When the search had concluded, the best candidate was someone who is already quite familiar with what it takes to succeed in Black & Gold.
That familiarity and that implicit understanding, said new GM Don Sweeney, is obviously not the only reason he was hired. But in his eyes, it is a significant part of why he will succeed.
“I think one of the distinct advantages I have is that I’ve been a Boston Bruin,” said Sweeney, who was introduced as general manager of the Bruins on Wednesday afternoon at TD Garden. “I was a Boston Bruin for 15 years, knocked on the doorstep of the Stanley Cup and then won it as part of the management group [in 2011].
“I know what resonates with our fan group. I know that our players have to have the will to want to play with that [Bruins] identity.”
Sweeney played for the B’s for 15 seasons and, for the last nine years, has assumed a front office role with the club, starting in 2006 as the team’s Director of Player Development. In 2007, he was promoted to Director of Hockey Operations, and for the last six years, he has served Assistant General Manager, where he oversaw the development of the team’s drafted prospects at the AHL, junior hockey, college and European levels.
“Today is a great day,” Jacobs said. “Today is, I think, a new era for Boston Bruins hockey. I hope our fan base out there, our season ticket holders — everyone in Bruins Nation, if you will — will realize this is a day to celebrate.”
Neely said that during the search, he and his colleagues identified four strong candidates — some with experience as general managers, some, like Sweeney, without — and in the end, Sweeney emerged as the candidate who best fit the bill.
“Ultimately, it boiled down to where we are as an organization, and the team that we currently have, and feeling like we don’t have to completely change a great deal,” Neely said. “The fact that Don knows the organization from top to bottom played a huge factor in the decision to go with Don Sweeney. He knows the coaching staff, he knows the scouts, he knows the players in Providence, he knows our prospects. He’s done a great job in the eight years that I’ve worked here.
“I’ve seen Don develop, I’ve seen his work ethic, and I have a good understanding of his commitment to the Boston Bruins.”
Neely added that the hiring process took longer than he expected — primarily due to scheduling conflicts — but throughout it all, Sweeney remained respectful of the process.
In the end, the long wait was worth it.
“I’m very, very excited, and grateful for the opportunity,” Sweeney said. “I’m very cognizant and respectful of the process that has gone on. Obviously, I want to thank Mr. [Jeremy] Jacobs, Charlie and the entire Jacobs family, Cam… It means a lot to have gone through this process — as exhaustive, at times, as it was, and as challenging as it was — and come out the other side knowing they have the confidence in me to take this organization forward.”
Sweeney’s familiarity with every single player who has filtered through the Bruins — at Development Camp, at the AHL level and at the NHL level — is one of his most significant strengths as he moves into this new role.
“A big part of my makeup is the communication aspect,” Sweeney said. “I’ve spoken to every player that’s ever gone up and down, in terms of to Providence and to Boston. I’ve had a one-on-one conversation with [them]. That’s not going to change, in terms of my communication with players and being comfortable in a locker room.
“That was where I was comfortable for a lot of years, and I’m going to continue to do that, and that way, you have a pulse on things to support a coach and to support a staff, and hopefully have them challenge you back because that’s what you want.
“You want people that are going to be willing to challenge or push you to get better.”
Of course, the Bruins of 2015-16 are not going to be exactly the same as the Bruins of 2014-15. There will be changes, Sweeney said. Some might be subtle and others might be more significant, but there will certainly be changes.
On Wednesday, Sweeney identified some primary areas of concern moving forward. He said that the Bruins need to find a way to score more goals without sacrificing their commitment to a solid two-way game. He said they need to rely less on stellar goaltending. He said they need to bestow confidence in young players bubbling up through the Providence pipeline and enable those players to be successful at the NHL level.
He said that the Bruins have to once again find a way to become a club that inspires fear in opponents. Somewhere along the way, they became a group that no longer created anxiety in other teams. Somewhere along the way, Sweeney said, a “retreat mentality” set in.
He envisions the Bruins of the future being more aggressive and less passive, and he believes he can put the proper pieces in place to ensure those qualities once again become the reality.
