Let’s preface this by saying that Bruce Cassidy hasn’t made many easy “second guess” moves in three-plus seasons of constant success.
The Bruins have made the playoffs in each of the four years that Cassidy has been the bench boss in Boston and players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak have posted the best numbers of their NHL careers. The 161-66-34 record that Cassidy has compiled in Boston really speaks for itself along with the head coach pushing the Bruins to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last year.
When it comes to questioning his moves, there aren’t many to choose from.
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But the one coaching move that this humble hockey writer never agreed with was the healthy scratch of veteran power forward David Backes for the final three games of the Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues.
Well, not so much the final three games. It’s more like the final game.
Scratching Backes for the final three games against his old Blues team effectively spelled the end of his career in Black and Gold. It preceded this season when it was truly clear that his NHL effectiveness was at a conclusion and the Bruins needed to move out a first round pick just to get Anaheim to pick up his contract.
Obviously, Game 5 wasn’t the big moment to quibble with and in Game 6 things worked out with Karson Kuhlman scoring a goal while playing in Backes’ place in a 5-1 win over the Blues in the penultimate game of the series.
Cassidy went with the safe move of sticking with Kuhlman after the Game 6 road win over St. Louis with Boston feeling like it had the momentum going into a winner-take-all Game 7 on the TD Garden ice. It was tough to argue staying with the same lineup that won just a couple of days prior in St. Louis, but the Bruins clearly needed something a little different than what we saw play out in Game 7.
Backes could have been that something different that the Bruins were looking for when looking at the complete picture.
So what’s the argument to go with an aging Backes who had clearly slowed down last season at 34 years old?
Backes showed throughout last spring’s playoff run that he was very effective entering back into the lineup after giving his skating legs a few days’ rest. He showed that in the first round series against Toronto when his entry into the lineup was an early turning point with his physicality, experience and attitude.
Backes did it again in the second round vs. the Blue Jackets after several healthy scratches when he posted points in three straight wins over Columbus. Backes went scoreless in the first four games of the Cup Final against the Blues and finished with less than 10 minutes of ice time in two of those games, but he hadn’t played in eight days when the B’s and Blues met for Game 7 in Boston.
Once again, Backes could have injected physicality and attitude in a hockey game where force of will was going to be a difference-maker. Certainly, there’s a very easy argument to make that a former All-Star, Olympian and captain of the Blues could have done something in a Game 7 to make a difference as opposed to a player in Kuhlman who had just 11 games of NHL experience headed into last spring’s playoffs.
Instead, Kuhlman was an absolute non-factor in Game 7 in a game where the Bruins collapsed over the final 40 minutes against a St. Louis team that had worn them down physically over the course of the seven-game series.
We’ll never know, of course, if Backes would have made a difference between winning and losing. Brad Marchand made an awful call hopping off the ice at the end of the first period to set up an Alex Pietrangelo goal. Tuukka Rask was outplayed by Jordan Binnington, who stood on his head in the first period against the Bruins when it really mattered most. For the balance of the entire series, Patrice Bergeron was outplayed by fellow two-way center Ryan O’Reilly, and that was the case again in the decisive Game 7.
All of these things might have been too much to overcome when it was all said and done based on the way the entire series played out. But Backes was also an important, confident and vocal leader in the Bruins dressing room who walked the walk and talked the talk, and players like that can rise to the occasion in Game 7-type scenarios when given the opportunity.
Instead, Backes never even got a chance in Game 7 to put the final touches on his legacy, and the Bruins lost Game 7 on home ice with a whimper that won’t soon be forgotten by B’s fans.
That’s the kind of coaching decision that will be second-guessed until the end of time without ever knowing if it might have made a bit of difference.