Bruce Cassidy

Experience was necessary in Cassidy’s evolution as NHL head coach

Leave a comment

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 better goaltending?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

————

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.

Bruins seek balance between enjoying rest, staying sharp ahead of Cup Final

2 Comments

When the puck drops next Monday for Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET; NBC), the Boston Bruins will have had 11 days of rest.

Following their seven-game Round 1 series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bruins have only needed 10 games to reach their third Cup Final since 2011. All that rest will certainly bode well for a team with an average age of 27.3 and seven players north of 30 years old. 

But will it be too much time off?

The Bruins and Tuukka Rask have won seven in a row and played dominant hockey over the last two rounds. They would love to maintain that level of sharpness, but that will be difficult to do so with a week and a half between games. Bruce Cassidy gave his players Friday and Saturday off following their sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final, but it’s since been back to business as they await to find out their Cup Final opponent.

“We have a plan on how we’re going to go through this week, balancing practices with days off,” Cassidy said on Sunday. “We are going to meet with the veteran guys who’ve been through it. We talked about scrimmaging. Will we do it at night? Prepare like a game or have it in the morning? We’ll talk to people outside the organization.”

Some of those outside people include the New England Patriots, who know a thing or two about winning championships after dealing with lots of downtime between games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Zdeno Chara, who missed Game 4 due, was back at practice on Monday with “no issues,” per Cassidy. While he keeps himself in great shape, his 41-year-old bones certainly have welcomed the extended time off. Cassidy said the injury that forced him to sit wasn’t serious, which was a relief for a Bruins team that has relied on him to play over 22 minutes a night this postseason.

A nine-day break between Rounds 1 and 2 allowed John Tortorella to organize a full scrimmage for his Columbus Blue Jackets players after they earned the time off by sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning. That could be an option for the Bruins to not lose their edge.

“In the short term, it’s really beneficial for our group,” Cassidy said. “We’ve been pedal to the metal here, mentally and physically, for a while. I do believe in the short term it will help us a lot. Then it’s incumbent upon us to simulate the best we can with what’s going to be required going forward.”

One player the Bruins desperately need to maintain his sharpness is Tuukka Rask, who’s posted a .945 even strength save percentage and two shutouts in 17 games this spring. They longest he’s gone between starts this season was from Jan. 19 to Jan. 31 after suffering a concussion against the New York Rangers. His recovery time was aided by the fact that the Bruins had their bye week right after the injury occurred, so the 31-year-old goaltender only missed one game.

The Conn Smythe frontrunner has been locked in this postseason and playing at a level that is reminiscent of the Bruins’ 2013 run to the Cup Final.

“When he was concussed, I think he missed quite a bit of time then came back and played well,” said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “He’s in a really good place, a really good place mentally and physically and his routines. He’s gone out game days. In the past, he hasn’t. He’s gone out for specific reasons. I think he’ll continue to do those things. It’s just the game, to get into the flow of the game and speed of the game you can’t ever simulate, so there will be challenges, certainly. Tuukka is in a really good place, and I expect him to return there.”

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

————

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.

Bruins have evolved into one of NHL’s best under Cassidy

Getty
4 Comments

On Feb. 4, 2017, the Boston Bruins were an organization that seemed to be stuck in mediocrity. They had narrowly missed the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons, had won just 26 of their first 55 games that year, and were preparing to fire Claude Julien, a Stanley Cup winning coach and one of the most successful coaches the team had ever had.

While there were some signs that the 2016-17 team had performed better than its overall record under Julien (they were a good possession team but were getting sunk by sub-par goaltending) the team had just seemed to hit a wall where there was no way forward. It was not a particularly deep roster, the defense was full of question marks, and it just had the look of an organization that was teetering on the edge of needing a rebuild.

It was at that point that Bruce Cassidy took over behind the bench for his first head coaching opportunity in the NHL since a mostly disappointing one-and-a-half year run with the Washington Capitals more than a decade earlier. All the Bruins have done since then is evolve into one of the NHL’s most dominant teams under Cassidy and enter Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday just one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It has been a pretty sensational run under Cassidy’s watch.

