When the Boston Bruins made the stunning move to fire former head coach Bruce Cassidy last June, it took general manager (GM) Don Sweeney nearly a month to find his replacement. Sweeney interviewed multiple candidates for the position, but he was looking for one thing in his new coach, someone who can relate to the Black and Gold’s younger players (from ‘Why the Bruins fired Bruce Cassidy: Coach’s style took ‘toll’ on team, says GM Don Sweeney,’ The Athletic, June 7, 2022).
In the end, he settled on Jim Montgomery as his next head coach, and the former Dallas Stars head coach and St. Louis Blues assistant had a strong track record with younger players under his watch. With the Blues, young stars Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas took a big step in their development under Montgomery. Sweeney felt that there was more to the younger Bruins players than they were getting and it was up to Montgomery to help take the next step in their all-around game.
Through 30 games of the 2022-23 season, there have been plenty of examples of development with some of the Bruins’ younger players under Montgomery, something that did not happen under Cassidy.
Bruins Younger Players Struggled Under Cassidy
Cassidy’s record in Boston over six seasons speaks for itself. He had success and got the Bruins to the playoffs in each season behind the bench, including one trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019 against the Blues. In the end, however, Sweeney thought his message was more about how it was being delivered to both the young and veteran players than it was about being received. In the end, the Bruins’ GM was looking for someone to reach the young players.
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It’s no secret that the young players struggled the last couple of seasons. Jake DeBrusk was the most frustrated one and it got to a point where he requested a trade in November 2021. Sweeney was in no rush to make a move, and held onto the 14th overall pick in the 2015 Entry Draft despite his request and struggles. Before the trade deadline last March, Sweeney signed him to a two-year, $8 million contract, which at the time was thought it was done to make it easier to trade him. They never did.
Trent Frederic never made a jump in his development under Cassidy. He made it full-time to the NHL in the 56-game shortened 2020-21 season in the bottom six, but he struggled at times over the last two seasons and found himself as a healthy scratch like DeBrusk. Frederic would have his moments where it looked like he was turning a corner, but never got there consistently.
Over the last couple of seasons, Brandon Carlo would take one step forward, then two steps back. He has dealt with concussions the last couple of seasons, but the Bruins see him as a big part of their future on defense. Of all the prospects the Bruins had, Jack Studnicka was the one whose development never reached its ceiling and translated to a full-time spot in the NHL.
DeBrusk, Carlo & Frederic Thriving Under Montgomery
Following Cassidy’s firing and the hiring of Montgomery, DeBrusk rescinded his trade request and wanted to remain in Boston. Last season in February, Cassidy moved him to the top line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron and DeBrusk took his game to another level. Montgomery came in with the attitude “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’’ and kept him there this season. The result? DeBrusk is a force nearly every night, flying all around the ice, playing in all situations and he has become the net-front presence on the first power play unit. He would show flashes in past seasons under his former coach, but he’s been very consistent under his new coach.
Saying that Frederic was drafted well above where he should have been in 2016 is a major understatement as he was projected as a bottom-six forward with limited offensive ability, which was evident in his first two NHL seasons. Sweeney went outside the box selecting him 29th overall and the former University of Wisconsin standout never found a consistent NHL game. This season has been different. On the third line with Charlie Coyle from Day 1, he has been playing a more disciplined game, taking fewer penalties, and since Taylor Hall was dropped to the third line, he is finding a groove offensively. Just 30 games into the 2022-23 season, he’s on pace to shatter his career highs in goals (eight) and assists (10) that he reached last season. He is playing with a newfound confidence he never had under Cassidy.
At the beginning of training camp, Carlo was one of the more outspoken Bruins about the switch behind the bench.
“I feel like there’s just a certain calmness because I’m not worried about making a mistake. That’s the thing that got in my head last year. I was just too worried about, essentially, f—ing up. I’ll just be blunt.”Brandon Carlo (from ‘Brandon Carlo, Jim Montgomery and the impact of a new voice on the Bruins: ‘Something we really needed,’ The Athletic, Sept. 15, 2022)
Losing at home to Cassidy on Dec. 5 in a shootout is not a great look, however, and Carlo has not been perfect this season, but he’s certainly been playing better. He is still on the top penalty-killing unit with Derek Forbort, he is joining the offensive rush in Montgomery’s system, which allows more freedom for the defensemen to join the offensive rush pinch from the blue line, and making better all-around decisions. He is looking like a different player than he has been in previous seasons.
Studnicka was so broken from his time in the organization that not even Montgomery could fix him. He played on one game this season and on Oct. 27, Sweeney traded him to the Vancouver Canucks for two prospects. Once billed as one of the top prospects in Boston’s system, it never worked out and the Bruins did what they needed to do, cut their loss and move on.
Are the Bruins’ younger players the reason for their terrific start to the 2022-23 season? Not fully, but they are playing a big hand in it. They are starting to turn into the players that the front office would hope they would under Montgomery and are big depth pieces this season. A good team has depth and the Black and Gold are getting young depth behind their stars that they truly need.