Experience necessary in Cassidy’s evolution as head coach

Bruce Cassidy’s first impression as an NHL head coach did not go over well with his players.

At 37, Cassidy was the youngest head coach in the league when the Washington Capitals hired him in 2002. He was entering a difficult situation for someone with no experience at that level. Walking into a dressing room with veterans like Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander, and Olaf Kolzig, among others, and trying to lead a team that had just missed the postseason was a tough situation to be in.

And so, as the 2003 Washington Post story goes following his firing, Cassidy’s greenness in the coaching realm was clearly evident.

“It was bad right from the start,” an anonymous Capital told Jason LaCanfora. “He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and started writing stuff on the blackboard. Everyone was just kind of looking at each other. We didn’t know what was going on. It looked like he was winging it. He had all summer to prepare for this day and it looked like he didn’t know what he was doing. Guys started to worry right away.”

Cassidy’s Capitals made the playoffs his first season, but the 2003-04 season would be the end of his time there. After 28 games and an 8-16-1 record, he was fired. Between the record and the growing discord between the head coach and his players, the relationship wasn’t going to last the entire season. 

In fact, the coaching change was made a week after Cassidy apologized for wondering aloud if the family lives of his players was affecting his play. This was a Capitals team that featured Kolzig, who’s son is autistic; Brendan Witt, who’s wife had a life-threatening battle with sepsis; and Jason Doig, who’s wife had recently given birth.

Those comments, which were the final straw for many Capitals players, did not sit well in the room.

“I just don’t think he ever understood the level of professionalism it takes to coach in this league,” one player told LaCanfora. “All of the little things matter.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Fast forward 15 years and Cassidy is in his fourth stop as a hockey coach since those forgetting days in D.C. After being dismissed by the Capitals he was an assistant coach for the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2005-06 season before moving on to take the head coaching job with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. In 2008 he joined the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Providence as an assistant and was promoted before the 2011-12 season to head coach. He quickly improved the AHL Bruins and was named one of Claude Julien’s assistants in 2016. Just 27 games into that season Julien was fired and he was handed a second opportunity.

Looking back now at his 107 games in charge of the Capitals, Cassidy admits he wasn’t comfortable being such a young head coach for a veteran group. “To be honest, all I learned was I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now than I was then,” he said this week. “I was young. I really had no NHL experience.”

There was so much experience in that Capitals room that Cassidy was intimidated, unable to take charge and be a leader — vital traits for any head coach.

“These guys have been around, so it probably took me a while to just walk in there, be comfortable and say, ‘This is what we’re doing today,’ and still have the confidence and still be a good communicator while you’re doing that,” he said.

It was a familiar situation when Cassidy took over for Julien in 2017, though the 4,808 days between getting the Capitals’ and Bruins’ gigs allowed for plenty of personal growth. When he walked into that Bruins dressing room for the first time as boss, again there was that abundance of experience staring him right back in the face. Scanning the room, the name plates above the stalls read Backes, Bergeron, Chara, Krejci, Marchand, Rask. Stanley Cup rings and thousands of NHL games under their belts — another veteran team, except this time he was better prepared.

“When you’re around the game for an extra 15 years, you learn stuff,” Cassidy said. “Different ways to communicate, different ways to see the game, how to delegate, how to use your staff, how to use your top-end players to help you find that common goal. I think that was the biggest difference. A lot of newness back then. This time around there’s a lot more experience at this level.”

That experience has paid off. Under Cassidy, the Bruins have a 61% win percentage (117-52-22) and have accumulated the second-most points (256) in the NHL. They made the playoffs in each of his three seasons in charge, with at least one extra round added each year, culminating in this Cup Final appearance, the franchise’s first since 2013.

The skills Cassidy acquired and improved upon since his first time as an NHL head coach have been aided by a Bruins team that has a strong core, talented leadership, and a buy-in attitude of his players.

“I think this leadership group is second to none and I don’t know if I’ll ever have, wherever this career takes me, a group like this to work with,” he said. “I’ve said that since probably the second I got the job here. Those guys are fantastic and they sure make a coach’s job a lot easier.”

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has the better goaltending?
Who has the better special teams?

X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
How the Blues were built
How the Bruins were built
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Free agent market for defensemen looks thin without Karlsson

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After the Sharks signed Erik Karlsson to that megalodon of an extension on Monday, the already-thin free agent market for defensemen dried up that much more. It’s tempting to depict that group as a tumbleweed rolling through a dusty town.

