Bruce Cassidy

Previewing the 2019-20 Boston Bruins

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, but only marginally so. Marcus Johansson provided a nice boost to Boston’s depth scoring as a rental, and now he’s gone. But, really, for a team that was as competitive as the Bruins — and has been as competitive as long as the Bruins have managed to be — this was a manageable offseason.

Strengths: The Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak remains in the conversation of best lines in the NHL, and plenty put them at number one, period. They dominate games not just by scoring in buckets, but by hogging the puck to a staggering degree. That trio likely stands as the biggest reason why the Bruins deployed an explosive power play last season, but Torey Krug deserves credit there, too. Being able to keep Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo in the fold should help the Bruins be strong on defense (for the most part). Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak was a strong goalie pairing last season, and David KrejciJake DeBrusk have created an effective second line duo that doesn’t always receive the credit it deserves.

Weaknesses: There’s little sense ignoring the threat of Father Time, as plenty of key scorers and both Bruins goalies are on the wrong side of 30. The Bruins must also keep an eye on Zdeno Chara, and not just because he’s at risk of missing parts of the early season with injuries. He’s slowing noticeably, so the Bruins can’t get too sentimental. It’s not outrageous to worry if the Bruins might go back to being a little top-heavy again.

[MORE BRUINS: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Bruce Cassidy’s seat should be as cool as the other side of the pillow, with his greatest dangers coming in practice.

That said, the Bruins have high hopes, and if they falter, there might not be a ton of patience. We don’t know how long this team’s window of contention may stay open, what with so many key players battling the aging curve. It’s also worth noting that ownership is changing from Jeremy Jacobs to his six offspring, so there’s a mild risk of the Bruins turning into an NHL answer to “Succession.”

I’d rate it as a two (or maybe three) out of 10.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Brad Marchand, Charlie Coyle, and Tuukka Rask.

Marchand is always interesting. Sometimes, because he’s performing at an all-world level. Other times, it’s because he’s being hockey’s most obnoxious troll. Plenty of times, he’s both.

In Coyle’s case, he gets a fuller taste of life as a member of the Bruins after getting his feet wet coming in around trade deadline time. This is a contract year for Coyle, so a lot of money is on the line, and it’s tough to say what kind of price tag he’ll demand.

Rask has occasionally been the scapegoat when things go a little sideways in Boston. That’s the life of a $7 million starting goalie. Fair or not, if Rask stumbles to begin 2019-20, people will wonder about the psychological aftershocks of a tough Game 7 loss against the Blues.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Kings have shown us how a few players can seemingly age overnight, and a proud team can plummet all the way down to the cellar. The mileage on Rask, Bergeron, Krejci, Chara, Halak, and even Marchand should not be ignored, particularly after a deep playoff run.

Still, this Bruins team was fantastic last season, and should be very strong again. Matching last year’s deep run is unlikely to be easy thanks to a formidable Atlantic Division, but the playoffs are a good bet.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Bruins sign Cassidy to multi-year extension

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The Boston Bruins may still have key restricted free agents to sign in Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy, but they managed to take care of some other business Wednesday morning as they’ve signed head coach Bruce Cassidy to a multi-year extension. According to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, Cassidy’s new deal will pay him around $3 million per season.

Since taking over behind the Bruins’ bench in February of 2017, Cassidy has an impressive 117-52-22 record. He’s also coming off a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, which his team dropped in Game 7 to the St. Louis Blues last June.

The 54-year-old has the fourth-best winning percentage among coaches in franchise history and he became the second-fastest to reach the 100-win mark (166 games). Only Tom Johnson reached that milestone quicker than Cassidy did (Johnson did it in 138 games).

[MORE: Experience necessary in Cassidy’s journey as head coach]

This successful stint with Boston is his second head-coaching job in the NHL. His first one came back in 2002, when he was head coach of the Washington Capitals. Unfortunately for Cassidy, he only lasted one season and a half in Washington before he was let go. He then served as an assistant in Chicago for one season before jumping to OHL Kingston for two years. He got back in the professional ranks when he served as the assistant coach of the Bruins’ farm team in Providence from 2008-2011. Cassidy eventually became the head coach in Providence from 2011-2016 and he joined the big club as an assistant in 2016-17. He eventually took over as head coach when Boston fired Claude Julien and he and the team haven’t looked back.

