Grading Don Sweeney: Part 1 – Free Agency

By Chris Nosek

As the Bruins look to turn the page to their fifth season with Don Sweeney at the helm as general manager, there is a large portion of the Bruins’ fanbase who have begun calling for his job. Since he took over, the team has earned: three consecutive playoff berths, including a trip to the finals, and a President’s Trophy. Along the way, they have accumulated a 229-120-49 record and have averaged just over 101 points per season. With numbers like these, it begs the question: why would people want the general manager of this team fired? Well, fans believe that while he has made “some good moves,” he has made too many moves that have cost this team a championship. So just how good of a job is he actually doing? Well, let’s take a look. This will be the beginning of our 3-part series in giving Don his current grade as Bruins’ General Manager. 

Let’s first start by breaking down the three ways in which Sweeney has to build his team: free agency, trades, and drafting. For the most part, free agent acquisitions and trades can fall into one of three categories: a win, a loss, or neither (a wash). Starting with his free agent pick-ups, then moving onto his trades and draft selections – let’s take a look at how Sweeney really grades out. 

Free Agency:

2015

Signed: Matt Beleskey, Jonas Gustavsson, Matt Irwin, Brandon DeFazio, 

Walked: Gregory Campbell, Rob Flick, Justin Florek, Matt Lindblad, Daniel Paille, David Warsofsky, Matt Bartkowski, Paul Carey

Jonas Gustavsson, Matt Irwin, & Brandon DeFazio – WASH

While Matt Irwin and Brandon DeFazio were clearly signed as depth pieces, they both spent the vast majority of their time with the club in Providence and while they played well there, only Irwin was able to see two games at the NHL level. The short terms of their deals show that there was no intent for these players to be a significant part of the future of the franchise and were signed to be in Providence as additional depth for the NHL club. 

Gustavsson, on the other hand, was a bit more of a significant signing as he was brought in to be the backup for 28-year-old Tuukka Rask. While he wasn’t the greatest backup netminder in the league, he posted a respectable .908 save percentage and a GAA of only 2.72, which shows that during his 20 starts he kept the team in contention of winning each of his starts. While his final record of 11-9-1 doesn’t reflect this, we have to remember what the team fielded in front of him looked like as well. 

Getting a backup netminder who can keep you in games while giving your number one some time off is a pretty big task, and getting that guy for only $700,000 is even tougher. I recognize that because of the contract’s low value, this could be chalked up as a win for Sweeney, I am still hesitant to jump on that bandwagon completely. However, I can’t chalk this up as a total loss either because he did have 9 quality starts and only 2 really bad starts.  

Matt Beleskey – LOSS

In his first year as general manager, Sweeney saw over 60 free agents who signed within the first 24 hours of their eligibility to do so. During that 24 hours time-span, Sweeney was able to snag one of the more promising names on the list, 26-year old left-winger Matt Beleskey. After three consecutive seasons of promising growth with the Anaheim Ducks, Sweeney landed Beleskey with a 5-year contract with an AAV of only $3.8 million. In his last three seasons with the Ducks, Beleskey had been showing signs of constant improvement, and he was targeted with the intent to bring a similar physical presence to the second line that Milan Lucic brought during their cup run in the 2010-2011 season. Coming off seasons with 13, 24, and 32 points, the contract looked to be nearly perfect. 

He posted 37 points in his first season in Boston, showing a continued growth as a player. With four years left under $4 million each, this could have been a fantastic deal for the Black & Gold – instead, it took a turn for the worse as the left-winger’s production plummeted to only 8 points in 49 games, which would ultimately lead to Boston waiving him down to Providence and ultimately dealing him away to the New York Rangers. 

2016

Signed: David Backes, Anton Khudobin, Riley Nash, Tim Schaller, Alex Grant, Dominic Moore

Walked: Lee Stempniak, Jeremy Smith, Jonas Gustavsson, Matt Benning, Zach Trotman, Matt Irwin, Dennis Seidenberg, Chris Kelly, Landon Ferraro, Louis Eriksson

Anton Khudobin, Riley Nash, Tim Schaller, Dominic Moore – WINS

These four signings are wins of varying degrees. It was quite clear in the first year of his contract that Khudobin was not in the playing shape they were hoping. Given that he only started in 14 games, he still posted a respectable GAA of 2.64 and a .904 save percentage, and was still able to give Tuukka Rask the recovery time necessary to be available and healthy in the playoffs. In the second year of his $2.4 million contract he doubled his games played and went 16-6-7, giving Boston one of the better goaltending tandems in the league. 

