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Team-Building Process Continues for Sweeney and Staff

by Caryn Switaj / Boston Bruins

BostonBruins.com - “It’s a business.”

That’s a phrase heard heavily around the trade deadline, again in the offseason from the draft through free agency and training camp, and then into the start of the season.

Rosters need to be pieced together and chemistry needs to be formed. A team needs to take shape. Players will sign elsewhere. Teams will part ways with players. Trades will happen. It’s all a part of the team-building process.

On Wednesday night, following the opening of free agency, General Manager Don Sweeney and his staff continued their approach of creating a more aggressive, hard-working and accountable roster, by saying goodbye to players and welcoming others.

In doing so, the Bruins signed hard-nosed winger and unrestricted free agent Matt Beleskey to a five-year deal. They also acquired 6-foot-6 forward Jimmy Hayes from the Florida Panthers in exchange for Reilly Smith and Marc Savard. The wingers, both still young at 25 and 27 years old, combined for 41 goals last season in breakout years with the Ducks and Panthers, respectively.

“They bring a hard-nosed, get-to-the-net attitude,” Sweeney told BostonBruins.com late Wednesday night following the transactions. “I think we feel good where we are in the center ice position, to be able to distribute pucks and these guys are hopefully continuing to be on the rise. They both had breakout years…that’s hopefully the beginning.”

“They’re both very excited about being members of the Boston Bruins and that’s what really excites the rest of us, that you feel like you made the right move.”

Along with the Beleskey and Hayes announcements, the Bruins signed restricted free agent Ryan Spooner to a two-year contract and UFA goalie Jeremy Smith to a one-year, two-way deal.

“Very important,” Sweeney said of the transactions, which didn’t get as much attention with the acquisition of Beleskey and Hayes. “Ryan really turned the corner towards the end. He’s going to continue to be pushed by - you know, whether it’s Alexander Khokhlachev or it’s other players that want a crack at the lineup as well - and he knows that.”

Spooner turned it on in his final call-up of the season, getting his first NHL goal (an OT-winner) and finishing the season with eight goals and 10 assists for 18 points in 29 games with Boston. His increased confidence was noticeable all spring.

“I think he’s in a place now where he has confidence in his own abilities and Claude had confidence him and how he can utilize him as a player and continue to get him to get better,” said Sweeney.

Smith split time with Malcolm Subban between the pipes in Providence in 2014-15, posting a 22-11-5 record with a 2.05 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. The goalie has more than 200 games of AHL experience. As it sits now, he’ll compete with Subban and 2015’s college hockey goalie of the year Zane McIntyre for the backup role behind Tuukka Rask.

“Jeremy Smith was a real pleasant surprise last year,” said Sweeney. “We identified a player that had had maybe a little bit of an average type year, but had upside with him. He had won at his other levels and he was a great complement to Malcolm. We now have a group of goaltenders that continue to push and challenge each other, and vie for possibly a backup role behind a real good goaltender in Tuukka.”

Wednesday’s transactions clearly haven’t been the only moves for Sweeney and his staff this offseason. They made 10 selections at the 2015 draft after acquiring four more picks via trade and stockpiled prospects at every position. Earlier this week, Zac Rinaldo was acquired via trade from Philadelphia and will look to compete for a spot by providing energy and bite. The re-signing of Adam McQuaid for four years keeps size and toughness on the back end. Offseason signing Joonas Kemmpainen will push for a role up front.

“We look at our roster, and you’re certainly trying to plan and project, and it’s an opportunity for younger players to come in and determine if they’re ready to impact our lineup,” said Sweeney.

“So you show back up tomorrow and continue to work on some of the pieces that we still need to analyze and put into place, continue to talk to the coaches about where they now see the roster and again, get excited about July because of the number of kids we have coming in [for development camp] and start to plan in some different areas now.”

“We have a couple of restricted free agents that we still have to get signed in Jimmy [Hayes] and Brett Connolly, so there’s never going to be a day where we don’t think about what’s next, what’s sort of coming at you and what’s in front of you.”

“But there might be a time this weekend to sort of step back and to thank my family, first and foremost,” Sweeney said with a slight smile.

In preparing for the aforementioned moves while also preparing for the future, the decisions haven’t been easy. They have been taxing. Still, a general manager has to rise above the emotions when making these decisions.

The organization and a handful of players have parted ways, including longtime Bruins and members of the 2011 Cup team Milan Lucic, Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell, along with Dougie Hamilton, Reilly Smith and Carl Soderberg. The moves have been done for a variety of reasons, both short term and long term.

“From a fan perspective, you have to thank the players, first and foremost,” Sweeney said. “They’re not easy decisions. They’ve all had big impacts on the success that we’ve had, and those calls are ones you don’t look forward to as a general manager. You thank them, you’re very respectful, you wish them luck in all their endeavors going forward.”

“Each one of these players have been a big part of our group and you wish them success and realize it’s a very difficult business and you hope you make the right decisions for the organization,” he said. “That’s really what it comes down to.”

In flipping Savard’s contract (with an annual salary cap hit of $4 million) to Florida in the trade that landed Hayes, Boston will no longer have to place him on long-term injured reserve before opening night. From a strictly business perspective, it allows cap flexibility. From a sentimental perspective, it still wasn’t easy for Sweeney to make the call to Savard, who hasn’t played since 2011 following his concussions.

“This was just an opportunity for us to have some more flexibility,” said Sweeney. “He was understanding of that and I appreciated that from him. He’s a great guy, we’ve missed him in the locker room, missed him on the ice and hopefully he can just continue to get better in his own life.”

“We think the world of him and we thank him for his time as a player and obviously wish him the best in his own life and to continue to recover to getting back into absolute full health.”

More roster dissection needs to take place. Beleskey and Hayes help fill out a forward group of Spooner, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Loui Eriksson, Brett Connolly, David Pastrnak, Chris Kelly, Max Talbot and Kemppainen, along with Rinaldo and Providence players like Khokhlachev, Seth Griffith and Brian Ferlin pushing for spots, among others.

Improvements on defense will continue to be looked at, though Colin Miller (acquired in the trade that sent Lucic to LA), owner of the AHL’s hardest shot and fastest skater honors, is an intriguing option on the back end. Zdeno Chara and Kevan Miller will be healthy and Dennis Seidenberg will be looking to re-find his form. Torey Krug should build on his expanded role last season and at the World Championship for Team USA. A healthy McQuaid should benefit from his expanded role last season as well. Even with snarl, the Bruins need mobility, and that could come from Krug, Zach Trotman, Joe Morrow and Colin Miller.

We have plenty of time for that dissection in the future, though - and so does Sweeney.

“It’s been some trying times here in the last little while and some really heartfelt decisions that have not been easy,” he said. “I’m just grateful for the support of the staff, the ownership in Cam to entrust me in the position.”

“My staff - every time they were thrown a curveball, they just dug in - and it says a lot. We have a coaching staff that helps us identify some areas of need that we tried to attack and the landscape going forward is I think what everybody is looking forward to.”

“Listening to Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes today, Sean Kuraly [forward acquired when Boston sent goalie Martin Jones to San Jose] the other day, all of our guys that we’ve had an opportunity to bring into the fold, and the excitement in them, that’s really when the juices start to flow for all of us,” Sweeney added.

“I’m looking forward to the upcoming weeks and obviously as the summer unfolds, we’ll continue to look at things, but it’s time to step back and evaluate that we do things with the utmost patience from here on forward, that we do everything we want to do.”

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