SUNRISE, Fla. – Friday night will go down in history as the night Connor McDavid officially became a card-carrying member of the NHL fraternity and embarked on his career as the savior of the Edmonton Oilers. But that’s not all we’ll remember about the first night of the draft in 2015.
We may all look back at this night 10 years from now and identify it as the precise moment in time when two seismic events occurred. The first one is the ascension of the Buffalo Sabres into respectability. And the second is we may very well point to June 26, 2015 as the day the Boston Bruins began their downward spiral into mediocrity. Or worse.
So much of Day 1 of the 2015 draft centered around two teams, one on its way up and the other on its way down. The Sabres accelerated their rebuild in an enormous way, with their GM pulling off a couple of blockbuster deals that turned the center ice position from the organization’s greatest weakness to its greatest strength. The Bruins, meanwhile, were busy throwing very good players overboard in an attempt to get their abysmal salary cap situation under control. And in doing so, the Bruins went from being beasts of the east to a shell of their former selves.
Just think of how happy the Montreal Canadiens are these days. They know very well that Zdeno Chara is on the decline and they no longer have to deal with Milan Lucic. That rivalry just got a little less exciting and a little easier for the Canadiens. Perhaps they can save their increased stamina for the foe they’ll have to face in the Sabres.
Because when you bring in two young centers the way the Sabres will likely do next season with No. 2 overall pick Jack Eichel and No. 2 pick from last year Sam Reinhart, so much of their development hinges on putting them into positions where they can succeed. And by acquiring one of the best two-way centers in the NHL in Ryan O’Reilly, Murray did just that. Now the young players will not have to worry about facing the top centers on the opposing teams, particularly when the Sabres are at home and have the benefit of last change. “We would have been looking at (Eichel and Reinhart) as No. 1 and 2,” Murray said, “and that’s not what I wanted at all.”
And by acquiring goalie Robin Lehner and center David Legwand in return for the 21st overall pick, Murray solidified his goaltending situation and picked up another serviceable center. And as Murray took questions following the first round, he acknowledged that he was pretty pleased with his day’s work. “It was a good day,” Murray said. “We hit some targets today and it’s satisfying when you can do that.”
Earlier in the evening, Murray’s Boston counterpart, rookie GM Don Sweeney, was having to defend the fact that he traded an elite defenseman in Dougie Hamilton for three draft picks, then dealt heart-and-soul player Lucic to Los Angeles for a prospect in Colin Miller, a backup goalie in Martin Jones and a draft pick. The trades gave the Bruins the 13th, 14th and 15th picks, which they used to select three players that were lower on most scouts’ lists. Any way you slice it, in the short term, the Bruins are not as good a team today as they were yesterday.
And it all goes back to the previous regime and its handling of the salary cap. Sweeney will have to wear the effects of it and will be remembered as the guy who dealt Hamilton and Lucic away, but had the Bruins not been in salary cap hell when he took the job, things might have been different. There was speculation that Sweeney made a proactive move by dealing Hamilton, that he must have known an offer sheet for Hamilton was on its way.
But Sweeney said that had little do with his move, that he made it after determining there was no way he was going to be able to get Hamilton under contract long-term. “We made Dougie a very significant contract offer,” Sweeney said, “and it didn’t lead us to where we thought we’d be able to with him being part of our group long-term, so that changed the course a little bit.” And it was the same with Lucic. Although they never exchanged specifics, Sweeney felt the disconnect between Lucic, who has one year left on his contract, was so large that he risked losing him for nothing as an unrestricted free agent next season. “A hockey club that has significant dollars tied up in a number of player in the same category (as Lucic), it would have been hard to place two more players in amongst that group.”
The fact that the Bruins will eat $2.7 million of Lucic’s $6 million salary and cap hit has to be a kick in the slats. Just imagine, if you will, a top line next season for the Kings of Anze Kopitar between Marian Gaborik and Lucic. Won’t that be a thrill to face? Perhaps those guys will be nice to their opponents and let them touch the puck once in a while.
Speaking of being nice, it was awfully sporting of the Bruins to help make the Calgary Flames and Kings better with their deals. Sweeney expects a team that wasn’t good enough to make to make the playoffs with Hamilton and Lucic to be good enough to be in the post-season tournament in 2016. And perhaps they will. Perhaps these moves are part of a grand plan Sweeney has to use his cap space for an offer sheet or trade of his own.
But for now at least, Day 1 of the draft was about two relatively new GMs, one who had the courage to swing for the fences and another who was forced to do a bunch of patchwork left by a previous regime. It will be interesting to see which direction they both go in the next little while.