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Mid-Season Check-in: Checking up on Don Sweeney’s Accumulator bet

The Bruins revamped their depth and their goaltending, not always on their own terms. Now, Don’s been dealt his cards and has been sitting at the table for awhile. Let’s see how he’s doing.

Boston Bruins v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Don Sweeney’s time as Boston Bruins GM has largely been a successful one, in spite of all the heartbreak and handwringing that has gone into every single version of the Bruins he’s been responsible for up to this point. But every version he’s put out there so far has always had the unenviable fact that he would be kicking the can of cup contention down the road until he’s ran out of road to kick it down.

Sweeney, as ever, has tried to maximize that chance however he can the same way every General Manager does; by betting on guys they acquired, they drafted, and signed to get the team to success. But with Sweeney, it seems like the usual bets made by a GM are never “just” bets. They’re never just simple acquisitions.

This is the Boston Bruins. Nobody here does “simple”.

From the minute he made his way to the draft floor in 2015 to right now, especially now, it seems like every decision that Don Sweeney has made has gone from routine GM maneuvering to each move being tied to every single aspect of the Bruins and how that positively or negatively affects them, to the point that sometimes fans will either anoint them champs or write the team off for it entirely. Sometimes between games, since we’ve had plenty of time in between them.

This year, Don’s put a lot down to hopefully get this team not just into the playoffs, but in the cup conversation. A multi-tiered series of bets that need to pay off, or he’s going to be in big trouble come this offseason.

Welcome to Don Sweeney’s Accumulator Bet.

Let’s check in on that!

Bet One: Bruce Cassidy’s system remains as good as it ever is on defense

This was the one I was most confident in Don getting his return on.

The Bruins defense on a systems level, regardless of who’s played in it, has been one of the best in the league over the past few years, especially when it comes to keeping the front of the net clear and shot-attempts against down. While occasionally caught looking a bit lost in some exceptionally poor efforts, this group has shown over and over throughout the regular season that they can handle the forechecking, skill, and brawn of some of the NHL’s best. Forward and defenders who stick around buy in so quickly that there’s a slightly recorded production bump in new players, as they too wind up building (or just benefitting) from strong defensive play into strong transition.

As a system? It’s working out. The Bruins are first in the league in expected goals against per 60 minutes, and gives up the fourth fewest shots against per 60 minutes. As a system, what has worked before is working again.

From a macro level, things appear to be going just fine
The Evolving-Hockey.com twins.
In spite of themselves, the B’s defense as a unit is doing what it can
HockeyViz.com

Individually on the other hand? Total mess...kind of. Maybe. Total might be embellishing. It’s at the very least headache inducing.

See, for every positive performance on the Blueline in games, two bad ones seem to counteract it two nights later. Derek Forbort has trouble pushing dudes out of the slot? Well here’s that bone-headed primo chance handed to the other team by Brandon Carlo. Charlie McAvoy not having a Norris caliber shift leading to a transition attempt? Well here’s Mike Reilly losing his man on the PK. Connor Clifton getting turnstiled on a breakout? Vaakanainen gets hurt. John Moore does anything? Derek Forbort does something worse.

Really, that’s the worst part of it; it’s never just one player. And it’s rarely ever been ignorable.

While Mac is still the #1 defender right now, but he simply cannot be the best player on the ice every shift of every night for the Bruins to have success in their back-end. Even Victor Hedman or Cale Makar have some kind of help.

The problem that the B’s face is that their defense needs to seriously buckle down and start creating better opportunities for the offense to do it’s job across the lineup, not just from stars, and not just from newbies. From all of them individually to build a better whole. Because the schedule is about to heat up something fierce.

But just as big a part of defense is goaltending, which leads us into the second bet...

Bet Two: Reigns-passing of starting goalie goes off without a hitch.

The eternal litigating and re-litigating of Tuukka Rask’s career has made for one of the most obnoxious examples of first world hockey problems in existence, get in touch with any non-Boston fan on how they feel about their goaltending if you’d like to understand why. While an eternal war on what his career meant in the Boston area might rage, one thing his career absolutely gave the Bruins is consistency. Rask for the past ten years or so showed up, give you at-or-above league average goaltending, and whatever happened after that was up to you. And for the most part that consistency allowed Chiarelli, and Sweeney after him, to address other areas of the team without having to worry about the guy taking the majority of your starts, even when they moved to a “1a-1b” model later on in his career.

For the first time since 2014, Tuukka Rask was not to be the starting goaltender in Boston to start the season. That is a massive change. Thankfully, Don had a plan.

Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman.

While both have had their hiccups, and definitely their weaknesses; for Ullmark it’s lateral movement, for Swayman it’s...teams in playoff position, but both finally started coming into their own as quality options at netminder. They both still have some clunkers to their name that I’m sure they’d rather forget, and most terrifyingly from early on, but in those cases I’d be more willing to either blame defensive breakdowns or the offense spluttering at the worst possible time. While I’m sure there are still some things they’ll do to drive some people up a wall, I think we can be perfectly willing to at least get to the Trade deadline with these two as netminders. Plus, they went and pulled the safety lever, so that’ll probably allow them some cruising speed in case one of them gets injured...even if they maybe pulled it waaaaaaay too early and now Rask is on the mend. Whoops.

