During Theo Epstein’s reign as Red Sox General Manager, the organization has won a pair of World Series titles and taken the baseball world by storm while evolving into a “scouting and player development machine."
Those were the GM’s own words when he was handed the reigns to the ballclub prior to the 2003 season, and the local-boy-turned-baseball-exec promptly followed every dotted “I” and crossed “T” that had been previously mapped out.
Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli came into the Black and Gold head front office job in 2006 without as much fanfare, but the former Harvard University skater arrived with the same intent to rebuild a rotting hockey roster carcass following the NHL lockout.
The Spoked B’s might well have just been called a post-lockout expansion team because that’s essentially what they were three years ago.
It’s become something of the perfect hockey storm in Boston for Chiarelli, however, as he’s happened into a sports region hungry for a return to hockey greatness. But along with that dormant puck passion is a willingness and patience within the fan base when it comes to young players and top-flight prospects.
It’s become yearly tradition for Boston fans to fall into a fawning love affair with up-and-coming prospects within the Boston sports landscape, and the Bruins roster is practically splitting at the sides with young talent ready to emerge. Last season several of those barely-in-their-twenties players like Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Phil Kessel continued to gather valuable NHL experience, and it’s expected that the B’s young guns will lead the team to even higher hockey ground this winter.
Lucic and Kessel both skated wire-to-wire for the Bruins last season and Krejci is seemingly the perfect example of the B’s player development system at work. The nifty Czech center made the team out of training camp, but was dropped back down to the minor leagues after 12 games with instructions to tighten up both his intensity and defensive game. The 22-year-old returned in late December, scored 6 goals and 13 assists in his final 31 games, and was a playmaking force during the first-round playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens.
Each of the young players excelling with the Bruins speaks to the scouting/player development mantra flowing through the halls of the B’s front office.
“You do your homework, you draft a player and you bring him into the organization in hockey at 18 years old. From that point you get to know the character of the individual and see how they deal with bumps along the road: bumps in training camp if they come in out of shape, bumps during the year where they can have a whole host of issues or whether they’re still amateurs after the draft that you continue to work with,” said Chiarelli when asked the inherent advantages of developing hockey players within an organization. “You see how they respond and then you get a huge portfolio on both their character and their skill, and you know what you’re getting as a person. I think that’s essential.”
Chiarelli had only a handful of players under contract when he took over the bereft Bruins, and knew there would be rough waters ahead as he attempted to right the S.S. Pooh Bear. Armed with a skeleton hockey roster and behind schedule after the Ottawa Senators wouldn’t release him from his responsibilities in May 2006, Chiarelli did the best he could.
But he also stowed away the basic philosophies and tenets culled from his time as assistant GM in Ottawa that had – at the time -- made the Sens such a talented squad with firepower spilling off their roster. The B’s GM then raided the Buffalo Sabres for assistant GM Jim Benning, and went about crafting a team in the image of the Senators and Sabres: hockey squads chock full of young forwards, blueliners and goalies that grew up together in the minor leagues and melded into cohesive hockey units.
“In my previous position [with the Senators] it was something we had to do because those players are the building blocks of your franchise and it helps bring an identity to your team when there’s a pride of ownership – as I like to call it,” said Chiarelli. “I brought Jimmy Benning over from Buffalo [as assistant GM] and we’ve all seen what they were able to do that in Buffalo as well. It’s so important to communicate with your prospects and as the prospects become players you help them develop.”
While Chiarelli didn’t technically sit in the GM’s seat until several months later, the moves made by the Bruins were immediate and had his team-building fingerprints all over them. The B’s shelled out $12 million per year to ink defenseman Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard to free agent deals that made sense within the parameters of the post-lockout NHL salary cap, and the Bruins brain trust began building from within that foundation.
With only six picks in the 2006 draft, and interim GM Jeff Gorton also keenly involved in the selection process, the B’s hit on both first-round pick Phil Kessel and second rounder Milan Lucic.
Chara and Savard had All-Star seasons in 2007-08 and both the intimidating Lucic and lightning-legged Kessel turned out to be key contributors to last season’s return to the playoffs. The 2006 NHL Draft began a series of three productive NHL drafts for Chiarelli, Benning, and Director of Player Personnel Scott Bradley that have replenished the system while a burgeoning Bruins player development machine keeps spitting out ready-made players like a widget factory gone mad.
Chiarelli has given his scouts the charge to find amateur players with grit and character, but also makes it a focal point to look for unteachable skill in junior, high school and college rinks all over the world.
“[Any prospect] has to be synonymous with our identity. What I’ve told our amateur scouts is that while we’re being portrayed as a hard-working team, don’t forget about skill,” said Chiarelli. “But when you see a skill player, look to see how they check and look to how they compete at other levels. Look to see what they bring to their team in other non-skill areas of the ice.
