The Boston Bruins announced Wednesday, that they had extended head coach Bruce Cassidy to a multi-year contract extension and now, what hat better time for so many – including this puck scribe – to once again admit Bruins general manager Don Sweeney was actually right when he replaced Claude Julien with Cassidy back on February 7, 2017?
Of course, Julien, who had restored a winning culture for the Bruins, took the organization to their first Stanley Cup in 39 years, another Stanley Cup Final just two seasons later, and the President’s Trophy a season later was let go in favor of Cassidy with the team still in playoff contention mid-way through the 2016-17 season. At the time, many wondered how could they replace him with Cassidy, who hadn’t been an NHL head coach since 2004, when he was canned by the Capitals, reportedly because the players wanted him gone?
Well, Cassidy’s record and success since he was hired as an interim head coach don’t lie. He’s led the Bruins to a 117-52-22 record, three playoff appearances and most recently, a run to Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. Cassidy’s .670 winning percentage is already the fourth-best in Bruins team history. He reached his first 100 wins with the franchise in just 166 games, trailing only Tom Johnson (138 games) for the fastest to that milestone. The Bruins have 256 points in those 166 games, second-most in the NHL over that span to Tampa Bay (283 points). he also helped his team back to the Stanley Cup Final and fell just one game short of giving the franchise their second Stanley Cup in eight years.
Sweeney may have not foreseen those more than impressive stats for Cassidy in his first two-plus seasons managing the Bruins bench, but he saw a refined coach and a coach that had learned from his mistakes, communicating with his players with a balance of respect and authority when needed.
“As I said, it’s not about people deserving things — he’s earned the right to lead this club and this doesn’t start from two years ago, it starts from a number of years ago, where I got to know Bruce really well, working with him (in Providence),” Sweeney said Wednesday at the press conference announcing the Cassidy extension. “To me, those translate into a lot of the ideals he has as a coach, in an everyday approach. During the game, really good bench coach to know who’s playing and who’s not.
He continues to evolve, continues to be quick on the trigger and move guys around versus have guys to have patience. He’s got a good pulse of room to allow veterans to do what they do, but also govern what he needs to. Sets up the ideals of the hockey club each and every night, knows what the expectations are, starts on time and have success and hold them to a standard each day.”
That balance between constructive criticism, encouragement and discipline though has been the key for a Bruins team that is evolving and transitioning from the 2011 Cup core of captain Zdeno Chara (42), Patrice Bergeron (34), David Krejci (33), Brad Marchand (31) and goalie Tuukka Rask (32) to a new wave of one already established core player in 28-year-old defenseman Torey Krug and youngsters like David Pastrnak (23), Jake DeBrusk (22), Brandon Carlo (22), and Charlie McAvoy (21).
“He can be very critical at home, we’ve had this discussion in terms of how that’s going to be received by players,” Sweeney acknowledged. “But then the next day that turns right into a teaching opportunity and moving forward to the next day. And I think that’s what players can identify with, realizing their opportunity is still going to be there. There are some coaches that have longer-term memories and Bruce is almost the opposite, you know, trying to plan with what comes forward.”
As so many pointed out though when the Bruins announced they had fired Julien just prior to the New England Patriots Super Bowl parade following their historic comeback win in Super Bowl LI it appeared as if they were hiding under the shadow of the Patriots’ moment. Then they held the press conference to introduce Cassidy as the duck boats carried the Patriots through the snow-covered streets of Boston. To many, including this puck scribe, this seemed like a classic news dump because they knew that firing a coach that had restored their winning tradition and brought them their first Stanley Cup in 39 years, would put them in a firestorm of criticism.
As he did then, Sweeney once again made sure to defend the timing of the coaching change Wednesday at the press conference announcing Cassidy’s extension. One of Sweeney’s main reasons for the not so popular timing was the Bruins had just returned from the All-Star break and they would have two days of practice to adapt to Cassidy and any changes he would make.
“I know I apologized on the day because it was obviously the timing anyone’s ideals, nor was it mine,” Sweeney told the assembled media at Warrior Arena. “I do stand by the fact that I’ve known Bruce for a long time and I did believe that time when I made a very difficult decision, a direction change for the organization, that he would take those two days and apply them very well for practice. That was really when I finally made the decision. And I’m not going to change upon that. I just know him as a coach and what he would want to try and do and it would give him a benefit. And that’s how I looked at it.”
Turns out Sweeney deserved that benefit too. At least he had the courage to face the media on Patriots Parade Day, unlike the Red Sox ownership group when they announced they had fired Dave Dombrowski after a loss to the New York Yankees just after midnight Monday and immediately following the Patriots’ season-opening win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.