BOSTON - One of Don Sweeney's chief obligations to the Boston Bruins is always keeping an eye towards the future. Putting the organization in the best position to succeed moving forward is the general manager's top priority.
With that in mind, the Bruins have stockpiled draft picks over the last several years that have begun, or are on the verge of, contributing at the NHL level.
It is that swath of youth that the team hopes will carry the Bruins over the next decade - and is allowing Sweeney to take a more patient approach to free agency this year.
Over the last two summers, Boston struck quickly with long-term deals for wingers Matt Beleskey and David Backes within the opening hours of free agency. But during his pre-free agency press conference on Friday morning at Warrior Ice Arena, Sweeney said he's "not overly anxious to jump the gun" this time around.
"We've been in this market the last couple of years, and I'm in a patient mode," said Sweeney. "I think we've positioned ourselves, with the strength of our prospects and commitment to our prospects that we feel excited about that. Development camp is coming up next week and I'm really looking forward to seeing where some of our players are.
"Probably in a more patient mode right about now. I've certainly explored some of these similar situations…but not anxious or overly anxious to jump the gun."
Video: Sweeney addresses media ahead of free agency
Sweeney believes a large number of the team's prospects can compete for a spot on the varsity roster this fall, chief among them defenseman Charlie McAvoy, who burst onto the scene during Boston's first round playoff series with Ottawa. Up front, Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk, Jakob Forsbacks Karlsson, and Danton Heinen are not far behind.
Leaving the team with long-term flexibility - both physically and financially - to allow those players to enter the lineup will play a factor in how active Sweeney is when free agency commences Saturday afternoon.
"Very important [to maintain that flexibility], as a matter of fact, and very cognizant of our younger players that will arrive, maybe colliding at once," said Sweeney. "I think our forward group will have a real nice push. I think there will be players that will emerge in our forward group that will press for opportunities and ice time."
None of that, however, means that Sweeney has not done his due diligence in surveying this summer's crop of free agents. He said Friday that he has had conversations with many of them during this week's talking period and will continue to look for ways to improve the roster from the outside, particularly on defense.
"We have six guys that we feel very comfortable with from the back end," said Sweeney. "We will add, at some point in time, to the depth of that group during free agency or moving forward in a trade scenario and allow some of our younger guys to see if they can bypass some of that depth.
"So I'd say in the area of defense, we'll make no bones…they will all be areas that I'll continue to explore."
Boston seems set on the right side with McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller. And while Miller can shift to the left - as he did at times last season - Sweeney is exploring the option of bringing in a left-shot defenseman (he didn't rule out bringing in a right shot as depth, either). Young blueliners Matt Grzelcyk and Rob O'Gara, each of whom played games at the NHL level last season, are also possibilities to contest for that spot.
"I've had a lot of conversations with Bruce [Cassidy]," said Sweeney. "He certainly has played [Miller] over there. We started him playing with Charlie and starting the playoffs that way. He's capable of it. We'd like to continue to explore or have one of our lefties step up, yes.
"The answer to that is yes, we have been exploring. I don't know whether or not it's going to come to fruition here in the next day and a half, but we also know that both O'Gara and Grzelcyk have played games. Tommy Cross has played games.
"We have guys internally that would like the opportunity to see if they can take that stop and play. Again, we feel very comfortable on the right side."
Video: Sweeney provides updates on Pastrnak, B's free agents
But while Sweeney is pleased with the development of Boston's young players, he won't be handing them jobs this fall. Everything must be earned, which is why acquiring a veteran defenseman to compete with the youngsters is a very real possibility.
"I don't think anybody will use the word "giving" spots to anyone around here," said Sweeney. "I think everybody's got to earn their opportunity, earn their ice time. There will be opportunity, whether you box a player out and you bring in a player that is incumbent…there are potential opportunities that exist, and I would like our players internally to step forward and grab them."
In the end, Sweeney's goal over the coming weeks is to do whatever is best to improve the Bruins roster. Whether or not he can find the right pieces Saturday afternoon remains to be seen.
"Picking the team on July 1 is probably not what we're going to do," said Sweeney. "We've got some players that are going to come in and challenge for some spots and some opportunity…there's a couple of areas that we have been looking at and to continue to add to the depth and improve the club.
"I've certainly been in a lot of trade conversations with clubs looking at our prospects and swapping in that manner, so I'll continue to do that. And that doesn't necessarily happen today or tomorrow - that can happen throughout."