“When you’re around the game for an extra 15 years, you learn stuff,” Cassidy said before the Cup Final. “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.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Can Bruins hold off Father Time for another year?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Boston Bruins. 

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: “Father Time is undefeated.”

To the Boston Bruins’ credit, they’ve found ways to zig and zag with the aging curve so far.

Patrice Bergeron is 34, yet aside from being limited to 65 and 64 games during the past two regular seasons, he remains a dominant two-way presence. Zdeno Chara‘s slowing down, but is still averaging more than 21 minutes per night, and often succeeding in making us forget that he’s 42. Instead of getting poor play from an aging goalie duo of 32-year-old Tuukka Rask and 34-year-old Jaroslav Halak, the Bruins’ save percentage stats were comfortably above league average. David Krejci continues to contribute at age 33, and it’s still confounding that Brad Marchand is 31 already.

The Bruins have unearthed some major youthful talent, particularly in David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy, but the bottom line is that this team remains reliant upon an aging core of talents whose productivity could plummet.

[MORE BRUINS: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three questions]

We’ve certainly seen this before with other teams who’ve had long runs as contenders.

The Los Angeles Kings’ decline wasn’t gradual — it was staggering. Their pals in Anaheim could see the same drop in their team play, or just observe the jarring downfall of Corey Perry, which ended with a buyout.

Maybe the Bruins thrive where those teams fight to survive because of style differences, such as Bergeron’s cerebral game. Or maybe the Bruins have just been lucky.

Whatever the explanation may be, the Bruins have sustained a window of true, elite contention for longer than expected, as it sure seemed like that window was closing during the end of Claude Julien’s run.

But what if Father Time shows up to collect those debts in 2019-20?

A deep, draining run within one win of a Stanley Cup probably didn’t make the Bruins feel younger. Boston battled through 24 playoff games during that run, including two Game 7s. As much as a “Stanley Cup hangover” narrative focuses on motivation (and recovering from literal hangovers), the holdover fatigue can’t be ignored. Being on the losing end might be the greatest testament to such a thought, as players like Chara and Rask might feel some lingering effects from battling through June 12.

So, the Bruins probably can’t totally avoid absorbing body blows from fatigue and the aging process, yet they’d be wise to mitigate the damage.

  • Having aging veterans take one game of a back-to-back set off seems prudent.
  • Rask has already said how much it helped to have Halak carry some of the workload, so more of that?
  • Easing burdens even while players are on the ice is worthwhile. Not only do you make things less grueling for Bergeron/Chara/etc., but you might get some useful intel. Perhaps you can break up Marchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak during certain series where you’d be better off spreading the wealth? Getting a better idea of who works well with those stars could boost Boston’s versatility.

On paper, this could all run smoothly, but we’ll see when this team actually hits the ice again. After all, Father Time isn’t always polite enough to knock before barging in and messing everything up.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.

Should Bruins break up top line next season?

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The Boston Bruins and their fans are likely still smarting from falling one win short of a Stanley Cup victory against the St. Louis Blues, but the bottom line is that this was an impressive run. Really, it cemented the notion that Bruins management has done a lot right in finding ways to extend this group’s window of contention, where other teams would age out of elite play.

Still, there was one thing that bothered me about the Bruins: their lack of experimentation toward the end of the regular season.

Most teams don’t get the chance to tinker without big consequences

For a long time, it was clear that the Bruins would meet the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There was also plenty of advance notice that the Bruins were unlikely to slip from the second seed.

While other NHL teams can be dinged for a lack of experimentation as well, the Bruins (and Maple Leafs) were in a rare position in this age of parity: they basically knew where they were going to land in the playoff branches, and didn’t really face much of a threat of dropping out of their position for some time.

In other words, if the Bruins wanted to try a bunch of different things – treating the rest of the regular season as a virtual hockey science lab – they wouldn’t have faced severe consequences, even if those experimentations blew up in their faces in the form of losses.

Instead, the Bruins more or less played things out.

If there was one question I would’ve wanted answered if I were in Bruce Cassidy’s shoes,* it would be: “What if we broke up the line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak?”

* – And, make no mistake about it, this would be a bad deal for the Bruins, because Cassidy is overall a very bright coach, and I’d struggle to keep a team under one Too Many Men on the Ice penalties per period.