Nash, Schaller, and Moore were all bottom-six forwards who brought physicality and consistency to the lineup, along with major contributions on the penalty kill. The biggest reason why these are all wins for Sweeney is because of the contracts he got these players on. Nash and Schaller played in Boston for two seasons and collectively took home only $4.075 million COMBINED. In 157 games, Nash contributed 58 points (including the best season of his career with 41 points), while Schaller posted 36 over 141 – not too shabby for half of your bottom-six forwards and penalty killers. 

Alex Grant- WASH

Grant posted 49 points over 70 games for the baby B’s and contributed 8 points in their 17 game playoff run in his one year in Providence. Signed with the purpose of being an AHL roster player, he fulfilled his role more than adequately – no more, no less.  

David Backes – LOSS

Coming off a 45 point season in which he scored 21 goals, the 31-year old Backes looked like he still had plenty left to his career as he played in 79 games for the St. Louis Blues and was one of the biggest name free agents to hit the market. The Bruins had some young, talented players at the center position who were being forced to play out of position, and had some rising questions going into the offseason – most notably on the right-wing. Backes’ ability to play both center and right wing gave Sweeney someone who could play at a high level on the wing and provide some insurance depth down the middle, should one of the younger players not pan out as projected. Unfortunately, the 5-year contract worth $30 million proved to become a significant overpay. Backes slowly saw his point totals drop from 45 in his last year in St. Louis to 38, 33, and 20 over the next three seasons with Boston. 

At the age of 33, Backes started running into major health issues, ultimately requiring part of his colon to be removed. After returning from that surgery, he suffered a cut from a skate blade that required 17 stitches and more time off to heal. With two seasons remaining on his contract, and the modified no-movement clause kicking in, Sweeney was finally able to trade Backes and his $6 million cap hit to the Ducks – in a deal we will dissect further later. It remains to be seen if Backes has found the fountain of youth, but he has scored three points over his first six games in Anaheim. His contract, however, is no longer a problem for the Bruins and their front office. 

2017

Signed: Riley Nash, Tim Schaller, Kenny Agostino, Paul Postma, Brian Gionta
Walked: Brian Ferlin, Alex Grant, Joe Morrow, Drew Stafford, Jimmy Hayes, Tyler Randell, Dominic Moore, Chris Castro


Riley Nash, Tim Schaller, Brian Gionta, Paul Postma, Kenny Agostino- WINS

See above for more details on Nash and Schaller, but keeping them on board meant keeping continuity, helped to solidify the bottom six and for very little money for another season. Gionta was signed to be a depth player with a veteran presence, which he did more than admirably. He contributed seven points during his approximately 13 minutes per night over 20 games, while Postma has contributed very nicely down in Providence, giving Boston’s AHL affiliate solid leadership on the backend. This has allowed younger players to improve their game and while they have passed him on the depth chart for playing time on Causeway Street, Postma played a significant role in getting them there. Agostino contributed similarly in Providence, but on the front end, providing 53 points of his own over 64 games. While neither directly contributed to the NHL club, they performed their role in helping prospects develop and work their way up through the system. 

2018
Signed: Cody Goloubef, Joakim Nordstrom, Lee Stempniak, Mark McNeill, John Moore, Jaroslav Halak, Chris Wagner

Walked: Tommy Cross, Riley Nash, Anton Khudobin, Kenny Agostino, Tim Schaller, Nick Holden

Joakim Nordstrom, Jaroslav Halak, Chris Wagner, Lee Stempniak – WINS

When the 26-year old Nordstrom was signed for two years at $1 million per season, the expectation was not that he would put up a lot of points, but that he would help improve the penalty kill, bring physicality to the lineup and continue to sure up the bottom half of the lineup. During his 118 games, he helped their penalty kill jump up to the top three for both seasons he was with the team and was one of the more physical players on the roster.  

Halak was brought in on a 2-year contract valued at $5.5-million dollars and in 71 games has performed better than just about any other backup netminder over that 2-year window. He and Rask teamed up to win the William Jennings Trophy for the 2019-2020 season and they finished in the top 5 in goals allowed in both seasons. His eight shutouts, .921 SV% and a 2.36 GAA have earned Halak another year worth up to $3.5 million.

