Regardless of how the rest of his tenure goes as general manager of the Boston Bruins, wrong or right in his moves, Don Sweeney at least deserves credit for once again not wavering from his plan and once again taking “the road less traveled.” As it has before for Sweeney, that road might not turn out to be the right one. But either way and like him or not, Sweeney has once again proven he will not succumb to external and we’re told in the case of whether or not to keep Claude Julien as head coach for next season, internal pressure as well.
The Boston mainstream media and plenty of Bruins fans were once again clamoring for Julien to be fired, and according to one source close to the situation, President Cam Neely also “not opposed” to replacing Julien after another straight season without playoff hockey in the Hub Of Hockey. But Sweeney stuck to his guns and with the blessing of owner Jeremy Jacobs, decided Julien isn’t the problem but rather part of the solution going forward for the Bruins.
“Absolutely,” told a packed press conference last Thursday when asked if Julien would be back as coach. “I emphatically believe that Claude is the coach that can take us through what I’ll describe as what has been a bumpy transition period this year and we’ve got work to do; I have work to do. There’s no question that we have areas that we want to address and collectively we’ve already started to assess that. We did throughout the course of the year, we’ve tried to address some of those things, and we’ll continue to address them.”
Jacobs along with his son Charlie and Neely will address the media at TD Garden on Wednesday and it’s likely all three will echo much of what Sweeney and Julien told reporters in their press conference last week. But as reported here last week prior to that press conference, there was a swell of speculation around the organization and throughout the NHL, that it was Neely who could be on thin ice. That feel here is that is still the case, though it’s likely for now there will be no change to Neely’s status and he will remain President of Business and Hockey Operations. The fact though that the elder Jacobs — who was not originally scheduled to take part in Wednesday’s presser — will now be there does indicate that the owner has a message to deliver and it’s important enough that he does it in person.
It’s likely that message will be a stern public warning that things must improve and that he expects the Bruins to be playing hockey at this time next year and going forward. But if he hasn’t already, here’s hoping Jacobs at least behind the scenes orders Neely to take a step back from hockey operations and allow Sweeney to continue to make the big decisions on his own and to follow the road he has chosen to follow. Like or not, Sweeney has a plan in place and it’s already in motion. After some bold moves last summer that continued to stockpile the organization with quality prospects, Sweeney now has the cap flexibility and pieces to make some impact trades in the offseason.
Yes, Sweeney planned on having as competitive team and hopefully a team that could make the playoffs. There were plenty of nights though when the former wasn’t there and that’s why the latter didn’t happen. That wasn’t Julien’s fault though and as NBC and TSN hockey analyst Pierre McGuire told WEEI last Friday, was all part of Sweeney’s plan.
“I’m not sure Claude ever coached as well as he coached this year,” McGuire said. “I’ll tell you why: when they started making those moves they did last summer at the entry draft, they knew exactly the roster they were setting themselves up for. Sure they wanted to compete and I thought they’d be a team that was going to be eight or nine in the Eastern Conference. That’s how I thought it would shake out because of moving Milan Lucic or even the previous offseason moving Johnny Boychuk. Look at the injury to Chris Kelly. Look at the moving of Dougie Hamilton, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille. This is what they were setting up for, short term pain for long term gain.”
As McGuire also pointed out, the future and even the immediate future is not as bleak and many on the Boston sports talk airwaves seem hellbent on wanting fans to believe it is.
“I’m bullish on the Bruins,” McGuire went on to say. “They’ve got a wealth of prospects. They’ve got some of them already signed, Brandon Carlo, Robbie O’Gara, Matt Grzelcyk, and they’re playing down in Providence. You guys are going to be very surprised. Then there’s the potential for Jimmy Vesey coming on board. I’m really bullish on the Bruins going forward, I really am. I think Donnie Sweeney’s got a good plan. They had a plan last summer and they have one now. Good for Donnie Sweeney, he’s strong in his convictions and I respect it a lot.”
Now it’s time for Jacobs to truly show Sweeney he too respects those strong convictions and the plan Sweeney laid out for him, his son and Neely when they hired him last spring to replace Peter Chiarelli. Based on numerous conversations with Bruins and NHL sources Jacobs is already doing that. But will he ensure Sweeney he can follow that plan even more and move Neely out of hockey operations? Would Jacobs actually be bold enough to tell the hall of famer who has overseen two straight non playoff seasons and signed off on and may have ordered some of the exits of the players McGuire referenced as well as Tyler Seguin, Jaromir Jagr, Carl Soderberg, Shawn Thornton, and Reilly Smith. Could the owner’s presence be more than just a chance to give his thoughts on the season in person?
Remember this wouldn’t be the first time Jacobs called out Neely.
“I also want to recognize Cam Neely. I think I have communicated more than once that all along he is such a great role model for the players and the organization,” Jacobs said just prior to the 2011 Stanley Cup parade. “He is the heart and soul of what a Bruin means. You couldn’t have a better leader.”
“On top of it, he brought us a Stanley Cup, something he couldn’t do while he was skating,” Jacobs added in jest.
But that zing he gave Neely, surprised plenty around the team and the media that covers the organization. It has always been believed that Neely has a very cushy relationship with Jacobs. In turn he’s pretty much been giving a free pass by the fans and media when it comes to team failures and questionable moves like the infamous Tyler Seguin trade in 2013. There is and always will be plenty of speculation and hearsay as to why it didn’t work out for Seguin and the Bruins. But it’s right on tape that Neely was on board with the trade in the Bruins documentary series “Behind The B.”
For those that have bashed then GM Peter Chiarelli for moves he made and now Sweeney for some of his moves, keep this in mind, there isn’t one player personnel move the franchise makes with Neely and Charlie Jacobs signing off on it. Not one! That means Seguin or now the much maligned Smith and Marc Savard for Jimmy Hayes trade. Neely is involved in those and every signing and trade. To what extent? Only he and his staff really know the truth there but there’s no arguing he’s involved. If as this scribe suspects and many are starting to wonder, it’s more than just advising or signing off, then Sweeney’s plan will never work properly and the Bruins will be mired in mediocrity for years to come.
Don’t get me wrong, Cam Neely has been, is and always will be a part of the fabric of this Original 6 franchise. He was one of the hardest working, grittiest and skilled players to ever don the Black and Gold and to ever play in the NHL. That’s why he’s in the hall of fame. He also spearheaded the Bruins project for a new state of the art practice facility in the Boston Landing development in Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighborhood. Most importantly, Neely has always been very active in the community and local charities including his own The Neely House and the Neely Cancer Fund.
However as the Edmonton Oilers proved for a good portion of the last decade, all of those accolades and what a former star player did on the ice doesn’t always mean that former player will be great in the hockey operations department. Neely definitely helped rebuild a winning culture around the Bruins since being hired in 2007 but if as many suspect, he has meddled too much at times with what should be the general manager’s job, then the elder Jacobs could very well be “two roads diverged in a wood” and now the question is, will he follow Sweeney and take the road less traveled by moving Neely back into a more business and community relations position? His choice likely won’t be made public on Wednesday or maybe never, but it will make all the difference in where this organization is headed.