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Head-scratching moves by Bruins give Sabres hope

Stupid Season, known in other parts as NHL free agency, officially opens its doors Wednesday and it long ago became a day when you can’t go looking for big-ticket items and expect them to deliver.

But as shopping begins, one question continues to linger in the wake of last weekend’s NHL Draft:

What in the name of Beacon Hill, Bunker Hill or Sam Hill is going on with the Boston Bruins?

If you’re a Sabres’ fan, you should be watching the teams in the Atlantic Division the most. That’s who Buffalo has to pass going forward to squeeze into the playoffs. With Tuesday’s stunning trade that sent Brandon Saad from Chicago to Columbus, the Blue Jackets are clearly poised to return to the postseason out of the Metropolitan Division, which is absolutely stacked.

The Sabres have to move up in the Atlantic, which might get only three playoff teams next season, to make headway in their climb from the abyss. They have helped themselves a lot the last few days, but they could some help from outside forces too.

One of their chief rivals imploding from within fits the bill.

The Bruins won a Stanley Cup in 2011, came within two wins of another in 2013 and won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2014. They had 96 points last season but their offense struggled and they missed the playoffs by two points. General Manager Peter Chiarelli was dumped, coach Claude Julien sat in limbo for weeks and now the axis of president Cam Neely and GM/former teammate Don Sweeney are running the show.

Sweeney spent part of a conference call Tuesday denying the Bruins are in a rebuild. Sure seems that way. Also seems like it’s a huge overreaction. He knew he would get plenty of heat.

“Heat is the appropriate term, I would say,” Sweeney said. “I knew going in the chair would be warm. Accepted that challenge, and knew there would be some hard decisions to make. Our staff went about trying to make the best ones.

The Bruins and 22-year-old defenseman Dougie Hamilton couldn’t come to terms and Boston dealt Hamilton to Calgary, fearing an offer sheet.

The Bruins reportedly offered Hamilton six years and $33 million, or $5.5 million per season but you can find people out there who say Hamilton wanted $7 million per plus. Then he signed Tuesday with Calgary for six years and $34.5 million, or $5.75M per. Sounds like a player who wanted out.

The Bruins, for whatever reason, have a history of pulling the plug on young players far too soon or not putting them in an atmosphere they want to stay in. You can add Hamilton to a list that includes Joe Thornton, Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin.

Sweeney dealt a third-round pick for Philadelphia gnat Zac Rinaldo, who has no business on an NHL roster anymore, and sent Sabres nemesis Milan Lucic to Los Angeles. We’re sure Ryan Miller is happy to have him back in his division.

The moves left Sweeney with picks 13-14-15 in the first round of the draft and the assets to move up to No. 3 by dealing with Arizona so he could take Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin. But it never happened. The Bruins got stuck taking all three picks – a trio of consecutive first-round selections was an NHL first since 1968.

They made three more picks in the second round Saturday and finished the draft with 10 overall. Instead of keeping Hamilton, they signed injury-plagued defenseman Adam McQuaid to a four-year, $11-million deal.

“I don’t think it’s a rebuild,” Sweeney said when asked about all the picks. “We didn’t strip this down. We have a tremendous core group of guys that are obviously going to carry an even heavier load here in the short term, while these other kids come in and start to take footing.”

In Sweeney’s defense, he got goaltender Martin Jones from Los Angeles as part of the Lucic deal and flipped him Tuesday to San Jose for another first-round choice (bet the Kings are not happy that Jones ended up back in their division). So Lucic ultimately yielding a pair of firsts is actually not bad. But the rest of Sweeney’s moves are scattershot, lacking any logic or vision of a plan.

The Sabres remain well behind Tampa Bay and Montreal. They’re clearly sneaking up on Toronto, Ottawa and Florida. Detroit is a question mark now that Mike Babcock is in Toronto. And while no one figured the Sabres to catch Boston next season, the gap has been closed quite a bit.

We’ll see what else Tim Murray has in store. And what else Sweeney does to make observers keep shaking their heads.

email mharrington@buffnews.com

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