BRIGHTON, Mass – In the end, there wasn’t going to be any other choice than Bruce Cassidy to lead this Bruins team moving forward.
Cassidy, a Bobby Orr-worshipping Bruins fan as a kid growing up in Ottawa, was named the 28th head coach in Bruins history on Wednesday morning. He essentially locked up the job by guiding the B's to an 18-8-1 record and getting Boston into the playoffs for the first time in three years after taking over for Claude Julien on an interim basis.
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The offense was opened up and more aggressive under Cassidy. Things improved dramatically on home ice, where they’d been victimized too many times over the past couple of seasons and the Black and Gold became simply fun to watch again.It could have gone wrong at several points if Cassidy weren’t the right guy, or if the Bruins core group wasn’t of playoff-worthy caliber.
They pulled out of a four-game losing streak/tailspin in the final weeks of the regular season to punch their playoff ticket and showed fight and postseason spark in battling to a double-overtime win in Game 5 against the Senators with a vastly undermanned group before falling in OT in Game 6.
Pretty much to a man the Bruins pointed to the coaching change as the turning point this season and the biggest catalyst for vaulting them back into the postseason mix.
“It was for sure something that shook up the whole team, players and the entire organization,” said Zdeno Chara. “Obviously we had a coach that had been here for 10 years, done a lot of good things, created a lot of personal relationships and was with us when we won the Stanley Cup, but I thought [Cassidy coming in] brought the true realization that we needed to be better.
“It was kind of a big wake-up call for everybody, and from that day we really started playing a little more together and getting results. We were playing in a way that was effective for us and we improved a few things systems-wise. Those worked well for us and allowed us to win some games. [Cassidy] did a great job in taking over.”
The credit there clearly goes to Cassidy for ramping things up offensively with a higher pace, more involvement from the defensemen getting aggressive and more confidence shown in young players still developing while playing in the NHL.
The numbers didn’t lie for the Bruins when the offense went up in the post-Julien era, and the defense actually performed better under Cassidy: The Bruins ranked first in the NHL in goals per game (3.37), first in the NHL in fewest shots allowed (741), tied for second in the NHL in wins (18), tied for second in the NHL in power-play percentage (27.8), tied for third in the NHL in goals allowed per game (2.30), tied for fifth in the NHL in face-off percentage (53.6) and tied for sixth in the NHL in takeaways (229).
The results were impossible to argue with and any desire to potentially open things up to other worthy candidates, such as Providence College’s Nate Leaman, became a bit of a moot point once the Bruins got back into the postseason.
For a management tandem of Cam Neely and Don Sweeney that has struggled to get a foothold the past couple of years while teamed with a coach in Julien who didn’t quite share their same visions and philosophies, Cassidy was a like a perfect-fit hockey glove for the Black and Gold.
In a league very much geared toward youth, speed and skill, David Pastrnak busted out for 34 goals and 70 points, Brad Marchand nearly hit 40 goals for the first time in his career and Charlie McAvoy looked like the second coming of Drew Doughty in his brief first-round playoff appearance this spring.
Once it was clear Boston’s core group of veterans also bought into Cassidy’s upfront style and aggressive on-ice system, it was clear there wasn’t much in the “cons” column when it came to Boston hiring the longtime P-Bruins head coach on a full-time basis.
“It’s always tough to lose a coach in the middle of the year, and it was my first time going through that in my pro career,” said Marchand. “I’ve seen it happen before, and it’s a tough change on the guys in the room. But Butchie [Cassidy] did a really good job. Butch, [Jay Pandolfo], Bob [Essensa] all did a really good job of working together as a unit, and not changing too much. They didn’t make it hard on us by changing the entire system and instead, they just incorporated a couple of little things that really helped us.
“It allowed us to play our game and you saw that it really worked down the stretch. It’s always tough to see your coach go, but I thought it was great to see us respond the way we did. It showed good character, and Butchie did a really good job of coming in and allowing us to really grow as a group. You look at our record, and he’s been a great coach so far. I had [Cassidy] in the minors too, and he’s a great coach.”
Now, Cassidy will get a chance to show it over the course of a few seasons at the Bruins helm with the players he helped spark this season and a whole slew of young, talented prospects that will be incorporated over the next couple of years.
It took 13 years of AHL bus rides to places like Hershey, Pennsylvania and Lehigh Valley for Cassidy to get his second chance after flaming out in two seasons as the coach of the Washington Capitals, but the Bruins are already the beneficiaries of experience, luck and talent pushing him back into the NHL spotlight as the official guy behind the bench in Boston.