 24: General Manager Bob Sweeney of the Boston Bruins attends the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 24: General Manager Bob Sweeney of the Boston Bruins attends the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

A little under a year ago — it seemed the city of Boston hockey fandom was calling for the head of Don Sweeney. After a disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, Sweeney and the Bruins seemed to be on life support.

Heading into the offseason there were more than a few question marks circling the Bruins franchise. The future of Captain Patrice Bergeron seemed to point in the direction of retirement. Contract extensions for budding superstars Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak were far from complete. Most importantly, fans and media alike questioned how Don Sweeney was going to turn this team into a contender again — or if that was even possible.

Early in the summer, it was announced that Bruce Cassidy — the team’s Head Coach for 6 seasons — would be let go. Rumors swirled about the players’ distaste for Cassidy, yet the media continued to drive the agenda that the Bruin’s lack of post-season success fell on the shoulders of Sweeney. Citing poor drafting combined with disappointing free-agent signings made Sweeney an easy target.

Looking back on this historic campaign it may be simple to praise the players or even first-year Head Coach Jim Montgomery. I argue that without the brilliance of Don Sweeney, this team may have been scrapping for a playoff spot.

Today I will be going through the best moves Sweeney made to turn this aging team into the greatest regular season hockey team in NHL history.

Boston Bruins Don Sweeney
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – JUNE 18: Don Sweeney of the Boston Bruins attends the 2019 NHL Awards Nominee Media Availability at the Encore Las Vegas on June 18, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

Jim Montgomery Hire

As previously mentioned, after his firing, rumors began to swirl about former Head Coach Bruce Cassidy. Though it was never made official, it was thought that Jake Debrusk’s trade request was due to the tough nature of Cassidy. David Krejci’s return to his native Czechia was also speculated to fall on Cassidy’s shoulders.

After spending 6 seasons with a hard-nosed coach like Cassidy, this team was in dire need of a new voice. That is why Sweeney brought in the lesser-known Jim Montgomery. Montgomery coached the Dallas Stars for part of two seasons before being fired in 2019 for unprofessional acts. Montgomery checked himself into alcohol rehab in early 2020 and was given another chance, landing an assistant coaching gig with the St. Louis Blues. After a pair of successful campaigns, Montgomery found himself as the 30th Head Coach in Bruin’s history.

Montgomery made an immediate impact. Quickly, the news of his upbeat, player-friendly attitude spread around Causeway Street. His love for his players was evident and the love the players had for him was noticed shortly into their historic campaign. His energy and passion gave this aging core another jolt of life and allowed every player to feel like an integral member of the roster.

The Jim Montgomery hiring was certainly a risk. Rolling the dice on Montgomery allowed Sweeney to begin putting the rest of the pieces together. Bringing in a player-friendly coach gave Sweeney all he needed to bring back top centers David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. It also allowed him to keep Jake Debrusk, who rescinded his trade request shortly after.

Without the hiring of Montgomery, it is almost unimaginable the dominos would have fallen in the order they did. Without Montgomery, there may have been no Bergeron, there certainly would be no Krejci, and there is undeniably not a 65-win hockey team.

The Signing of Bergeron and Krejci

While it is apparent the two long-time Bruins were not coming back for money’s sake, the pair of deals cannot go unmentioned.

Starting with Patrice Bergeron, the 37-year-old veteran contemplated retirement during the offseason. The summer drew long as fans patiently awaited the announcement of Bergeron’s return. Then at the beginning of August, it was announced the captain would return for his 19th NHL season. The best part about the signing was the fact that Sweeney was able to lock in the Bruin’s number one center for a cap hit of $2.5 million.

While the free agency could’ve seen Bergeron earn anywhere between $5-$8 million, Sweeney was able to complete the bargain of the century. Bergeron’s desire to retire a Bruin, along with the understanding that his pay cut would allow for additional support created the perfect opportunity for Sweeney to retain the skills of the league’s best two-way forward.

After returning to Czechia for a season, it was unknown whether or not playmaking center David Krejci would return to the Bruins. His departure left a hole almost impossible to fill. Krejci’s unmatched patience and vision had made him one of the league’s most underrated players for over a decade and a staple in the Bruin lineup.

Then in early August, Sweeney and the Bruins announced the signing of the 35-year-old Krejci to a one-year $1 million contract. The phrase hometown discount would be considered an understatement for the cap hit that Sweeney managed to bring Krejci back on. His 900+ games and 700+ points could’ve scored him at least $3-$5 million on the open market, and other teams were more than interested.

Sweeney’s ability to retain players on team-friendly deals has always been a strength of his, but the signing of Bergeron and Krejci for a combined $3.5 million may be the sole reason we witnessed history this season.

The Trade and Extension for Pavel Zacha

In early July it was announced Sweeney had traded Erik Haula to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Pavel Zacha. Zacha was coming into the last year of his contract and after being a sixth overall draft pick in 2015, he was not living up to New Jersey’s expectations. The young forward spent six seasons with the Devils, never eclipsing 40 points or 20 goals.

The exchange was one-for-one and was looked at as an early win for Sweeney and the Bruins. Not only did the addition of Zacha give the Bruins some well-needed versatility, but the team was able to add him without losing any additional draft picks or prospects.

Zacha’s skill had always been apparent but I don’t believe Sweeney or any Bruins fan expected the success he had this season. Pairing up with his countrymen David Krejci and David Pastrnak to form the “Chech line,” Zacha managed to post a career-high in goals and points. His 21-36-57 stat line ranked fourth among Bruins and gave the Bruins the top-six power forward they have long been searching for.