Since he was hired the Bruins are second in the NHL in points percentage (.670), goal-differential (plus-130), Corsi percentage (53.2 percent) and scoring chance percentage (53.4), and 10th in high-danger scoring chance percentage (52.2). They have made the playoffs every year he has been behind the bench and gone increasingly further each time. They are now just five wins away from a championship.

Obviously there is a lot of talent on this Boston team, especially at the top of the lineup where they have a collection of some the game’s best players, including the trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.

That will help any coach.

But what is perhaps most impressive about the Bruins’ success over the past two seasons is how many games Cassidy has been without some of those key players, and how often his team has just kept on winning.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season the group of Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, Zdeno Chara, and Brandon Carlo has combined to miss 203 man-games. That is an average of more than 20 games *per player* over the two-year stretch.

That is not only a lot of games to miss due to injury (or, in some cases, suspension), it is a lot of games for pretty much all of the team’s best players. That does not even take into account the time starting goalie Tuukka Rask missed earlier this season.

The quick response to that sustained success, obviously, is “depth,” and how a lot of credit should be given to the front office for constructing a deep roster that can overcome that many significant injuries.

After all, McAvoy has been a game-changer on defense, Pastrnak has blossomed into a star, and while the Bruins may not have maximized the return on their three consecutive first-round picks in 2015 (they passed on Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor, just to name a few) they still have had a nice collection of young forwards emerge through the system, especially Jake DeBrusk.

While all of that is certainly true to a point, this is also a team whose depth was probably its biggest weakness and question mark until about two months ago.

Everyone knew their top line was the best in the NHL. Everyone knew their defense with McAvoy blossoming into a star and Krug producing the way he did was starting to turn around. But they were still a remarkably top-heavy team that did not get much in the way of offense outside of their top five or six players. And they spent a lot of time over the past two years, in the league’s toughest division at the top, and still managed to win a ton of hockey games.

[MORE: Bruins head to Stanley Cup Final after sweeping Hurricanes]

Maybe the depth was better than it was originally given credit for, and maybe the goaltending duo of Rask and Jaroslav Halak has helped to mask some flaws. But you also can not ignore the job Cassidy has done behind the bench and the success the team has had since he took over. In the two-and-a-half years prior to him (including during that very season) the Bruins’ points percentage was only 18th in the NHL, and while their possession and scoring chance numbers were still good, they were not as downright dominant as they have been under Cassidy.

It doesn’t matter who he has had in the lineup, who he has been without, or what run of injuries have been thrown his way his team has just simply gotten results. Even more important than the results is the way they are getting the results. They control the puck, they get the better of the scoring chances, and they just simply play like a championship level team.

It is a far jump from where they were just a little more than two years ago, and the turnaround started the day they made the switch behind the bench.

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.

Who should coach Sabres, Ducks, Oilers, Senators?

Getty Images
9 Comments

When you look at the four conference finalists remaining in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, you’ll notice a variety of coaching stories.

There’s quite a mix with a midseason replacement (Craig Berube for the Blues), a rookie breakthrough (Rod Brind’Amour for Carolina), someone who’s been effective with an established team (the Bruins’ Bruce Cassidy), and a veteran running a star-packed squad (Peter DeBoer with the Sharks). There are many ways to skin the cat, and that point becomes clearer when you zoom out to other success stories, such as Barry Trotz’s fantastic work with the New York Islanders.

With Joel Quenneville readying his sunscreen for Florida, Alain Vigneault leading a band of former head coaches in Philly, and Todd McLellan landing his second California gig with the Los Angeles Kings, you’d think that the game of musical chairs that is coaching hiring would be mostly done for the NHL, but that’s not really so. As of Tuesday, the Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers, and Ottawa Senators are still looking for new head coaches.

Let’s take a look at the decisions these four teams face, from a broader look at what type of coach they should look for, to a more concrete set of targets they should prioritize.

Anaheim Ducks should seek: An innovator

GM Bob Murray needs to face reality: “old-school” just isn’t working so well for the Ducks any longer.

This team ignored warning signs that Randy Carlyle’s work was behind the times, and those warts really sprouted up during a pretty disastrous 2018-19 season. If you look at the Ducks’ salary structure, you’ll see some troublingly aging core players like Ryan Getzlaf and the injured Ryan Kesler (both 34) and Corey Perry (33).