“I love the accountability and structure of our group,” Sweeney said. “Our forward group works extremely hard. At times, I think it’s too hard for them to go back on offense because the onus is on them. If we can create anxiety at the blue lines, create some turnovers and go back on offense, philosophically, we can make it a little easier to find a way to score some goals and generate offensively at a higher degree. And players are willing to do that. That doesn’t absolve them from the responsibilities of backpressure, and understanding what it’s going to take defensively, and blocking shots.
“It’s not going to be one-stop shopping, by any means, but it’s not plug-and-play either. We have to continue to identify the players that have the will to want to win, and that comes in all different shapes and sizes.”
Sweeney is well aware of the position the Bruins currently find themselves in against the salary cap. They do not have a great deal of flexibility at the moment, and that will make his job difficult.
But he has been a member of Boston’s front office for the last several years. He is already well aware of the challenges that await him, and he has ideas about how to combat those challenges.
“There’s a difference between cap compliance and cap management, and I think we need to make sure that we’re very cognizant of the latter rather than the former,” he said. “Everybody in the league has to deal with cap compliance. … I can sit and do an interview process and promise all these changes are going to occur, but that’s not necessarily the reality. You have to go through the process and talk to other teams and see whether or not there’s an alignment there.
“I think sometimes, we’ve made trades that have been on other teams’ timeline instead of our own, and it’s put us in a difficult situation. I’d like to reverse that and be in a situation where you have plenty of teams calling you because you know your assets are there, and you’re in a better position to make the best deal for you, as opposed to forcing a deal somewhere else.”
Whether or not there will be any personnel changes — specifically, where Head Coach Claude Julien and his staff are concerned — remains to be seen, Sweeney said. He is not rushing the process. He will take the necessary time to make the decisions that are in the best interest of the Bruins rather than rush to put his stamp on the team.
“I’m going to take the necessary time to evaluate,” he said. “It will start with Claude, and we’ll dissect a little bit of the personnel pieces that he feels he’s had in the past that he’s had success with, and what we currently have, what we need to identify that could be missing — and we’ll go from there.”
Sweeney said he spoke to Julien on Wednesday morning — as well as the rest of the current personnel — and apprised them of his approach to the immediate future.
“I’ve spoken with Claude,” Sweeney said. “I know it’s been reported that I had spoken to Claude as a prospective general manager candidate; that also is true. I spoke to Claude again [Wednesday] morning, and I spoke to him as a person now in a general manager’s seat. So I have some things that I want to sit down with Claude and go through in a very orderly fashion as to where I think needs to change and what direction we need to change as a group. I also acknowledged to Claude during this whole process that I think tremendously of him as a coach and as a person, so I think it’s just about lining up philosophical approaches that I believe in, that he believes in, and that we can move the group forward.
“Our own staff is very good,” he added. “I feel very comfortable. I’ve spoken to every one of them [Wednesday] morning, in terms of where they’re at right now and their contributions. I’ve asked each and every one of them to identify the impact that they think is where they best serve so they can continue to challenge.”
Sweeney knows the road ahead will be full of challenges, but there are always challenges, he said. There are some years a team triumphs over challenges — as the Bruins did in 2011, when they hoisted the Cup — and there are some years that a team falls short.
To him, though, one thing is for certain: He doesn’t like being on the outside looking in. He wants to restore the Bruins to his own expectations, and to those of Bruins Nation. He knows what it takes for the Black & Gold to thrive, and his mission to bring that back begins today.
“[Any season] is hard to predict, but you sure as hell want to be in that position [to compete], year after year,” he said. “You don’t want to be on the outside looking in. I know that. [after] talking to some of our players this morning, that’s the way they feel as well, and that’s what you want to hear as a general manager on the job for the first day. You want to hear from the players that they realize they underperformed to some degree.
“It’s always going to come back to the players. You can talk about systems and such, but those guys know deep down that they’re the ones that are going to have to go out and implement and perform, and the guys that I spoke to today are anxious to get back and move forward with the process.”