The addition of Zacha bolstered the top six forward group and gave the Bruins a two-headed monster that mimicked the top six of the 2011 Stanley Cup-winning team. Having two top lines allowed the Bruins to destroy matchups and wreak havoc on opponents.

Additionally, Sweeney was able to lock Zacha up for another four seasons at a $4.75 million cap hit. Zacha’s ability to play center gives the Bruins much-needed depth at the position. It is unknown whether Bergeron or Krejci will return for another season, but the signing of Zacha allows the Bruins to move forward with a top-six center locked in.

McAvoy and Pastrnak Contract Extensions

As previously mentioned, this Bruins team is aging. Players like Bergeron and Krejci are most likely done after this Cup run. Marchand is on the back nine. Going into this season it was unclear if the team would remain relevant enough to entice young superstars like Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak to return.

Sweeney certainly had his hands full with the responsibility to resign just one of these core pieces. What I believe goes unsaid is the importance these two players have on continuing the culture that has been built in that locker room. A former NHLer like Sweeney is one to recognize that and understand they both must remain in the spoked-B if there is hope to continue this successful stretch — even after 37 and 46 hang up the skates.

Early in October, it was announced that Sweeney and the Bruins had resigned McAvoy to an 8-year $76 million extension. Equalling out to around $9.5 million per year, Sweeney was able to keep the future Norris Trophy-winning defensemen for a reasonable price. McAvoy’s contract comes in less than aging superstars Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty and matches contracts signed by Adam Fox and Seth Jones.

For the majority of this season, the city of Boston patiently awaited the announcement of the Pastrnak extension. Word was out that he was wishing to remain a Bruin for life, but the possibility of him hitting the open market was a nightmare. Then in early March, it was reported that Pastrnak would be signing an 8-year $90 million extension.

With an annual cap hit of $11.25 million, Pastrnak became one of the league’s highest-played players. But, with the salary cap set to begin rising again, this contract has the possibility of looking like a steal a few years down the line. With Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid both making over $12 million it is tough to believe a guy like Austin Matthews will sign for anything less. With players constantly wishing to become the highest-paid player, Pastrnak’s extension is unequivocally a hometown discount.

Sweeney’s ability to lock up his star players at reasonable prices is second to none. Bruins fans will be thanking the general manager for the next 8 years.

Trade Deadline

When the trade deadline began creeping in, rumors began swirling of who and what the Bruins were looking to acquire. It was obvious they were in the market for a defenseman and names like Chychrun and Gavrikov floated around the radio stations of Boston for weeks.

Then — seemingly out of nowhere — Sweeney pulled off a trade with the Washington Capitals. The Bruins received defenseman Dmitry Orlov (50% retained) and winger Garnet Hathaway in exchange for Craig Smith, a 2023 1st Round pick, a 2025 2nd Round pick, and a 2024 3rd Round pick. Sweeney also had to deal a 2023 5th Round pick to Minnesota in exchange for the Wild to retain an additional 25% of Orlov’s salary.

The addition of Orlov gave the Bruins the deepest blue line in the league. Boasting two number-one defensemen, to begin with, Orlov gave the defensive group the ability to have an elite defenseman on this ice at all times. The trade also gave Montgomery the ability to flip-flop pairings and find the best matchups against opposing forwards.

Orlov’s ability was quickly noticed. His blistering shot and brutal physicality made an immediate impact. During the last stretch before playoffs, Orlov carved out 17 points in 23 games, factoring in on both the powerplay and penalty kill.

Garnet Hathaway may have been a lesser-known name but Bruins fans should remember his battles with Boston over the years. He is known best for his physical game and ability to get under the opponents’ skin. His playstyle fits seemingly into the Bruins system and added an extra layer of toughness that was needed for a long playoff run. The Hathaway addition also gave Montgomery and the Bruins a tremendous amount of forward depth.

Just when we all thought Sweeney was done, he pulled a rabbit out of the hat and announced the Bruins had acquired Tyler Bertuzzi from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for a 2024 1st Round pick (top-10 protected) and a 2025 4th Round pick.

Without giving up any additional roster players, Sweeney was able to maintain the culture in the dressing room while adding a skilled and gritty veteran winger. Bertuzzi was a longtime cornerstone for Detroit, posting 30 goals for 62 points in his best year. The 7-year NHL vet also plays with a large amount of bite. Fans may remember his encounters with Brad Marchand over the years.

Bertuzzi took a few games to get his feet under himself, but as the season began to wind down Bertuzzi began to heat up. His connection with Pastrnak and his chemistry on the powerplay unit led him to earn 16 points in just 21 games with the B’s. His addition bolstered the middle six forwards and gives the Bruins the privilege of showcasing three elite lines.

Sweeney has made a big move at each deadline dating back to 2018. In those moves, Sweeney has managed to acquire names like Rick Nash, Charlie Coyle, Taylor Hall, and Hampus Lindholm.  Out of every deadline Sweeney has been in charge of — his most recent ranks the highest. In exchange for just one roster player, Sweeney received three notably strong players. The time to win is now, and Don Sweeney’s decision to mortgage the future was correct. It is the amount of talent he received in exchange for the plethora of draft picks that make this year’s Trade Deadline Sweeney’s best.

Don Sweeney’s 2023 campaign was as impressive as the record-setting team he built. Simply put his decisions this season seemed to never fail. From his head coaching change to his extensions to his Trade Deadline moves, Sweeney hit every nail on the head. This team’s success is due in large part to the players and coaches. But, without the leadership and decision-making of General Manager Don Sweeney, the Boston Bruins would not be in the position they are in today.

I do not believe there is another NHL GM that has made as many successful decisions or had a tougher hill to climb than Don Sweeney. I believe no one is more deserving to win the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award than our very own GM.