Another work-horse bottom-six forward, Wagner has played in well over 90% of the possible games he could have over his first two seasons in Boston. While he hasn’t shattered the earth with only 29 points, he’s brought physicality and tenacity to the lineup. At only 29-years old, Wagner has earned himself another three years in Boston along with just over $4 million. 

Stempniak had a successful stint in Boston after Sweeney dealt for him – again, another trade we will look into further later in this analysis – so two years later, Sweeney gave him another contract. This contract would only be for one season and a minimal $650,000 at the NHL level. Lee would spend just about this whole contract helping in the minors while he produced 18 points over 20 games in Providence. Like Postma and Agostino, he was able to provide leadership from an NHL veteran for the developing players. 

Cody Goloubef, Mark McNeill – WASH

Signed at contracts worth $650,000 each, both players were shortly waived down to Providence. Goloubef was quickly dealt off to Ottawa in exchange for Paul Carey – a deal that we will explore further later – while McNeill spent the season in Providence posting 25 points over 58 games. 

John Moore – LOSS

After spending time in Columbus, New York, Arizona and New Jersey, John Moore was given a 5-year contract by Boston worth an annual $2.75 million. Normally a veteran defenseman signed for such a low amount should be considered a win. However, since Moore signed on, he has been clearly passed over on the depth chart by Matt Grzelcyk and Connor Clifton. Developing prospects Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril, and Urho Vaakanainen have also all shown to have a potentially higher playing level than what John Moore has to offer, so they would likely get playing time over Moore as well. With so many people passing Moore for playing time, Sweeney will have a hard time getting out of the remaining THREE seasons of this contract despite it’s reasonable cap hit. Unfortunately, this contract seems to scream “buyout,” but maybe Sweeney can get creative and find another way to unload this contract (at least it’s a manageable dollar amount). 

2019

Signed: Maxime Lagace, Brett Ritchie, Par Lindholm, Brendan Gaunce, Alex Petrovic, Matt Filipe

Walked: Noel Acciari, Jordan Szwarz, Gemel Smith, Zane McIntyre

Par Lindholm – WIN

While not being a major contributor on the scoresheet, Lindholm quickly established himself as a solid, two-way forward who was defensively responsible and quickly showed his worth on the penalty kill. Working with the likes of Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly, and Chris Wagner – Lindholm helped solidify the bottom six forward group and the penalty kill. A clear win with a two-year contract with an AAV of only $850,000. 

Maxime Lagace, Brendan Gaunce, Matt Filipe, Alex Petrovic – WASH

None of these guys were signed with any sort of expectations to contribute in Boston – at least right away – and they continue to grow their games down in Providence or in the junior leagues. Most, if not all, won’t make any significant contributions to the team at the NHL level and that is perfectly ok – that isn’t what they were signed for. At least to date, these low level contracts (that every team ends up signing) can not be considered a win or a loss – therefore, by default, they are a wash.  

Brett Ritchie – LOSS

After five seasons with the Dallas organization, the older Ritchie was able to snag himself a $1-million contract from Sweeney. Lucky for Sweeney, he didn’t go longer than one year on this contract, as Ritchie’s six points over 27 games and lacking physicality caused the team to send the 27-year old winger down to Providence, where his four points over 12 games made it a clear decision for the team to not re-sign the forward. 

2020

Signed: Craig Smith, Callum Booth, Greg McKegg

Walked: Alex Petrovic, Joakim Nordstrom, Maxime Lagace, Torey Krug

Craig Smith – WIN

This could change really quickly should Smith’s career take a massive change for the worse – however going off of a nine season track record, it is safe to say at this time that as someone who doesn’t miss many games and can play both on the wing and at center Smith SHOULD be another contract win for Sweeney. Signed for three seasons at a cap hit of only $3.1 million per season, Smith gives head coach Bruce Cassidy one of the better bottom-six forwards in the league who, if circumstances dictate, could be put with one of Cassidy’s top centers and still help them win games. If Smith spends more time on the ninth floor than he does in the starting lineup, then it is highly likely that many of the young players have stepped up with their opportunities and the Bruins have some really good decisions they will have to make. 

Callum Booth and Greg McKegg – WASH

Signed to contracts worth $700,000 at the NHL level, neither Booth or McKegg will be expected nor relied upon at the NHL level. If they are able to make contributions at the NHL level for any reason then one or both of these have the potential to become wins. I wouldn’t expect that to happen nor would I expect them to make negative news down in Providence either.

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