Of course, that’s not totally fair.

There are a few good defensemen available, at least if teams find the right combination of contract and role.

Unfortunately, things aren’t always so sober when demand simply can’t meet supply, as there simply aren’t a lot of great UFA options when it comes to defensemen. Scratch that: there simply aren’t a lot of passable UFA options, at least when you consider likely price tags.

With some help from Cap Friendly’s UFA tools, let’s look at the most prominent potential UFA defensemen, and try to get an idea regarding whether they’re worth splurging on.

Let’s start with Jake Gardiner, who in my opinion is the best option potentially available, and then contrast Gardiner with Tyler Myers, who stands out as a huge risk for less savvy NHL teams.

Also, a quick note: there’s a chance that some of these defensemen will just return to their current teams, rather than hitting the free agent market. So keep that in mind, too.

  • Jake Gardiner: The 28-year-old has been the Maple Leafs’ second-best defensemen for some time now, which may rank as a curse more than anything else. Every mistake is magnified, and every wart shines under the spotlight.

Overall, Gardiner is a very productive scoring defenseman – throwing out lockout seasons, he’s only failed to reach 30+ points once – and tends to check out pretty well from a possession standpoint.

Gardiner isn’t perfect, but he’s every good, particularly when you realize just how tough it is to land quality blueliners. If I were a GM who absolutely needed to get better on defense now, and couldn’t pull off a trade, Gardiner would be far and away my target. But, if he gets paid too much, then Gardiner will be a go-to scapegoat. Sadly, that’s just how sports work.

Looking at Evolving Wild’s salary projections spreadsheet, a potential Gardiner contract would clock in at seven years, with just less than $7 million in AAV. That term leads me to believe that Gardiner would eventually become a source of harsh scorn, but really, giving scary term away is just the nature of the beast. (I’m a huge proponent for Erik Karlsson, but that deal adds a huge block to what was already a wobbly Jenga puzzle that is the Sharks’ salary structure.)

I don’t know if $7M-ish is ideal for Gardiner, and big term would scare me, but teams could do worse, especially if they’re really opening up their wallets.

[More: Sharks’ salary cap challenges after Karlsson extension]

  • Tyler Myers: While Gardiner tends to shoulder too much blame, Myers sometimes gets a free pass from hockey people.

Those hockey people see a massive 29-year-old defenseman who can score, and who can skate remarkably well for his size. For whatever reason, many look away from Myers’ mistakes more than they would with Gardiner, and that’s a problem since Myers takes away more from the table than someone like Gardiner does.

The red flags become flashing neon signs the deeper you look.

Sean Tierney’s Visualization uses Evolving Wild’s GAR metrics to provide a snapshot of certain player values, and it’s eye-popping to see how poorly Myers checks out, including looking worse than Dmitry Kulikov, a defenseman the Jets should be eager to trade away for cap space:

Via Sean Tierney, with Evolving Wild data

To be clear: I’m not saying that Myers can’t be the type of player who would help a team. Instead, I’m saying that he profiles as someone who will cost way too much, and thus will be asked to do too much, and there’s a strong chance that an expensive mistake would be made.

Again, there are a lot of red flags, and I’m not alone in seeing them with Myers.

  • Alexander Edler: For the second season in a row, the veteran defenseman scored 34 points, and this last time he did so in just 56 regular-season games. The 33-year-old generally brings a respectable two-way game to the table, too, so there’s some appeal there.

Edler’s an interesting choice if a team can stomach forking over a fairly beefy cap hit, but doesn’t want to hand out the sort of term Gardiner-types likely will demand.

At 33, there’s definitely a risk of a plummet, especially if Edler mainly looks promising compared to a rough group of Canucks defensemen, and might not be that much of a difference-maker on a contender.

So, there are some worries … but Edler is one of the better options beyond Gardiner, at least if you’re talking about more prominent choices (assuming he makes it to UFA status).

  • Anton Stralman – There was a time when Stralman was underrated, but now the risk is that a team’s view of the Swede would be steeped in the past. Stralman’s not the same player at 32, and the projected cost of $4.5M AAV for three years is downright scary for a potential suitor.

Now, could Stralman be a reclamation project if he fell into a PTO-type situation? That would be a fair question to ask. Actually, most of the veterans on this list should be approached that way. If you like a guy, don’t splurge early and heighten your risks. Instead, hope for a tepid market, and strike. If not? Chances are, you saved yourself money and a roster spot.

  • Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth – On one hand, you could make bigger mistakes. On the other hand … are you sure that you can’t get similar value from a prospects climbing to the NHL?
  • Braydon Coburn – At 34, an older version of Benn/Nemeth.
  • Niklas Kronwall, Dion Phaneuf – Name recognition might let them hang around, but your team is likely better off looking elsewhere.
  • Ron Hainsey, Deryk Engelland – Two players who’ve generally exceeded low expectations lately. Unfortunately, that only means so much, and you can’t ignore just how old they are. Hainsey is 38, and Engelland is 37. Veterans like these can get a salary boost because of past accomplishments, and that could be enough to drop them from “Eh” to “Oh no.”
  • Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Adam McQuaid – More former Rangers defensemen teams might ponder, and more “Meh.”

If you’re like me, you’ve grimaced at quite a few names on this list, or at best shrugged your shoulders.

To reiterate, not every hypothetical situation ends in disasters. PHT will monitor this offseason for that very reason: maybe a team will be creative in making something work, or conversely, make huge mistakes based on faulty assumptions.

As far as moves that can be truly substantial, Gardiner stands out as the most appealing option; even then, handing Gardiner big money and big term is pretty scary. So … the UFA route ultimately seems like a perilous one, at least for defensemen.

That’s just one person’s opinion, however. Would you want your team to go after any of the above defensemen, or other options on this list?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sharks set to sweat salary cap after Karlsson extension

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For the San Jose Sharks, priority No. 1 has been checked off their offseason to-do list.

That bit came on Monday morning when the Sharks re-signed defenseman Erik Karlsson to an eight-year deal worth what reports suggest will be $92 million once the team makes it official.

That’s a hefty chunk of change for one of the game’s premier rearguards, and rightly so. A two-time Norris Trophy winner, Karlsson has game-breaking capabilities from the back end. It’s not surprising that he’s one of the highest paid players in the NHL.

But behind the elation general manager Doug Wilson is feeling at the moment, there also has to be a bit of trepidation.

With Karlsson’s contract expected to be in the $11.5 million AAV region, that leaves the Sharks with roughly $13 million in cap space remaining and only 16 players signed, including 11 forwards.

It’s safe to assume that the end of an era is coming for someone in the Bay Area.

Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski are both unrestricted free agents come July 1. Thornton has signed one-year deals with the club for several years now. Pavelski enters the free agent arena for the first time in five seasons after completing the final year of a five-year, $30 million deal.

[MORE: Sharks give Karlsson eight-year extension]

Both are integral parts of the Sharks. And the Sharks may have to let them walk this time.

At 39, Thornton’s on-ice play isn’t worth the $5 million he made last season. He’s the de facto leader of the team, but the Sharks simply can’t afford him at that price point again. If they want him back, a low-salary, bonus-laden contract could be an option.

Losing Pavelski, their captain, would also be a blow.

Despite being 34 (35 next season), Pavelski had 38 goals and 64 points in 75 games last season. Not bad for $6 million, and perhaps he goes the Thornton route for a few years and signs one-year deals that allow the Sharks some breathing room.

Does Pavelski deserve a longer-term commitment? Sure. But the Sharks are once again going all-in with the Karlsson signing and this might be Pavelski’s best shot at a Stanley Cup ring as a captain of the team.

Aside from the two superstars, the Sharks need to make sure they lock down some of their younger talent.

Joonas Donskoi is set to become a UFA, as is Gustav Nyquist — a trade deadline pick up who meshed well with the team.

Nyquist is likely the odd-man out here. Going by Evolving Wild’s free agent model projection, Nyquist, 29, could earn a six-year deal in the $5.7 million range. That’s too rich if you’re planning on keeping Thornton and Pavelski around.

Donskoi, 27, is projected to get a three-year deal in the $3 million average annual value region.

And then there’s the restricted free agent crop.

Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc have become great pieces for the Sharks and both now need raises.

Evolving Wild has Meier taking a six-year deal with a cap hit close to $6 million while Labanc is more affordable at three years and around $3.5 million.

Remember, the Sharks have $13 million to play with following the Karlsson extension.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Pavelski gets $7 million and Thornton gets $5 million. That’s $12 million and roughly $1 million left on the cap.

See the problem? And how many extensions do the Sharks want to give older players? Logan Couture‘s six-year, $8 million AAV deal kicks in next season. He’s 30. Brent Burns, 34, has six more years left on a deal that’s paying him the same amount as Couture per season.

