Don Sweeney’s Free Agency Moves Propel Bruins to Success

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Don Sweeney crushed free agency and it’s greatly benefiting the Bruins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Don Sweeney has had several swings and misses in NHL free agency since taking over as Boston Bruins general manager in 2015.

The infamous summer signings of Matt Beleskey and David Backes probably top the list of Sweeney’s free agent mistakes. Not much was expected of Sweeney on the free agent front last summer because the Bruins had almost no salary cap space. He wasn’t deterred by those constraints, though, and ultimately signed a bunch of veteran players.

Several of these moves have paid huge dividends for Boston, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. The Bruins lost a ton of good players in the offseason, most notably Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Taylor Hall, among others. And yet they still sit atop the Eastern Conference standings and rank among the top Stanley Cup contenders.

Sweeney’s free agent additions are a major reason for that early-season success.

The most impactful moves to this point have been the signings of left wing James van Riemsdyk, right wing Danton Heinen and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

Van Riemsdyk has been the best of the bunch. He has tallied 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) in 34 games. He’s already surpassed his assist total with the Flyers last season and is just four points away from matching his 2022-23 scoring production.

JVR was arguably the best player on the ice during the Bruins’ 4-1 road win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night. He scored a goal and picked up two assists. Van Riemsdyk has been a handful for opponents in front of the net, and his goal Tuesday night was another example.

“Really good for him to get a goal,” Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery told reporters after Tuesday’s win when asked about van Riemsdyk. “I think it had been a while since he had a goal, but he’s contributing to us and to our team game every night. Somehow he always ends up making a play because he’s always smart. He gets in the right areas.”

The Bruins signed van Riemsdyk to a one-year deal worth just $1 million in July. How much bang for their buck have the Bruins gotten from this deal? Well, per CapFriendly, van Riemsdyk has the second-lowest cost per point ($40,000) of any player not on an entry-level contract. Van Riemsdyk’s 25 points are the second-most of any player not on an ELC who has a salary cap hit of $2 million or less.

He has been a little inconsistent as a goal scorer. Before last weekend, he had scored only one goal in his last 17 games. But overall, van Riemsdyk has been a stellar addition to Boston’s roster. It’s not hyperbole to say that the van Riemsdyk contract has been one of the best in the league from a team perspective this season.

Shattenkirk has played a key role on the Bruins’ blue line with his ability to generate scoring chances. This has been especially valuable considering Matt Grzelcyk — another good playmaking defenseman — has missed 14 of the team’s 36 games due to injury.

Shattenkirk has scored three times in the last five games, and his five goals on the season are one more than he had all of last season (75 games).

“He’s really poised,” Montgomery said of Shattenkirk on Tuesday night. “His poise and intelligence, his calmness, you can kind of see it permeating throughout the team. And his defensive play has gotten significantly better.”

Heinen was brought in during training camp on a PTO contract. He didn’t sign an official deal with the Bruins until late October, but he’s been a valuable player ever since with his scoring and versatility. Heinen can play either left wing or right wing. He’s not a liability defensively and he often makes the smart play.

Heinen has scored five goals with seven assists in 28 games. All 12 of his points have come at even strength, which is one less than notable NHLers such as Tyler Bertuzzi and Tage Thompson. In addition to his scoring, Heinen is one of those veterans who does all the little things, like backchecking, forechecking, blocking shots, etc.

Heinen played under Montgomery when they both were at the University of Denver. Montgomery knew what buttons to push to get the most of Heinein at that time, and he’s doing it again for the B’s.

In total, the Bruins spent just $2.825 million in cap space for van Riemsdyk, Heinen and Shattenkirk over the summer. These players have combined to score 17 goals with 31 assists in 36 games. It’s the kind of value that would make former Oakland Athletics general manager and Moneyball wizard Billy Beane proud.

Trades have often been the area where Sweeney has excelled most as Bruins GM. He has done a tremendous job identifying which players to acquire while not giving up too much to make the deals happen. It’s time to give him some praise for free agency, too. Of course, it’s still early and we haven’t even reached the official halfway point of the regular season. The playoffs are a long ways away. Maybe these veterans see their scoring production dip.

But right now, Sweeney is dominating the free agent scoreboard in comparison to many of his peers.

His job isn’t done. The Bruins still need another forward and another defenseman to give them the ideal amount of depth for the postseason. Making these moves won’t be easy given the Bruins’ lack of elite trade assets. But there’s no reason to doubt Sweeney’s ability to pull it off. He is one of the best in the sport at what he does.

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