BOSTON – After 15 years as a player for the Boston Bruins and nine seasons in the Bruins' front office, Don Sweeney will have an opportunity to transform the visions of a championship team he has in his head into a reality on the ice.
Sweeney, whose 16-year career as a defenseman also included one season with the Dallas Stars, was introduced Wednesday as the eighth general manager in Bruins history, replacing Peter Chiarelli. Sweeney worked for Chiarelli in several capacities, including the past six as an assistant general manager.
The Bruins missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in eight seasons in 2014-15. Under Chiarelli they won the Stanley Cup in 2011, reached the Stanley Cup Final a second time in 2013 and won the Presidents' Trophy last season. Chiarelli was fired April 15.
Sweeney will be tasked with turning the Bruins back in the right direction.
"I'm excited about the challenge in front of us to get back to where we need to get to," Sweeney said. "I know what it's like to be booed in this city, to be cheered in this city, as a player, and I expect at times to take criticism. But that's part of it. And I think, we finished with 96 points this year, we did not meet expectations, but we're not as far away as what people may think.
"The group had won a Stanley Cup and gotten back to the finals. There's a lot to be said for that. We have a coach (Claude Julien) in place at this time that has a lot of success and been a big part of that. There will be some changes going forward, personnel changes, there will be staff member changes. When we decide to make those will be in due time, but I'll make the right decisions based on what's the best decision for the organization. Not necessarily the easiest one, but I'll make what I think is the best one in conjunction with the great number of people that I have a chance to work with."
Bruins president Cam Neely said the search was narrowed down to four candidates and then two before the decision was made to promote Sweeney. Familiarity with the organization tipped the scales in Sweeney's favor.
"Ultimately, it boiled down to where we are as an organization, the team that we currently have, feeling like we don't have to completely change a great deal," Neely said. "And 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 and Sweeney were teammates for many years with the Bruins, but Neely wanted to quash the idea that Sweeney was named GM because of friendship.
"I've been president of the Bruins since 2010. I have not hired a friend or someone close to me. I certainly wouldn't hire a friend to be general manager of the Bruins," Neely said. "It's a very important role in any organization and it's something that I know Don is going do a great job at. First and foremost is we feel that Don will be extremely good at this job. He's very passionate about the Bruins."
Sweeney knows the Bruins are hampered by a lack of room under the salary-cap ceiling. He also knows the Bruins are starting to draft better after some lean years (2007-2009) that produced few contributors or assets. But starting with Julien, who's still under contract, Sweeney plans to reassess all Bruins personnel in an attempt to better the team as quickly as possible.
Among the concerns are finding the right mix of players of different types of skill and improving an offense that ranked in the bottom third of the NHL this season.
"From a staff standpoint, there's a bit of a shift that needs to come -- from our transition game, from our ability to create anxiety in other teams, because I think we, at times, had a retreat mentality," Sweeney said. "You can be the best defensive team in the National Hockey League, and all four teams playing [currently in the conference finals] ... are very good teams. They suppress what we call shot value and scoring opportunities very, very well. Their goaltenders are a big part of it.
"We have a very good goaltender [Tuukka Rask]. But if you don't create anxiety in the other team and have the ability to score goals in a timely fashion or generate quality chances, then you're going to find yourself chasing the game. And this year, we chased the game too much. We were behind in third periods. We didn't score enough third-period goals as to what we normally have in the past, and there are reasons for that. So the staff ... it takes some time to evaluate the pieces that we need to get in place that can take the group forward."
Whether Sweeney and Julien can get on the same page about philosophy will determine if Julien, who has coached the Bruins for eight seasons, will remain in his current position. Beyond the coach, Sweeney will have to make decisions on several players. Center Carl Soderberg and defenseman Adam McQuaid are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this summer, and defenseman Dougie Hamilton can be a restricted free agent. Forward Milan Lucic is scheduled to enter the final year of his contract with unrestricted free agency looming in the summer of 2016. Sweeney will also have to make determinations on where several prospects fit in and execute a draft plan with the Bruins choosing 14th, the highest they have since they acquired the No. 2 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While Sweeney continues to formulate this plan for on-ice success, he expects he'll remain the same type of person off the ice.
"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 [of the American Hockey League] and to Boston. I've had a 1-on-1 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."