We’ve seen teams face a slump where they miss the playoffs before getting back on track, though, and there’s a chance the Ducks could join that group if thing swing back in their favor.

That’s especially true if John Gibson remains an all-world goaltender. Combine Gibson with a still-solid group of defensemen and decent forwards (Getzlaf’s getting old, but he can still move the needle), and maybe the Ducks’ outlook can go sunnier quickly.

Ducks targets:

  • Dallas Eakins – The breath of fresh air Anaheim needs could be right with the AHL’s affiliate, as Eakins seems forward-thinking when it comes to resting players and analytics. He’s also had success basically everywhere he’s been … except Edmonton. Even there, it’s not as if he had a lot of time to fix all the leaks for the Oilers.
  • Todd Nelson – Another briefly-former-Oilers coach who’s had success basically everywhere else he’s been. Nelson’s both reasonably young and well-traveled, making him a worthy consideration for multiple teams, really.
  • Sheldon KeefeIn Elliotte Friedman’s latest edition of “31 Thoughts“, he reported that Keefe wouldn’t leave the Toronto Marlies, unless it was for a better situation. Maybe the young coach wouldn’t view the Ducks as an upgrade, although you rarely see perfect teams making coaching searches, right?

The Ducks could also go for an older coach if they believe that bench boss would drive immediate results in a way that a fresher face wouldn’t … but personally, I’d lean toward youngsters.

Sabres should find: Structure

For years, there’s been an uncomfortable question lingering for Buffalo: is this team underachieving, or is the talent simply not there?

Either way, the optics haven’t been great, as the Sabres have often looked rudderless. They’ve really struggled to find stability since the lengthy Lindy Ruff era ended, and it sure feels like Buffalo needs to find this year’s version of Barry Trotz: an experienced coach who can install systems that won’t collapse under the pressure of competition.

Sabres’ best target:

  • Dave Tippett – At 57, Tippett has already coached two teams (the Stars and Coyotes) for a combined 1,114 regular-season games and 74 playoff contests. His squads have been structurally sound, and Tippett often found ways to get the most out of limited Coyotes rosters. He won a Jack Adams Award in 2009-10, and while he hasn’t had a head coaching job since 2016-17, Tippett remains focused on the game.

There are other options, with Friedman reporting that another former Oilers coach Ralph Krueger possibly being the frontrunner but … frankly, I just really like the fit for Buffalo. Maybe Tippett wouldn’t view the Sabres the same way, though.

(UPDATE: The Sabres have decided to hire Ralph Krueger.)

Oilers need: An exorcist

Just kidding. Plus, you could argue the same for the Senators, and to an extent, the Sabres.

My impression is that the Oilers could use optimism and positive, forward energy as much as anything else. It says a lot about their organizational dysfunction that you can almost forget that they have Connor McDavid, as well as some other key pieces.

Yes, the roster has issues, but maybe a more offensive-minded coach could get things going in a more modern direction, rather than trying to squeeze every drop of defensive potential out of this mix, as both Ken Hitchcock and Todd McLellan generally aimed to do? Considering how grim the atmosphere seemed to be, these players may benefit from a pat on the back after being barked at for some time.

Oilers’ options:

  • Sheldon Keefe – Would Keefe value having McDavid and Leon Draisaitl enough to risk leaving the Marlies for the Oilers? If so, what better way for Edmonton to show that its not some “old boys club” than to hire such a young head coach?
  • Todd Nelson– Ken Holland observed Nelson’s success with the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate for years, so maybe that would inspire Holland to allow Nelson to get another, more “real” shot with Edmonton this time around?
  • Scott Sandelin/Nate Leaman – I’d be surprised if the Oilers went bold with Keefe or either of these two NCAA coaches, but I also think they’re worth mentioning. Rather than going for a retread in the form of a former head coach (who’s had more legitimate chances than a Nelson or an Eakins), why not see if one of these coaches has a higher ceiling?

Tippett seems to be a rising choice for Edmonton, and the Oilers could certainly go in worse directions. It feels a bit more of the same, though, as bringing in Hitchcock. Maybe Nelson would be the best compromise between bringing in fresher ideas and appeasing … well, that old boys club?

Senators should look for: An optimist … and a stopgap

In the above cases, teams are hoping to finally take big steps forward, or in the case of the Ducks, to reverse a downward spiral.