The Sharks only need to look further down on a California state map to see Los Angeles and the devastating effects handing big contracts to old players can have.

Still, banners fly forever and the Kings have two of them and the Sharks have zero.

The Sharks could sell off some assets, too, including a Justin Braun ($3.8 million, one year left) or a Brenden Dillon ($3.2 million, one year left) on the back end for some cap relief.

And the point of this exercise is that someone has to go.

The question now is, who?

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Eakins gets another NHL shot as Ducks head coach

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A favorite from the start, Dallas Eakins has finally been named head coach of the Anaheim Ducks.

The 52-year-old Eakins replaces Randy Carlyle, who was fired in February, though technically he takes over from general manager Bob Murray, who assumed the head coaching duties after Carlyle was canned.

“Dallas is an outstanding head coach who has worked well with our players since joining the organization four years ago,” said Murray in a statement. “He is a tremendous leader and strategist, and deserves this opportunity.”

Reportedly also in the mix for the position were New York Islanders assistant Lane Lambert, Dallas Stars assistants Rick Bowness and Todd Nelson, and University of Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin.

Murray took his time in finding a replacement for Carlyle. The Ducks were the last team to fill their coaching need and the GM eventually decided to keep it in-house, hiring Eakins after he spent the past four seasons coaching the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in San Diego.

Eakins’ chance in Anaheim comes nearly five years he was fired by the Edmonton Oilers after a season and a half behind the bench. The Oilers were 36-63-14 during his 113 games in charge and the disastrous results of that 2014-15 NHL season helped the franchise win the draft lottery and select Connor McDavid No. 1 overall.

While coaching the AHL Gulls, Eakins guided the team to three playoff appearances in four seasons, including a trip to the Western Conference Final in 2019. This season’s job was an impressive one when you consider the amount of injuries the Ducks had to deal with and how often Eakins’ roster was affected by NHL call-ups.

The transition phase will continue into 2019-20 with a Ducks roster in makeover mode. Ryan Kesler is out for the foreseeable future and Corey Perry could be on the move. It’s time for the kids to take over and many of them — like Troy Terry, Sam Steel and Max Jones — have been coached by Eakins at some point.

It’s clear by the results with the Gulls and the player development that’s happened that Eakins has been nothing but a positive influence on the franchise’s youth.

“If I was stressed out or something was going on or I was having a hard time, I wouldn’t hesitate to go talk to him about it,” said Terry in March via the OC Register. “He’s just very approachable. He just served as a mentor. I owe a lot of the success I’ve had this season to him.”

With their situation being what it is, Eakins is the right choice to shepherd the roster forward as Murray attempts to further a youth movement.

MORE ANAHEIM DUCKS COVERAGE:
Examining the Ducks’ options with Corey Perry
Kesler ‘unlikely’ to play next season after hip surger

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Power Rankings: Next team to win its first Stanley Cup

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The past two NHL postseasons have given us first time Stanley Cup champions.

In 2017-18, it was the Washington Capitals finally breaking through and giving their fans a championship after years of torment and disappointment.

This season it was the St. Louis Blues doing the same thing and not only winning their first ever Stanley Cup Final game, but also winning their first ever championship in what was their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since the 1970 season.

With the Capitals and Blues finally getting their names on the Stanley Cup, there are still 11 teams in the NHL that have yet to win it.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we look at those 11 teams in order of who is most likely to be the next team to win its first championship.

To the rankings!

Teams knocking on the door

1. Vegas Golden Knights. This has not been your typical expansion team. In their first two years in the NHL the Golden Knights have already made the playoffs two times, were in the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season, and were an historic Game 7 third period meltdown away from starting what could have been another lengthy postseason run this season. They have a great core of talent in place, are already an established Stanley Cup contender, and have an ownership and a front office that is not afraid to take chances and go all in on winning. Their fans did not have to wait long for a taste of success, and they will not have to wait long for a championship.

2. Nashville Predators. The Predators have been one of the NHL’s most successful teams for the past four years now, and while they have some holes to address this offseason (like their power play) this is still an incredibly deep roster. They have what is perhaps the best top-four on defense in the NHL (barring a trade this summer) and a deep, talented group of forwards. Their core is still fairly young, it is all signed long-term, and they still have some salary cap space to play with when it comes to adding to it. They were in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago and still have a team that is capable of getting back to that level and finishing the job in the very near future.

