July 22, 2011

From NEHJ: O'Connell reflects on Bruins glory

By Jesse Connolly

For as long as he lives and no matter how the rest of his tenure plays out, Peter Chiarelli will always be remembered as the architect of the Bruins’ first Stanley Cup-winning squad since 1972. 

Former Bruins general manager Mike O'Connell is now director of pro development for the Kings. (Getty)

Former Bruins general manager Mike O'Connell is now director of pro development for the Kings. (Getty)

And while the GM deserves a hefty amount of praise for all of the work he’s done throughout his first five seasons in Boston, those that occupied the front office before Chiarelli and Co. took over played a major role in the Bruins finally ending their championship drought.

Prior to his dismissal as general manager in 2006, Mike O’Connell — a native of Cohasset, Mass. — put a number of pieces in place that would go on to carry the Bruins to their Stanley Cup victory, including draftees Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.

“When you’re a general manager, you leave that to your scouts,” said O’Connell, now the director of pro development for the Los Angeles Kings. “You have a little bit of say. So if you’re going to give me credit for those guys, you’ve got to give me credit for Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Phil Kessel and all those other guys, because I was part of the same staff that selected Bergeron and Krejci.

“The three guys who picked those players were Daniel Dore, Nick Bobrov and Jeff Gorton. The scout they retained, Scott Bradley, was sick that year and did very little scouting. Those three guys basically made those selections and many prior to that, and were very important to the Bruins’ organization. Those guys should not be forgotten because they are what helped bring the Stanley Cup to Boston.”

O’Connell, who spent 424 NHL games on the Bruins’ blue line from 1980 to 1986, saved one of his best moves for his last. Tim Thomas returned to Finland during the lockout after two seasons in Providence (and two brief call-ups to Boston), but O’Connell invited the well-traveled netminder back for another crack at nailing down a job in the NHL in 2005.

The Bruins GM surprised many when he later inked Thomas a three-year extension that would pay the goaltender $1.1 million per season. Looking back now, the deal was arguably the biggest bargain in team history, as Thomas rose to prominence and captured his first Vezina Trophy in the final season of the contract.

“When we first brought him over from Finland, I mean, he had 15 shutouts that one year in the Finnish Elite League,” O’Connell said. “At the time, the league was starting to produce some goaltenders, but now they’re producing more than any other country in the world. We were probably a little bit ahead of the curve with Tim Thomas playing there and having that kind of success.

“We needed goaltending help and so we signed him. We put him on waivers a few times and no one claimed him, thank goodness. That’s just the way the system worked. Did I expect him to be the best player every game of the Stanley Cup Finals? No, but you don’t expect that from anyone.”

O’Connell was never given the chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor, as he was ultimately undone by what will forever be considered as the worst trade in the organization’s history.

Just 23 games into the post-lockout era, O’Connell sent captain Joe Thornton packing for San Jose, trading away a player that was once believed to be the cornerstone of the franchise for a streaky winger in Marco Sturm, a grinder in Wayne Primeau and an eventual malcontent in defenseman Brad Stuart.

“Do you think the Bruins would have won a Stanley Cup with Joe Thornton in the lineup?” O’Connell said when asked if he’d still make the deal to this day. “I asked myself if Joe Thornton could lead us to the Stanley Cup, and my answer was no. The whole lockout thing didn’t work, and we knew we had to rebuild.

“Do you want to rebuild around a player that has character but not the championship character you’re looking for? We knew we could build the team around the Bergeron types that have a positive influence on all the players coming in. That’s exactly what you see, so it worked.”

Changing the opinion of those that continue to berate him for the trade might just be impossible, but O’Connell simply never thought Jumbo Joe — who went on to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP that same season — could lead the Bruins to glory.

“Joe was a terrific offensive player, but we needed more than that,” said O’Connell, an assistant GM when Boston picked Thornton first overall in 1997. “Bergeron, we thought it was him. You look at the influence he’s had on Marchand and Krejci, and all the older players who watch him. He’s really something to behold, the way he approaches the game.”

So has Thornton’s playoff futility with the Sharks validated the transaction O’Connell will forever be synonymous with?