But they can only do so much; the team in front of them has to start putting up some points, which leads us to...

Bet Three: The Depth returns to form through additions and subtractions

By the end of the playoffs last season, the Bruins depth had been getting rightfully roasted for being unacceptably poor in comparison to the sheer amount of legwork that the top six had been doing, and still receiving loads of ice time in spite of it. We got salty about it.

In the offseason, most of the players who had been there before were gone. Sean Kuraly was replaced by Tomas Nosek, Ritchie by Foligno, Erik Haula joined as well, supplemented with Steen, Blidh, Frederic, Lazar returning, Kuhlman lol not him anymore, all of whom would see ice time so far this season.

It’s been...getting there?

Nosek? Doing well. Excellent PKer, skates fast, not really an offensive threat but has found the back of the net pretty reasonably. Absolutely no complaints. Roughly the same for Anton Blidh and Curtis Lazar, and especially Oskar Steen who has begun to make himself known. Erik Haula? After a couple of games of playing slightly better after being benched, he has returned to being one of the least effective Boston Bruins at 5v5, even as he sees a boost from playing with Pastrnak and Hall. Foligno? For all his physical presence and his “effort” and his fights and his physicality, he’s still paid almost 3mil to be an NHL forward and he’s in danger of getting lapped in points by 4th liners who’ve played a handful of games. Trent Frederic is physical, but with how inconsistent he is with the puck, he might as well be playing with boulders strapped to his hands. Jake DeBrusk wants out and half the fanbase would drive him to the airport if they could in spite of the fact he currently has more goals than Craig Smith.

I can say that, while it’s still very obvious that improvements could be made, it’s working? I think Nosek is a good center for what they need, I think Steen’s finally found himself some breathing room to stick around...I wish Anton Blidh didn’t get murked by Tom Wilson but that’s how life is.

It’s fine. This bet’s doing okay. But a big part of that is that the bottom six has seen some big shake ups and maybe could do with more.

Bet 4: The decision to allow 2nd line center to be run “by Committee” works.

When the season started, Center depth was already going to be a concern. Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula had been coming into it hot off of some very cold seasons for both of them. How have they managed to handle it since?

Well...yeah. For awhile they settled on Coyle. To his credit Charlie Coyle has indeed played better, but given how a number of his goals have come off some spectacularly lucky bounces or on transition, it isn’t terribly surprising that his more bang and crash style didn’t exactly mesh well with the high energy, high playmaking IQ that one particular linemate brought, and he was swapped out with Erik Haula. Who is faster! But...he’s also less involved.

The real tragedy in all this is that Coyle has genuinely rebounded from his nightmare season, but it’s not being used in a way that could make him see a true resurgence.
Evolving-Hockey.com

As we’ve discussed previously, Hall is the one getting most of the work done on Line 2, and I’m sorry to say changing Coyle out for Haula didn’t really change that. If anything, one could make the argument moving Pastrnak down to the 2nd line has had more of a positive impact on that line than anything Haula’s done, and I think Erik Haula’s playing night and day better than he did when he started the season! I’m not trying to be mean! But it’s clear the straws who are stirring the drink are no longer in the hands of the guys typically expected to do that.

TL;DR I think this bet, maybe more than the first one, needs some help. This is the kind of thing that gets you burned more often in the playoffs than bad decisionmaking; talent mismatches.

Bet 5: All of these things work in tandem to bring the Bruins deep into the playoffs

I don’t think the game-to-game issues this team currently faces are so bad that they could miss the playoffs entirely. Not yet. They wouldn’t be even close to the position they’re currently in to actually be that bad. The last time that happened a series of events so galling (Lost their last five and lost their best defender so very close to the end on illness) that the chances of it happening again are very, very slim.

After a couple of months of consternation and woe, the Bruins currently occupy the East’s final wildcard spot with 53 points; the next team down needs to win at least four games straight to catch them, and in terms of play are at least a reasonable position to solidify that wildcard spot. All the good things about the Bruins that Don didnt have to bet on, like the first line and Pasta, are still as effective as per usual, and for the most part the system itself appears to be doing it’s job. It absolutely has it’s hiccups, but it is...together.


But still, there’s always room for improvement! And that is where Don must make a new bet that most teams make at the deadline, and must trust in their scouting and their data to determine if it’s a good one to make.

Upcoming Bet 6: The pieces acquired at the trade deadline pan out.

We’ll see how that unfolds as the year continues. Plenty of names have been bandied about, but until rumors truly begin to set, we’ll leave that to you how they should decide.

Poll

What should the Boston Bruins put work into fixing in the upcoming trade deadline?

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    2nd line Center
    (311 votes)
  • 54%
    Top 4 defender
    (400 votes)
  • 2%
    Goalie
    (15 votes)
  • 0%
    The power play!?
    (6 votes)
732 votes total Vote Now