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.

PHT Morning Skate: Triple-A ball club to wear Sabres inspired jerseys; Talbot comeback?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• What’s up with Ivan Provorov’s contract negotiations? (Broad Street Hockey)

• Is Cam Talbot set for a bounceback season? (TSN.ca)

Keith Kinkaid’s arrival should help Canadiens manage Carey Price’s load. (Sportsnet)

• Montreal’s front office made quite a few moves this off-season, but will they pay off? (Eyes on the Prize)

• The Top 10 reasons an NHL team should trade for Milan Lucic. (Edmonton Journal)

• After adding Kessel & Soderberg, Coyotes should secure a playoff berth. (Featurd)

• A little roster juggling could do the Winnipeg Jets a lot of good next season. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Islanders add Varlamov as they try to build off an impressive season. (NHL.com)

• Buffalo Bisons baseball team to wear Sabres’ royal blue and gold for ‘Hockey Night at the Ballpark’ (WKBW Buffalo)

• Six young players who need a change of scenery. (The Hockey News)

• For all their efforts, did the Minnesota Wild gain anything from all the shuffling? (StarTribune)

• Most offer sheets get matched. Now what? (Sin.Bin Vegas)

• Hockey cards that need to be made. (Puck Junk)

• A look back, two years on, at the Mikhail Sergachev-Jonathan Druin trade. (Raw Charge)

• Chris Kelly is back with the Bruins in as a player development coordinator. (Boston Bruins)

• Former Predators captain Greg Johnson’s sucide should spark change. (Predlines)

• Blues anthem singer Charles Glenn ready for his encore. (Ladue News)

• How should the Vancouver Canucks utilize Thatcher Demko next season? (The Canuck Way)


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

Why Wild are better off being terrible next season

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When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem is that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[The Central Division might not give the Wild much of a choice.]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who are more or less in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

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Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

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.

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

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Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

***

Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

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.

Ron Francis hired as NHL Seattle’s first GM

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NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said last month during the NHL Draft in Vancouver that the group wanted to hire a general manager sooner rather than later.

Well, 226 days after the NHL awarded them a franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season, Seattle has a GM and his name is Ron Francis.

“Announcing Ron Francis as our team’s first general manager is a dream come true,” said Leiweke in a statement. “He is truly hockey royalty and is the perfect fit for the team we are building. He has a proven track record in hockey management, a dedication to the community and an eagerness to innovate which fits our vision. In our search, we looked for someone who is smart, experienced, well-prepared and progressive. I am confident that he will maintain our commitment to excellence and ultimately guide us to a Stanley Cup.”

NHL Seattle, still working on a name and team colors, wants to follow the same blueprint that the Vegas Golden Knights did when they assembled their staff before entering the league for the 2017-18 season. This is one big step among many before they finally hit the ice as a franchise.

Francis, who will oversee player personnel, coaching staff, amateur and pro scouting, player development, analytics, sports science and AHL minor league operations, was last in NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. He joined the organization in 2011 as director of hockey operations and three years later took on the role of GM. In March of 2018, Francis was reassigned to president of hockey operations after Tom Dundon bought the team. One month later the Hockey Hall of Famer was fired. Since January he had been working at a Raleigh commercial real estate firm.

According to the Seattle Times, which first broke the story on Tuesday night, Francis’ deal is likely in the five-year range and “midrange” in terms of salary compared to other NHL GMs.

Under Francis, the Hurricanes failed to make the the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four years. He oversaw the trade that sent longtime captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, as well as the deal that brought Teuvo Teravainen to Raleigh. His scouting staff helped draft the likes of Warren Foegele, Sebastian Aho, highly-touted forward Martin Necas, and Noah Hanifin, who would later be a piece to bring in Dougie Hamilton via trade. 

[MORE: What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?]

The summer of 2017 was an interesting one for Francis. After years of tight purse strings, he finally was able to spend some money. His biggest signing that did not work out was the four years and $16.6 million given to Scott Darling to solve their problem in goal. But the one that worked and could still pay off if he decides to keep playing is bringing back Justin Williams, who has helped changed the culture around the team during this past season of success.

In a completely different environment with much different expectations, Francis has lots to prove in his second chance as an NHL GM.

It will be difficult to copy the success that the Golden Knights had in their inaugural season, and judging by how Francis ran his ship in Carolina, he’ll be about patience and not sacrificing the future for today — and he’ll probably be able to spend some money on a more consistent basis.

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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.