3. San Jose Sharks. A lot of it depends on what happens with their offseason. Re-sign Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski and this team is right back as one of the favorites in the Western Conference. Heck, even if they only re-sign Karlsson and get a reasonably healthy season out of him they are right back at the top of the Conference. Goaltending is still a big question mark, but the rest of this team is so good that it is not going to need a game-stealer in the crease, just somebody to simply avoid losing games.

4. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets badly regressed in the second half of the 2018-19 season, but this is still a team loaded with talent, especially at forward where they are one of the deepest teams in the league. The defense has some holes, especially if Jacob Trouba gets traded this summer, and while they are probably not quite as good as the Golden Knights, Predators, or Sharks they are still definitely a step or two ahead of teams like Columbus and Minnesota.

Teams with some work to do

5. Columbus Blue Jackets. They are set to lose a ton this offseason and do not have a ton of assets at their disposal to replace them, giving general manager Jarmo Kekalainen one of the toughest jobs of any general manager in the NHL, but he still has a pretty solid core in place to work with thanks to Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and Pierre-Luc Dubois. They need a goalie, they need another impact forward or two, but they still have a core of players that can be built around. The big question mark in the short-term is going to be in net where it is going to be awfully difficult to replace Sergei Bobrovsky. Their ability to find a competent No. 1 goalie will determine how quickly they can get to a championship level.

[Related: Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer]

6. Minnesota Wild. Here is my biggest concern with the Wild: I am not sure how much trust or faith I have in the new front office based on what we have seen and heard from them so far. This was a really good regular season team for quite a few years, but was never quite good enough to get over the top teams in its own division. It hit its ceiling, its big-money core is aging and declining, and the front office has made some very questionable moves that might be setting the team back a bit.

7. Florida Panthers. The Panthers were a massive disappointment during the 2018-19 season and have probably been the least successful organization in the league over the past 20 years. It is still a team that is not far from being relevant for the first time since The Rat Trick team during its improbably 1995-96 run to the Stanley Cup Final. The core of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck is phenomenal and they are all signed long-term at team-friendly rates. They have salary cap space, they seem determined to spend and make a big splash this summer, and if they could get the right complementary pieces around their top young players this is not a team that is terribly far off. But getting the right complementary players is way easier said than done.

8. Buffalo Sabres. They have Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, one player that is already a star (Eichel) and another that is on the way to becoming a star (Dahlin). As long as they continue on their current paths they will be the foundation of this team for the next decade, and that is an excellent thing because star players are the toughest thing to acquire in a rebuild. The problem is the rest of the team around those two is simply not anywhere clear to a championship level. Eichel and Dahlin can not do it on their own, and for the foreseeable future they will have to try.

9. Arizona Coyotes. If you took a poll of random hockey fans and asked them which team in the league is furthest away from a championship I wager that one of the most popular answers would be the Arizona Coyotes because, well, it is an organization that does not get a lot of respect. That could soon be changing. The Coyotes nearly made the playoffs this season despite being hit harder by injuries than almost any other team in the league. They have a lot of promising young talent and a nice mix of veterans to go with them, but they are still missing a true difference-maker at forward. Getting that type of player is going to be their biggest hurdle in taking the next step in their development. That is the biggest reason I have them behind teams like Florida and Buffalo even though in some ways the Coyotes are better. The difference is those two teams have young franchise cornerstones that can change games. Those are the players you win championships with.

It might be a long wait

10. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are must-see players, but this entire organization just seems stuck in neutral. In terms of wins, they have been the least successful team in the NHL over the past four years but have never quite been bad enough in any one individual season to have a great chance to land a No. 1 or 2 overall pick, while they have also had terrible luck in the draft lottery. They have also never really been good enough to be anything close to a playoff team. Being stuck in the middle ground of the NHL is a terrible place to be, and that is where Jim Benning has put them with little to no sign of getting out of it anytime soon.

11. Ottawa Senators. It is downright astonishing that this team went from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (double overtime of that Game 7, no less!) to a team that just seems to be completely hopeless. The truly frustrating thing about the Senators is they have some promising young players. They have some reasons for optimism. The biggest issue holding them back is ownership. If they would not pay to keep together a team that was on the verge of the Stanley Cup Final, and if they would not pay to keep a franchise icon and one of the best players ever at his position in Erik Karlsson, why does anyone think they will pay to keep the next wave of talent that goes through Ottawa if they continue to develop? There is no reason to believe anything will be different this time around. Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of ownership in Ottawa speak for themselves.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.