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Sweeney: Hayes, Beleskey Have What It Takes to Be Boston Bruins

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins — In mid-May, when Don Sweeney accepted the position of general manager of the Boston Bruins, he had an inkling that it wouldn’t be a smooth ride from the outset.

A few weeks in, or even a few months in, maybe — but not right at first.

“I told the guys when I got the job — I told every one of our scouts and every one of our people — I said, ‘Buckle up, because I think it’s going to be a bumpy ride to get going,’” Sweeney said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday night. “I didn’t necessarily know how that would play out. I’m not claiming that I did, by any stretch of the imagination, but I sit here today and I’m excited about the course going forward.”

The course of the last week has been bumpy, to say the least. It has been tumultuous and trying, and often, the criticism has far outweighed the praise.

But as Sweeney wrapped up on Wednesday night — as he looked at a 2015-16 roster that featured the new additions of Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes — he was very much at peace with where his team stands.

Not that there was ever any doubt in his mind.

“We, as a group, stayed sort of within the bunker mentality [over the last week],” Sweeney said. “We knew we were taking some bullets, and that’s part of the business. I knew that; I had my eyes wide open when I took the job. I talked to ownership about the direction I thought we needed to set course in, and it’s a twisty way to get there.

“I think we’ve improved our overall group and our team in taking it in a direction that I think everybody’s excited about. Hopefully, it falls in place. You never know. The games are not going to be played until October; a lot can happen between now and then.

“But for me, it’s about looking forward, not behind.”

And as he looks forward, the constitution of the 2015-16 Boston Bruins is perhaps a bit different than he thought it might be a week ago, or two weeks ago. Two weeks ago, he might have thought defenseman Dougie Hamilton would be in the fold.

But after trading Hamilton to Calgary and sending longtime Bruin Milan Lucic to the L.A. Kings — and after acquiring a stockpile of draft picks, a fourth-line grinder in Zac Rinaldo, and some much-needed help on the wings in Beleskey and Hayes — Sweeney likes what he sees.

It fits his vision. When Sweeney took the job, he was determined to find players who fit his perception of the Bruins identity, and one of the most significant aspects of that identity, in Sweeney’s eyes, is an overwhelming desire to be here.

It sounds simple. It’s not. It is paramount, Sweeney said, to achieving success on the ice.

“We want players that have the skill, and have the will, to go out and battle and win,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody picks their team, per se, in July. I think you assemble a group of guys you feel confident with, and I think now, we’re taking a position where any trade that we look to make, or any player movement we look to make, is one that we absolutely want to and not have to.

“We have some flexibility now to look at things completely that way going forward. No promises; [there are] a lot of balls still in the air, a lot of players still to get back to their high side of their capabilities, and be excited about being a Boston Bruin.

“That, to me, now, is what the entire focus is about. It’s about wanting to be a Boston Bruin, and hitting your high side to win. And every one of our development guys are going to hear about it, and all the way forward going forward with all the discussions we have: It’s about being excited to play for us.”

Before the clock struck midnight on Wednesday, Sweeney signed two more players who fit that criteria — and who are a bit more familiar to Bruins fans. Restricted free agent Ryan Spooner, who broke out as an offensive weapon during the final two months of the 2014-15 regular season, signed a two-year deal that will pay him $950,000 annually. Goaltender Jeremy Smith, who platooned with Malcolm Subban in Providence last season, signed a one-year, two-way deal to remain with the Bruins organization.

One week ago, it seemed like there were many missing pieces. How quickly things can change in the course of a week.

“There’s a lot of sort of twists and turns to get to this position,” Sweeney said. “A lot of things had to sort of fall into place. You look at the overall direction you want to head and take the team, and you have to adjust accordingly when certain things are thrown your way.

“And we had some challenges, and our group responded very well to identify the areas that we wanted to address, and look forward. That was what this was all about: It was about gaining some flexibility, continuing to try and improve our team.”

The biggest twist, of course, came when Sweeney realized, in the days leading up to the June 26 NHL Draft, that Hamilton would not be a part of Boston’s future. So like he said, he and his staff adjusted. They set off in a new direction, and they pursued it full throttle.

“Clearly, Dougie Hamilton’s an elite player,” Sweeney said. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for [him], and we would clearly have liked to have signed him. When that course of action didn’t necessarily take place, we adjusted, and again, our group, the ownership, everybody from top to bottom, was on board with being able to find the flexibility to improve our team and also look toward the future.

“When you’re approaching a July 1 situation — a June 30 situation — as a restricted or an [unrestricted free agent], you have the right to sit back and decide what you want to do, and that’s collectively bargained, and you cannot hold that against the player,” Sweeney added. “I didn’t hold that against the player, nor should anybody. That’s their right.

“But the team — you can’t hold it against them for having to act accordingly, how they see it.”

In Hayes and Beleskey, Sweeney and his staff believe they have found two players who are capable of putting the puck in the net, who are capable of battling, who are capable of giving it their all every night and, perhaps most importantly, really want to be a part of the Boston Bruins.

Where they fit into the lineup is still unclear. That is a project for Head Coach Claude Julien to tackle when training camp kicks off in September.

For now, Sweeney is content that he has found the right players to help restore the Bruins to the kind of success they have become accustomed to over the last decade.

“Our group has identified a player like Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes — the first conversations you have with those players is they’re excited, and I think that’s infectious,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of younger players that are going to come through the door here for our development camp that are going to be as equally excited about being drafted and identified, and development begins.

“So you know what? As I said before, you learn from some of the experiences that are behind you, and you move forward and be excited about the challenges that are in front of you.”

The work isn’t finished yet. Far from it. There is plenty to be done before the 2015-16 season kicks off. There are decisions to be made and roster spots to be won.

So Sweeney and his staff will proceed through the rest of the summer knowing that they are on the right track, knowing that they have the necessary flexibility to build the team they want.

“We’ll continue to identify potential people that will help our club,” he said. “If there’s a player that represents an improvement, then we’re going to look at it, whether that’s through free agency or acquisition. I’m not going to tell you I’m going to stop looking, but I’m not in a hurry to do anything other than evaluate if that’s the best decision for our team.

“Hopefully, we’ve done a lot of that in the last little while, but a bunch of things have been thrown at us in numbers and they’ve probably come a little too quickly for my liking. I’ve tried to handle them accordingly, as a group.

“I think our group has responded well, but it’s been quite a bit and I think it’s time to certainly take a step back and evaluate and do things on your own terms.”

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