“I don’t know if that’s the case or not,” he said. “They’ve had some very good teams there. Maybe next year is their year, but it doesn’t matter. I think it’s satisfying to see the Bruins win and the vision you had for this team come true. Peter Chiarelli and Cam Neely have done a terrific job in acquiring the pieces that put them over the top.”

Though many still cling tightly to the grudge they hold with him, O’Connell deserves his fair share of credit for putting the foundation in place for both Chiarelli and Neely to build a Stanley Cup champion.

THE STAT

Mike O’Connell scored 105 goals in 860 games in the NHL as a defenseman with the Blackhawks, Bruins and Red Wings.

Schneider shines in finals

Cory Schneider undoubtedly wishes his team met a different fate in the Stanley Cup Finals, but the Canucks’ young netminder was hardly to blame after turning in two solid performances in relief of Roberto Luongo — against the team he grew up rooting for to boot.
The Marblehead, Mass., native, who appeared in three games in the first round against Chicago, sported a 1.81 goals-against average in the finals. Schneider was called upon by coach Alain Vigneault in Games 4 and 6 at TD Garden, as the Bruins lit up Luongo with ease in each of the games in Boston.

“Never fun to be part of a loss, but I want to try to go out there and give my teammates some momentum and try to change the pace of the game a little bit,” Schneider said after the Canucks’ 5-2 loss in Game 6, one in which Luongo was yanked after allowing three goals in less than 10 minutes. “I just try to do whatever I can and see what happens. You throw your best out there and hope that good things happen.”

The Boston College alumnus did receive a consolation prize a week later, as he and Luongo received the Jennings Trophy, given to the team that allows the fewest goals during the regular season.

Born in the USA

When Schneider (Marblehead, Mass.) and the Bruins’ Tim Thomas (Flint, Mich.) faced each other in Games 4 and 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals this year, it was the first time American goaltenders appeared for both teams in the finals since 1991, when Pittsburgh’s Tom Barrasso (Stow, Mass.) faced Minnesota’s Jon Casey (Grand Rapids, Mich.).

Drury, Rangers part ways 

After a frustrating 2010-11 season, Chris Drury’s run with the New York Rangers is officially over. The Blueshirts bought out the final year of their captain’s contract, making the Trumbull, Conn., native an unrestricted free agent.

Drury broke his finger twice and underwent knee surgery last season, limiting him to just 24 games. He didn’t score a goal until New York’s final game of the regular season and went on to register just a single point in five playoff games.

The former Boston University star never quite produced at the level that was originally expected of him after the Rangers doled out a five-year, $35 million contract to Drury in the summer of 2007. After scoring 25 goals and picking up 58 points in his first year on Broadway, his numbers declined every season, as New York failed to win a playoff round during Drury’s tenure.

A consummate professional, Drury could have balked at the buyout offer and, instead of receiving $3.33 million in compensation, been given his full $5 million salary for next year had he chosen to apply for a medical exception.

“It was a great honor and privilege to be a New York Ranger for the past four years, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to fulfill that childhood dream,” Drury said in an email to the New York Post.

In 12 NHL seasons, Drury has 255 goals and 615 points. Many speculate that he may possibly return to the Colorado, a team in dire need of adding on salary to reach the cap floor, where Drury won the Calder Trophy in 1999 and spent the first four seasons of his pro career.

Pacioretty extended

Winger Max Pacioretty (New Canaan, Conn.) and the Canadiens agreed to a two-year contract extension. The deal is expected to carry a cap hit of $1.62 million over the next two seasons.

Pacioretty’s 2010-11 season came to an end March 8 in Montreal, when he suffered a season-ending neck injury and a concussion after a jolting hit by Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara.

“Knowing that I’ve had so long to recover and I’ve done so much to recover and the strength I have in my body, I’m not going to hesitate at all,” Pacioretty said via conference call from his home. “I know the type of game I have to play to be successful, and I’m going to continue to play that way throughout my whole career.”

The former University of Michigan standout had 24 points in 37 games for the Canadiens last season, including seven goals on the power play.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com