Does Don Sweeney Have A Beef With The CHL?

By Neal Lyons

The 2020 NHL Entry Draft is just a day away. A time where fans get a look into the future while trying to make sense of the past. A time when we all believe that we know more than the league’s GM’s and scouting staff. A time full of optimism, speculation, and, of course, a critique. With this spirit in mind, we’re going to take a little peek at the Boston Bruins’ recent draft history because one subtlety is quite evident. Don Sweeney rarely drafts from the CHL.

Since becoming the Bruins’ General Manager, in May of 2015, Sweeney has participated in five drafts. Of the 32 picks he’s overseen, only nine have come from the Canadian Hockey League. A span that includes none taken in 2016, 2018 & 2019.

An initial reaction is to assume that, maybe, he hasn’t been content with the return on his CHL investments. He did take six players from Canadian major junior in his first draft as GM. Boston famously had three first-round picks in 2015. Two of those selections – Jakob Zboril and Zach Senyshyn – have turned out to be, arguably, the most questioned of Sweeney’s tenure. Both were promising CHL products that haven’t matured into NHL talents. Optimism remains that both can become serviceable NHL players one day, but belief is waning.

Don did make good on two of his other CHL picks that June. Jake Debrusk and Brandon Carlo, both out of the WHL, have played prominent roles for the Bruins in recent seasons. Looking at the big picture, two out of six is nothing to be upset about. Graduating multiple players from any draft is a fine result. Especially since Zboril and Senyshyn still hold some asset value.

It becomes less compelling when you investigate further and realize that Debrusk and Carlo, alone, secure the CHL as Sweeney’s best draft supplier, to date. Of his 23 picks from other systems, only one has carved out an everyday role for the Bruins. Charlie McAvoy. Going one for twenty-three is not good. When the “one” is Charlie McAvoy, it is more tolerable, though.

The fact is, only four Boston picks since 2015 have played more than 20 games for the big club. The three mentioned so far – DeBrusk, Carlo, McAvoy – and Jeremy Lauzon. You guessed it, another CHL product. If you count Jack Studnicka, regarded by many as the team’s top prospect, Sweeney has hit on four of his nine CHL picks, while going one for twenty-three on the rest.

So, why has he not gone to the well more? Is this a scouting matter? Philosphical? Questions only those involved can fully answer. 

In recent drafts, Boston has been accused of “reaching” with their first-round picks, taking big, NCAA bound, centres from the US Development Team. The likes of Trent Frederic and John Beecher. Players who were taken just before highly rated CHL talent such as Alex DeBrincat, Sam Steel, and Arthur Kaliyev. DeBrincat and Steel are already fixtures for their NHL teams, while Kaliyev has quickly become one of the league’s top prospects, just a year removed from his selection. These players aren’t surprises, for the most part, either. They were next up on many draft boards, yet Boston chose to look past them.

However, it’s still too soon to conclude those picks, and it’s not as though drafting late in the first round is an exact science, to begin with. Players taken in that range have about a 1/3 chance of ever seeing 100 NHL games, so the likelihood of landing a superstar there is never great. And that is likely the Bruins’ thinking, opting for high floor players like Carlo, Frederic, and Beecher, rather than shooting for the stars.

Let’s shift our attention and look at the roster construction of another team. The Tampa Bay Lightning. 2020 Stanley Cup Champs, and the team that Bruins fans see as their biggest championship roadblock. It’s a copycat league. Even Bruins President, Cam Neely, used the Lightning as a comparative model in his end-of-season press conference.

Before diving in, note that Tampa has been blessed with some top-end draft picks. Lean seasons have allowed them to add, current captain, Steven Stamkos (#1, 2008), Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Victor Hedman (#2, 2009), and Jonathan Drouin (#3, 2013), who they subsequently dealt to acquire Mikhail Sergachev (then of the OHL’s, Sarnia Sting). Together, they make up a substantial part of their core and leadership.

The Lightning has had great success trolling the Canadian junior ranks for under-appreciated talent. Their roster is full of it. Some prime examples include draftees Brayden Point (#79, 2014), Anthony Cirelli (#72, 2015), Cedric Paquette (#101, 2012), Mathieu Joseph (#120, 2015), Mitchell Stephens (#33, 2015), and, perhaps their biggest coup, Ondrej Palat (#208, 2011). Plus, undrafted free agents Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde. All of them, CHL graduates.

In fact, of the thirty-three players Tampa brought to their phase three, summer camp, two-thirds of them had spent some portion of their pre-professional careers in the CHL. Narrowing it even further, there were only three invitees under 30, with no CHL experience. Two Russians – Andrei Vasilefskiy and Alexander Volkov – and then 29 years old Blake Coleman.

Compare that to the Bruins, where only nine players under 30 did play in the CHL. Eight, if you choose to exclude, depth goalie, Maxime Lagace. Back to nine, if you consider the 23 games, Charlie Coyle played for the QMJHL’s, Saint John Sea Dogs, after leaving Boston University early. 

It wasn’t always this way in Boston. League-wide, rosters have become more varied over the last decade, but the 2011 Stanley Cup Champions were almost exclusively made up of players from the CHL. Denis Seidenberg, Tomas Kaberle, and Rich Peverley were the only skaters who didn’t get to the NHL via Canadian major junior. Today’s veteran core is still made up of players from that squad. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci & Zdeno Chara are all CHL products.

What will happen later this week is anyone’s guess, but that’s what always makes the draft so intriguing. The Bruins’ first pick isn’t until #57. It will be someone most know little about but will be ready to weigh in on, regardless. Ideally, a GM should always take the best player available, despite pedigree. Just this one time, maybe Don Sweeney should throw on the blinders for a bit and centre his attention on what the CHL has to offer late in the second round. Considering his draft resume as GM so far, he’s really got nothing to lose.

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