Boston Bruins, 2000-2006
Northeast Division Titles: 2001-2002; 2003-2004
Playoff Appearances: 2002-2004
Mike O’Connell is the man who replaced Harry Sinden as GM of the Boston Bruins in the year 2000. Although according to my rating system O’Connell is tied with Doug Risebrough in career value at +16 I have ranked him above Risebrough because his Average Season Rating (ASR) is better than Risebrough’s (3.200 to Risebrough’s 1.333) which means that O’Connell as a manager got better results from his teams on a season-by-season basis than Risebrough did.
O’Connell comes from a family of athletes. His father was an NFL quarterback and his older brother Tim played briefly in the WHA. Mike O’Connell is a Massachusetts native and played high school hockey where he drew the attention of Harry Sinden who recommended that he play in the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League—where he was voted the best defenseman in the OMJHL during the 1974/75 season.
In 1975 he was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL and the Phoenix Roadrunners in the WHA. O’Connell chose not to emulate his older brother and signed with the Hawks instead. O’Connell continued to excel, earning awards and All-Star honors. By the 1978/79 season Mike made the big time where he joined the Blackhawks roster. O’Connell was steady, consistent, and industrious blue-liner but not a superstar. O’Connell spent the rest of his career in the NHL: playing for the Hawks, the Boston Bruins (where he worked with Brad Park and Raymond Bourque on defense) before ending his playing career with the Detroit Red Wings in 1990.
O’Connell immediately took up coaching in the IHL and spent one lackluster season there with the San Diego Gulls.
Bruins GM Harry Sinden continued to take a special interest in Mike O’Connell; tapping him to work as an assistant coach under Rick Bowness during the 1991/92 season with the Bruins. After that season Sinden made O’Connell the head coach of the Bruins AHL affiliate Providence Bruins where he coached two seasons (winning a divisional title in his rookie season and then finishing in last place in his sophomore year. If you applied my rating system to his AHL coaching record his career value as an AHL coach would be a mediocre zero).
Despite the mixed results Sinden continued to further O’Connell’s career: making him assistant Bruins GM and expanding O’Connell’s responsibilities until he was an alternate governor of the team by the year 2000. Harry Sinden stepped down as Bruins GM on November 1, 2000 and O’Connell took over the reins.
Mike O’Connell represented a new era for the Boston Bruins. The team had been stuck in the doldrums in the late 1990s. At first O’Connell was reluctant to make a clean sweep of the team. He retained the late Pat Burns as head coach but when the Bruins were losing after only eight games into the 2000/01 season, O’Connell fired Burns and replaced him with Mike Keenan.
Unfortunately for the Bruins Iron Mike Keenan was in his vagabond phase as a head coach; failing more than succeeding; roiling the waters instead of calming them. After failing to make the playoffs O’Connell took a gamble and replaced Keenan with former New Jersey Devils head coach Robbie Ftorek—who had been fired ignominiously by the Devils mere days short of the 2000 Stanley Cup playoffs.
At first the gamble seemed to pay off. Ftorek led the Bruins to their first divisional title win since 1993 but suffered a first round defeat. The following year it was déjà vu all over again for Ftorek when he was fired (and replaced as head coach) by Mike O’Connell with nine games left in the regular season. The team had roared off to a great start and yet had been slumping since early December, going 13-24-5-3 during the slump under Ftorek. Again Ftorek was fired ignominiously (never to return to NHL head coaching again). The Bruins never made it past the first round of the playoffs while O’Connell was GM even though they won another divisional title in 2004.
In terms of acquiring playing talent, O’Connell’s record is mixed. His most notable draft picks were Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Kris Versteeg. Bergeron and Krejci are now integral members of the Bruins team and played vital roles in the Bruins 2011 Stanley Cup victory but in the case of Versteeg, and others like Mark Stuart, Shaone Morrisson they made it to the NHL but excelled for other teams.
O’Connell was not afraid to make a trade and was, indeed, quite active in the trading market. The Bergeron, Krejci, Stuart, and Versteeg draft picks were all obtained through trades. And yet Mike O’Connell will always be remembered for trading away top-gun Joe Thornton to San Jose for Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart, and Marco Sturm on November 30, 2005. Coupled with that trade were the failure to re-sign free-agents Brian Rolston, Sergei Gonchar, and Mike Knuble to name a few in 2004.
O’Connell blamed Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs for the failure to retain these players but could O’Connell fire Jacobs?
Accordingly, with the Bruins moribund and doomed to a last-place finish in the Northeast Division, Jacobs pulled the trigger on O’Connell on March 25, 2006.
Since then O’Connell has not returned to NHL general management. Three months after his firing in Boston, O’Connell was hired by the L.A. Kings to serve as their director of pro-development and special assignments where he remains to this day.
(My next column will feature Flyers GM Paul Holmgren.)