Honestly, the Ottawa Senators are better off tanking in 2019-20, and probably for a year or two beyond that. They purged a ton of talent by trading away Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, Mike Hoffman, and others in recent seasons, and it’s tough to imagine overachieving doing much for the team’s bigger picture outlook beyond messing up their draft lottery odds.

With how dark things have been for the Senators, they could use a positive presence, preferably a coach who’s patient enough to help develop the Brady Tkachuks of the world. Put some smiles on some faces … just don’t win too much.

Ottawa’s options:

  • Marc Crawford – Becoming something of a coaching journeyman’s likely given Crawford some perspective. He served as interim head coach, so he already has some knowledge of the players and franchise, which can’t be underrated when you consider how … polarizing owner Eugene Melnyk can be.
  • Troy Mann– Carries much of the appeal of Crawford, as he’s coached the Senators’ AHL affiliate. He’d probably be cheap as a first-time NHL head coach too, which is, erm, appealing to Melnyk.
  • Scott Sandelin/Nate Leaman – A more sensible scenario for an NCAA coach to take over. Expectations would be low, so Sandelin or Leaman would get some time to acclimate to the NHL. Theoretically, at least. Might be a tough sell for either one to leave successful programs to try to fix the Senators, though.
  • Lane Lambert – Plenty of experience (and potential?) as Barry Trotz’s assistant, and hey, if you’re going to be bad, at least distract yourself with his amusing hair. (Note: Sportsnet’s John Shannon reports that the Ducks have also shown interest in Lambert.)

***

None of these situations feel like easy or obvious fixes, and the best options might not be listed above. Then again, things didn’t seem very optimistic for the Islanders when Trotz took over, or for Berube when the Blues were ranked last during this season, and those scenarios ended up being wild successes.

Who would you go after if you were running those teams?

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.

The Wraparound: Hurricanes know they need more

1 Comment

The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

A 2-1 lead heading into the third period should have been right where the Carolina Hurricanes wanted the Boston Bruins.

The ‘bunch of jerks’ had gone 3-0 when leading after two frames prior to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, but they buckled under the pressure of two separate penalties that derailed all of their hard work through 40 minutes.

“We’re not going to win if we don’t play better than that,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “We had spurts, but it’s not going to be good enough in the regular season, and it’s certainly not going to be good enough this time of year. We’ll regroup and try to get better for the next game.”

That game comes Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Did Carolina fall victim to the ‘rest-equals-rust’ problem we’ve seen in these playoffs? The New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets and Colorado Avalanche had all lost games following extended time off between rounds. Carolina added their names to that list last Thursday.

“In the playoffs, we’ve been pretty successful holding leads,” Hurricanes forward Justin Williams said. “We got kicked in the pants a little today. That hasn’t happened in a while.”

Still, if you spot the Bruins a couple of third-period power plays, you have to expect that a team with the resume the Bruins have in the playoffs will extract something from them.

And they did.

“At the end of the day, they’re an experienced group,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “They know that we need them at that particular point. The power play was what was required because [CAR] took a few penalties, so it might be the penalty kill on Sunday that needs the big kill. I think our group’s been pretty good at identifying some key times in games throughout these playoffs [where] we’ve got to step up, and that was one of them. [The game-tying score] was a big goal for us. Both of them, really. It changed the complexion of the game, so good for them.”

The Bruins are clipping along at a 30 percent rate with the man-advantage in the playoffs, ranked first.

The Hurricanes could use a boost in that department. They enter the games going at a 12.2 percent rate, good for 14th, which isn’t good at all. They are just 2-for-28 in their past nine games but did find a power-play marker in Game 1.

A couple of quick notes:

  • Scoring first is paramount for the Hurricanes, who are 4-0 when getting that opening tuck in this year’s postseason
  • Conversely, the Bruins are 8-0 when leading after two periods
  • Boston has a plus-8 goal differential in both the first and third periods this postseason, but they are minus-1 during the second period.

SATURDAY’S SCOREBOARD
Sharks 6, Blues 3 (SJS leads 1-0)
The Buzzer has more on Saturday’s action

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT roundtable
• Hurricanes/Bruins series preview
• PHT Conference Finals predictions


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