When I laid forth my awards predictions for the 2017-18 season back in late September, I had no idea that one of the best coaches in the NHL was right under my nose here in Boston.
Taking over for a man who was not only the winningest coach in team history but also the longest-tenured in the league would be a tall task for anyone. For a coach whose only previous stop as an NHL bench boss occurred more than a decade prior and was rife with problems, living up to the success achieved under Claude Julien seemed burdensome, even unlikely.
After Cassidy masterfully guided the Bruins out of mediocrity and into the playoffs last season with an 18-8-1 record down the stretch, continued success was not guaranteed. There is a big difference between being the “breath of fresh air” for a weary club and being the “new normal.” How would Bruins players, young and old, respond when Cassidy’s methods and teachings were no longer a welcome change of pace but rather simply the way things were done?
At the season’s midway point, we have our answer: Tremendously. The Bruins have responded tremendously to the stylings and teaching of a man who is in the thick of Jack Adams Award consideration.
From a philosophical standpoint, it’s no secret that Claude Julien grew to love his veterans. As the Julien era wore on, many fans of the club (and some of the players) had the impression that the leashes on young skilled players were unnecessarily short and taught, whereas veterans who offered stability but little offensive power were rewarded with ample ice time.
Boston’s younger finesse players seemed to grow increasingly hesitant to play to their strengths, knowing that a turnover in the wrong part of the ice would land them in the doghouse, grabbing some pine.
Under Cassidy, the shift has been considerable.
That’s not to say there’s less accountability under “Butch.” Both Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork were glued to the bench or in the press box at various times throughout the first half of this season. Even Torey Krug (a veteran of 350-plus NHL games) found himself benched for the last nine minutes of a particularly rough outing versus the Washington Capitals.
The difference is that Cassidy knows which buttons to push with each individual player. DeBrusk responded to his healthy scratch by posting six points over the subsequent five games. Krug responded to his benching by posting two assists, two blocked shots and two hits in the last game of 2017. Bjork (since his demotion to Providence) has four points in three games.
He has shown that he can hold young players accountable and to a high standard without dashing their confidence. Egregious turnovers or extended, ineffective play can result in a few shifts on the bench or a game in the press box, but the vigor with which each individual player has responded to that adversity illustrates how much attention and respect Bruce Cassidy commands in the room.
Playing Style/Speed Kills
Far and away the most tangible upgrade to the Bruins’ game under Cassidy has been their uptempo playing style.
This is, without a doubt, the fastest Bruins team I have witnessed. And I’m not just referring to their straight-line speed either; this team breaks pucks out of its own zone faster than any Bruins team I’ve seen. They get in on the forecheck with tenacity…they do everything fast. Moreover, there’s an inherent creativity to their game which has been seldom seen in Boston over the years.
I remember the moment last season that I realized just how different the Bruins would be under Cassidy: Adam McQuaid had just activated from the blue line, snuck in the back door and buried a one-timer.
I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. “Did ADAM MCQUAID just sneak in the back door and score a goal? WHAT IS HAPPENING???”
Take a look at this goal from Saturday’s 7-1 drubbing of the Carolina Hurricanes as a perfect example of the creativity and leeway of Cassidy’s system:
David Krejci and Ryan Spooner work a cycle so high in the zone they’re barely onside. Charlie McAvoy (a defenseman) floats through the zone, even winding up just above Scott Darling’s crease and providing the screen while Jake DeBrusk redirects a point shot from the slot for a goal. This play never occurred under Julien.
The Hurricane players have absolutely no idea who to cover, running around like headless chicken. That level of creativity not only makes Cassidy’s Bruins a treat to watch, it makes them unpredictable. Opportunistic. Dangerous. Players are encouraged to play to the strengths that got them to the NHL. Boston’s forwards have been emboldened to seize upon one-on-one matchups and to attack.
They force opponents to stop them.
Protecting the House
This was the hallmark of Julien’s Bruins. Above all else, protect the house. For the majority of his tenure, it worked. Eventually, inevitably, as the team bled talent yearly, it ceased to.
It would stand to reason that Cassidy’s uptempo, creative, attacking style would not only be a departure from the norm in Boston but would also lead to an uptick in goals against, right? After all, encouraging defensemen to join the rush will ultimately lead to getting burned.
Not the case.
As of this writing, the Bruins have the third-best goals-against-average in the NHL. They’ve allowed two goals or fewer in 11 of their last 15 games and one goal or fewer in seven of their last nine.
To have been able to completely revamp the team’s offensive capabilities and prowess to no detriment to the defensive side of the coin is a masterful stroke of coaching from a man who was quite the offensive defenseman himself once upon a time.
Making the Tough Decisions
I wrote back in September that this season for Cassidy would be largely defined by how he responded to the inevitable adversity that hits every team every year. Taking over a .500 hockey team two-thirds of the way through a season contains significantly less pressure than navigating a full 82-game slate, with heightened expectations no less.
With his team losing a player to injury almost nightly during the first month of the season, that adversity hit sooner than expected. Along the way, Cassidy has made several key decisions that not only helped to right the ship but have rocketed the Bruins up the NHL standings.
First, the decision to reunite David Pastrnak with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron has given Boston arguably the best 200-foot line in hockey. Rather than trying to spread out what little firepower he had at his disposal in light of the myriad injuries, he loaded up, giving Boston one dynamite line to make an impact while allowing the rest of the forward lines to break even.
Not only did that line click in the biggest way possible, but other lines (namely the Backes-Nash-Heinen line) have discovered and developed their own impressive chemistry in the wake of the decision. It has given Boston the best forward depth they’ve had in four years.
Riding the Hot Hand
Second, the riding of the hot hand in net served as the initial catalyst for turning the season around. With Rask struggling through mid-November, Anton Khudobin was called upon for four games in a row; he won all four contests, posting a .939 GAA.
Just when everyone was clamoring for Khudobin to become the new starter, Cassidy sent Rask back out against the best team in the NHL, whom he defeated, beginning a run that would culminate in Rask being named the NHL’s first star for the month of December.
Hindsight being 20-20, it would be easy to overlook or diminish the difficulty of these calls made by Cassidy along the way. However, they illustrate the feeling that he has for this team and for the game itself; the man clearly has his finger on the pulse.
What Gerard Gallant and the Vegas Golden Knights have accomplished thus far in their inaugural season has been nothing shy of remarkable. For that, Gallant is the front-runner for the Jack Adams Award at the season’s halfway point. However, Boston’s Bruce Cassidy has seamlessly succeeded the winningest coach in a lengthy and illustrious franchise’s history while also leading a team with six rookies toward the top of the NHL standings.
He may not walk away with the hardware, but he will be a Jack Adams Award Finalist come June.