[More: How will the Bruins look next season?]

Hitting a wall at the worst possible time

Overall, it’s fine that the Bruins leaned toward not messing with a good thing. For the most part, that trio absolutely caves in opponents with their mix of smart defensive play, blistering passing, and dangerous sniping.

Unfortunately, that group hit some serious roadblocks during the postseason, particularly as the St. Louis Blues’ defense found ways to short circuit that top line, and the Blues’ own best players feasted to a surprisingly lopsided degree. This tweet really captures how one-sided things often were during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final:

Yikes. Yikes.

While wear and tear cannot be ignored during the grind of a deep playoff run, it’s fair to ask if the Bruins didn’t have enough of a Plan B for if the top line sputtered. To some extent, you can understand why: because they basically never ran into that problem during the regular season.

Yet, lacking alternate options might have made the Bruins easier to “solve.” Consider this striking excerpt from the latest edition of Elliotte Friedman’s “31 Thoughts.”

When it came to the Patrice Bergeron/Brad Marchand/David Pastrnak line, one Blue said they were determined “not to be fooled by their deception.” Those three are excellent at creating havoc through the neutral zone via the different routes they take. The Blues focused on where they wanted to get to (especially Marchand’s and Pastrnak’s preferred one-timer locations) instead of how they got there.

Attached at the hip

The Bruins certainly provided the Blues and other opponents with a lot of “tape” on the top line, so to speak, as they kept them glued together during the regular season.

Via Natural Stat Trick, Patrice Bergeron played more than 729 minutes with Brad Marchand at even-strength during the regular season, while Bergeron was only away from Marchand for less than 46 minutes. David Pastrnak saw a little bit more time away from that duo, but still spent far more time with them.

It’s striking, actually, that Pastrnak spent almost as much time away from Bergeron and Marchand during the smaller sample of the playoffs (123:12 without Marchand, 134:07 without Bergeron, in 24 games) as Pastrnak spent away from them during the regular season (202 away from Marchand, 182:27 away from Bergeron), and injuries exaggerated those regular season numbers.

You could argue that Pastrnak was moved around because of desperation, rather than inspiration, during the postseason, as things weren’t clicking. So it wasn’t exactly as if those swaps were happening in ideal circumstances.

But what if the Bruins had more combinations in their back pocket?

Roads less taken

Cassidy had the luxury of finding out a little bit more about how other duos or trios might click, but he chose not to do so. Could Marchand and Bergeron really propel their own lines, and how much does Pastrnak need at least one of those guys to thrive? Might Marchand find chemistry with David Krejci, and could Bergeron really click with Jake DeBrusk? If the drop-off from spreading the wealth vs. going top-heavy was small, then the Bruins might have been able to throw different looks against the Blues, rather than playing into their hands.

So, with all of that in mind, how much should the Bruins consider breaking up the top line for 2019-20, or at least portions of 2019-20?

Interestingly, there might be a political element to consider, too: would they grumble at being broken up? In particular, it could be a tough sell to pitch that idea to Bergeron and Marchand, specifically.

Expanding Marchand’s even-strength minutes from 2015-16 to 2018-19 with Natural Stat Trick, the results are pretty comical. Marchand spent 2,461 minutes and 40 seconds with Bergeron during that time period, and just 368:46 without Bergeron. That’s the hockey equivalent of a common law marriage.

If there’s no argument for breaking up the veterans, then maybe continued experimentation with Pastrnak is in order. Theoretically, Bergeron and Marchand could carry a lesser linemate, as that’s the general pattern around the NHL, as teams just don’t often enjoy the option to load up with their three best forwards and still have some talent left over not to get bombarded when their other three lines are on the ice.

Consistency vs. versatility

Again, the Bruins have done an impressive job finding other players, and this post is mainly asking the question regarding whether they can get even better, or at least more versatile.

This interesting piece by Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald discusses David Krejci wanting a more stable partner on the right wing to go with Jake DeBrusk on the Bruins’ mostly effective, but occasionally hot-and-cold second line.