“Because you need skill players to win -- and when I say skill players I’m talking about high-end players. You also need character players. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to watch a high-skill player at an amateur level and watch for those other components in his game,” added the Bruins GM. “You get fixated on the skill aspect of it. You have to keep telling your guys that and keep driving it home. You can’t ignore the skill aspect of it, but you’re also looking for a character element in these players.”
Original pre-Chiarelli Bruins draft picks like Vladimir Sobotka (4th round, 2005 draft), Matt Lashoff (1st round, 2005 draft), David Krejci (2nd round, 2004 draft), Matt Hunwick (7th round, 2004 draft), Mark Stuart (1st round, 2003 draft), and Nate Thompson (6th round, 2003 draft) are on the cusp of securing full-time NHL jobs with the Bruins while others like Petr Kalus (2nd round, 2005 draft) have been dealt off for NHL needs (traded to Minnesota for goalie Manny Fernandez).
The budding hockey development pipeline fostered by the Bruins management has helped Chiarelli merely fill in many of the Spoked B blanks through organizational promotions – rather than haphazardly tossing away dollars to free agent guns-for-hire like Martin Lapointe, Alex Zhamnov or Sean O’Donnell that was akin to flushing money down the hockey toilet.
The move is a purposeful one for Boston’s GM, and meshes well in a sports city where the fans annually fall in love with their young prospects – and then show that amazing combination of faith and patience while waiting for their little puck babies to mature into fire-breathing, nail-spitting hockey studs.
“You get into a downward spiral when you dip into the free agency well too much for players, and these players haven’t been a part of your organization,” said Chiarelli. “I’m not saying it’s not good to go there and improve your team, but to rely on it is a very dangerous thing.”
The young hockey prospects form a tight bond together as they travel through the minor leagues and also spend time during the summer at the Bruins Player Development Camp – a week of practices, on-ice instruction and bonding for rookies, draft picks and potential amateur free agents during the off-months that prepares wannabe B’s for what’s expected when they actually “Become a Bruin.”
Bruins Director of Player Development Don Sweeney put together the development camp three years ago, and it has been nothing but bountiful. The development camp allowed Lucic to come into last season’s training camp familiar with the Bruins’ offensive and defensive system and perhaps won him an NHL job. If the 19-year-old had come into training camp cold then perhaps he wouldn’t have flashed like a bruising, bashing hockey diamond in the rough. Perhaps instead Lucic gets returned back to his Vancouver Giants junior team for another year of seasoning.
Where would the Bruins have been last season without the glove-dropping, bone-rattling services of Big Looch? It’s a hypothetical question that thankfully doesn’t need answering.
The Bruins could have as many as 10 players under the age of 25 that break camp with the NHL club this week, but the talent pipeline hasn’t completely dried either. Behind the current crop of highly-talented Baby B’s stand another grouping of up-and-coming prospects that combine skill, sandpaper grittiness and character that Chiarelli and Co. covet in their homegrown products.
“I like what our staff has done here from the conditioning side and how upper management has handled those [young] guys. We really seem to be doing something right,” said Bruins head coach Claude Julien, who also spoke of the next wave of the Bruins Youth Movement that will soon be starring in a rink on Causeway Street. “[Matt] Marquardt hasn’t come out of nowhere, but he’s a guy we got in a trade. His whole demeanor and approach has made strides over the summer and he’s lost a lot of weight. [Maxime] Sauvé is a second round pick and he needs to get a little more strength and experience, but he’s a guy with tremendous skills. Zach Hamill is a much different player [in this year’s camp] than he was last year.”
When they’re finally called up to Boston, it becomes all about the game of hockey for the B’s young players. They know where the rinks are in Wilmington and Boston; they know the coaching staff and the systems put in place by Claude Julien and his assistants; and they know at least a handful of teammates in the locker room.
The summer initiation goes a long way toward getting the youngster comfortable with the infrastructure around the team and allows them to simply work toward the team goal of winning…and winning often. All of the above makes it easier for overgrown Canadian farm boys to transform into the hockey prodigies expected to lead pro hockey back into the Boston sports zeitgeist.
“[Chiarelli] is very much a believer in building a team from the bottom up and bringing in the youth. Getting them into the lineup and making them play,” said Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs of what he called the ‘Bruins Youth Movement’. “I’ve seen a change under Peter concerning the scouting profile of this team and I really think it’s done quite a bit for us. I think we know quite a bit more of what’s out there than others.
“I’ve seen more teams that are going with the Central Scouting over the more traditional scouting,” added Jacobs during a recent interview with WEEI’s Dale and Holley during their ‘Owners Series’. “We’re more old-fashioned in that regard and deeper in the area of scouting than most others are. As far as our comparables go, we spend more in those categories than others do. If we can have a scout bring us one player each that’s able to make it to the NHL then we consider that a success. It’s very hard to do.”
It might be “very hard to do”, but it’s something that Chiarelli has constructed into his own hockey scouting and player development machine on display nightly at a frozen sheet near you.
Joe Haggerty covers the Bruins for WEEI.com.