With the bye week upon us, we present a five-part series breaking down Boston’s 17-3-3 run over the last two months, and how the Black and Gold have gone about making the surge from Atlantic Division bottom dweller to legitimate playoff contender. Today, in Part One, we look at the impact the coaching staff has made.
It would have been fair to still have some questions about Bruce Cassidy as an NHL head coach entering this season.
Sure, the 52-year-old Cassidy had previous NHL experience in Washington, had paid his dues in the AHL, and showed plenty down the stretch last season in Boston after replacing Claude Julien. Still, it could have been a bit of a tall task getting full buy-in from a grizzled group of Cup-winning veterans and overseeing a clear youth movement while competing for a playoff spot at the same time. That goes double for a guy in his first full season after 13 years between big league gigs.
BEHIND THE B's SURGE
- Part Two -- Young talent developing ahead of schedule
- Part Three - Turning defense from weakness to strength
- Part Four - After Rask's rough start, goalie tandem fuels run
- Part Five: Offense comes to life
But if there were any lingering questions about Bruce Cassidy in his first full season behind Boston’s bench, they’ve been answered resoundingly.
“I hope so . . . that’s what you want as a coach,” said Cassidy, when asked if last season’s buy-in from the players has carried over into this year. “We’ve upgraded with our young players. No disrespect to anybody in the lineup from last year, but we’ve got some good, young players. The buy-in is more about the guys from last year’s team believing that they can be a successful team and win in the playoffs, even if it didn’t go our way in the playoffs last season.
“I think we just picked up where we left off there. Unfortunately we never got our team together. That was the biggest problem. The buy-in probably came earlier in the year when certain guys were out of the lineup [with injuries] that we relied on. Guys played hard and fought through it. I think that’s when the real buy-in took place, and now guys are just seeing how good they can really be. We’re going through that right now. The lines have balanced out where [David] Backes is really able to take control of that third line. Right now it looks good and we’re winning games, and it’s not by accident. It’s not like we’ve got goaltenders standing on their heads or one line is scoring all our goals. It’s good, balanced scoring, it’s good team defense and we’re getting key saves when you need them. As a coach you like that.”
Put bluntly, his choices have made the Bruins a better team and his adjustments helped pull the season back from the danger zone after the first few weeks. Rookies are given the opportunity to make mistakes and grow from them as a learning experience, and veterans are kept on their toes while held to the same level of accountability as everybody else.
That certainly hasn’t always been the case with the Bruins over the last 10 years.
Cassidy has displayed a real willingness to put young players in a position to succeed, something Julien wouldn't always do during his long, successful stint in Boston. Both Charlie McAvoy and Danton Heinen are legitimate Calder Trophy candidates among the best first-year players, and on any given night the Bruins have between four-to-six rookies in their lineup taking a regular shift.
Cassidy has taken the same approach to managing established All-Stars and Cup-winning veterans, as well.
In fact, you could make the argument Cassidy’s pinpoint feel for this Bruins team has helped save the season. When injuries crippled the B’s in the first couple of months, Cassidy pulled back the reins on the aggressive offensive tendencies and played a more conservative brand of hockey with the bare bones lineup.
But in an 11-game point streak that ran into the bye week -- led by the dominant Perfection Line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, and with three other healthy lines that Cassidy could roll with regularity -- the Bruins have outscored opponents by a whopping 47-18 margin. They're getting contributions from everywhere: The back end and the front end are contributing, the goaltending has stabilized, and Boston is a top-10 team in just about every measurable category aside from drawing penalties.
Clearly a great deal of that is a credit to the players. But it’s also about a coaching staff that’s put them in a position to succeed.
“We’ve learned that when we play to our identity and our game, protect the puck well and manage it properly, we’re a tough team to play against. We’ve got great goaltending performances, the penalty kill is kind of the backbone of our team, the power play chips in and we’re able to get timely goals from places up and down the lineup,” said David Backes. “If you’re writing the story yourself you’re probably not putting all the obstacles and speed bumps that [Cassidy] had to face in the first half-season as the full time coach of the team, but he’s managed it well. His practices are up-tempo and he’s been able to manage the [player] workload very well.
“Bergeron and Marchand play some big minutes, and he’s done a good job of managing those types of minutes and that workload. Now we’re in a pretty good spot at this point given some of the obstacles that we’ve faced. It’s a pretty darn good circumstance that we’re in.”
It was during Boston’s early struggles, with the Bruins teetering on the edge of playoff oblivion, that Cassidy benched Tuukka Rask for four straight in favor of red-hot Anton Khudobin. The Bruins ripped off four wins in a row behind Khudobin, and have gone an incredible 16-3-2 in the 21 games since then. It clearly got the attention of Rask, who was named the NHL’s No. 1 Star of the month in December with a 9-0-1 record with a .955 save percentage.
“Tuukka is clearly, however you want to summarize it, has benefitted from being pushed or not playing, or finding his game. Whatever you want to call it, he’s dead-on,” said Cassidy. “You could see after a few games [on the bench] that the passion was there and [Rask] wanted the net back.”
More recently, Cassidy has held a now-healthy Adam McQuaid up in the press box with young D-men like McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo playing strong hockey during the B’s extended hot streak.
Cassidy conceded it’s a difficult choice to sit down established veterans, but it comes down to two things with the Bruins: Doing what’s best for the team, and calling on his long relationships with many of these players as they paid their dues in Providence.
“It just felt like the right thing to do. As a coach you go with your gut at times, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It worked out,” said Cassidy. “I’ve also known Tuukka a long time. When I got to Providence he was in his second year there. We have a good relationship that way.
“It’s the same conversation that I’ve had with [McQuaid], who I’ve known a long time. We’ve talked about the why and finding the right time with him. But it’s a little tougher. The team is going well and the pairs are meshing. When you see Adam get back in there, you hope to see that extra push from him as well.”
Pushing the right buttons on a hockey club through an 82-game schedule is among the most difficult skills for an NHL head coach, but that’s been right in Cassidy’s wheelhouse this season. So is shepherding through the next generation of Bruins prospects making the jump to the NHL this season, and managing to juggle lineups and pairings while being waylaid with injuries through pretty much all of October and November.
Cassidy certainly isn’t the self-promoting type and he had awfully big coaching shoes to fill when he stepped in for Julien last Februar. But he’s shown this season from the very start through his coaching skill set that he’s the right guy to take the Bruins back to the next level.