To be fair, Krejci wants stability, where I would argue that the Bruins should try a number of different looks:

“We did touch on that a little bit, but that’s not really something I can control,” Krejci said. “We have lots of good players here who can play on that side, so I’m not worried about that. We have lots of players. But what I would like to have is consistency of the lines so you create some chemistry. You always go through some ups and downs. Everyone does. But if you stay together as a line, in your difficult time of the year, the two other guys can lift you up, or the other way around.”

Conroy brings up some options as right-handed shooters, from Pastrnak to interesting young forward Karson Kuhlman. I’d also throw Charlie Coyle‘s name in the hat, as while he’s mostly served as third-line center for the Bruins, Coyle also played at RW at times during his Wild years.

The thing is, coaches do what Krejci doesn’t like, and get the line blender going for reasons. During an 82-game season, you’re going to experience streaks, but also injuries. You also must battle stagnancy and predictability.

But, really, finding different looks comes down to the playoff contests after the 82-game season.

***

Would the Bruins have won it all if they could have kept the Blues a bit more off balance? Maybe, maybe not. You could also argue that staying the course helped the Bruins get as far as they did, in the first place.

Either way, these are the questions the Bruins should grapple with, and experiments they should undergo more often than they did in 2018-19. Chances are, their cap situation won’t allow them to add much and will probably force them to lose a nice asset like Marcus Johansson, so it’s about getting the most out of what they already have.

Cassidy & Co. deserve credit for getting a whole lot out of this group, already, yet maybe there are a few more answers that simply haven’t been explored, or explored enough to truly know?

LOOKING BACK, AND AHEAD, FOR BRUINS

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.

Blues, Bruins trying to ‘live in the moment’ before Game 7

BOSTON — As much as the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues want to make Game 7 like any other game, it’s impossible. They can go through their same gameday preparations, but in their minds they know this is the last one of the season and only one team will be celebrating on the ice Wednesday night at TD Garden with the Stanley Cup (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

Charlie McAvoy planned to go about his day as usual. Media, lunch, nap, get to the rink and go. His attempt at a good night’s rest on Tuesday? Well, that was a bit difficult.

“I had a little butterflies last night trying to go to sleep, just thinking about where we are and how fortunate I am to be in this position,” the Bruins defenseman said. “We just have to remember it’s just another hockey game. The stakes are what they are. We just have to enjoy it and have fun and realize how lucky I am and fortunate to be in this situation, a situation not many people get to be in. Just going to go out there give it everything I have. Just keep that attitude that it’s just another game. Nothing changes. Still the same the puck, still 5-on-5 and all that.”

Patrick Maroon soaked in the Blues’ morning skate, realizing it was the last one of the season — a season that’s featured plenty of ups and downs. The hours before puck drop will drag on and the anticipation for puck drop for everyone involved will be an an all-time high. It’s been two long off-days since Game 6 Sunday night — plenty of time for the nerves to hit you.

“You’d be lying if there wasn’t nerves on both teams,” said Maroon. “I mean, I guess both teams will have nerves during this time. It’s a big moment for everyone, the biggest stage and Game 7. But I think once you’re out there and you feel the puck a little bit on your warmups and first shift, all that goes away and you’re just kind of enjoying the moment.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Blues and Bruins have reached Game 7 via very different paths. The Bruins have been consistently in the playoff picture all season, while the Blues rode a second half surge that’s brought them on the cusp of the franchise’s first championship.

A win tonight and the story of each team’s season changes dramatically. But for the players and the coaches, that’s a discussion for later on. They can’t let themselves think about how tonight could end and what their summers will be like following one more victory.

“I think if you think that it could be toxic,” said McAvoy. “You’ve got to live in the moment. Dreaming is fine and it’s all good, but it’s fiction until it’s reality.”

Bruce Cassidy agrees with that. He got a second chance to become an NHL head coach 14 years after a disastrous stint in Washington. His Bruins teams have been consistent at winning since he replaced Claude Julien in 2017, but he isn’t thinking about hero status if he’s able to deliver another Stanley Cup to the city.

“I just want my name on the damn Cup. That’s what I want,” he said. “And then we can talk about it however you want.”

MORE BLUES-BRUINS COVERAGE:
• Three keys for Game 7
• It is all on line for Blues-Bruins 
• Which Blues, Bruins player will get Stanley Cup handoff?
• Conn Smythe watch
• Stanley Cup roundtable discussion

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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.