Today is Part 4 of a five-part “Breaking Down the Boston Bruins” series that will run this week at Boston Hockey Now. Today we’ll look at the current and future picture for the Bruins’ coaching staff as we head into an important offseason.
“Bruce is in deep trouble I think,” an NHL source said to Boston Hockey Now when asked what he was hearing on the status of Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “I’m not saying they fire him now for sure, but there’s a short leash if not.”
Prior to Boston Bruins team president Cam Neely dropping a bomb on the media on May 19, and leaving the status of head coach Bruce Cassidy and his staff of assistants, Joe Sacco, Kevin Dean and Chris Kelly, up in the air, this was likely going to be the easiest ‘Breaking Down The Bruins’ edition to write. Sure the Boston Bruins failed to make it out of the first round for the first time since Cassidy’s first season behind the bench when he took over for Claude Julien in February of 2017, but they’ve made it to the second round of the playoffs the next five seasons and got all the way to Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final before losing to the St. Louis Blues. So when Neely, who in the same press conference admitted that the roster has been in need of a retool despite major turnover through free agency and trades, called out Cassidy and his staff, it came as a major surprise.
“I think we have to look at making some changes as far as how we play,” Neely said when asked about the status of Cassidy for the 2022-23 season. “I think Bruce is a fantastic coach. He’s brought a lot of success to this organization. I like him as a coach. So we’ll see where it goes, but I do think we need to make some changes.”
The Boston Bruins hall of famer even suggested that players aren’t happy with how demanding and old school Cassidy can be when dealing with younger players.
“There’s no question players are afraid to make mistakes, especially younger players, because, you know, you hear about it,” when asked if the youth on the Boston Bruins lineup is afraid to make mistakes under Cassidy? “And I was one of those players that, you know, I had to learn and grow. And I heard about it, too. And I made mistakes as a younger player. But you can’t worry about not getting back out there. I think that’s one of the things we have to kind of change. I think when younger players make mistakes, they’re worried they’re not going to play the next game while that game is still going on.”
Cassidy has never been afraid to throw players in the dog house and force them to work their way out of there, and that was the case again this season with Trent Frederic and Connor Clifton, as well as some players who rode the shuttle back and forth from Providence and the AHL. The thing is though, while players like Ryan Spooner, Frank Vatrano, Peter Cehlarik, Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen and Anders Bjork struggled to stay in the lineup before eventually being shipped out, every one except Heinen with the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, has failed to find a regular spot on their new team or teams in some cases.
Neely wasn’t done with pointing the blame at Cassidy and his staff though.
“Like I said, I think there’s times when players need to be more reactive out there instead of thinking about, this is how we have to play,” Neely pointed out. “Sometimes on the power play, I found it frustrating where we would continue to try to gain the zone the same way with the same results that weren’t as good as they could have been. And again, turning pucks over at the blue line because you’re trying to beat guys one-on-one or one-on-two. It’s tough to do in this league. I think a little different philosophy of when to dump pucks in and chase and go after it and try to grind it out down below the dots and get inside the dots and try to create chances that way.”
Later that day, another NHL source expressed dismay at the words of the Boston Bruins President.
“Interesting. Really interesting,” one NHL source told Boston Hockey Now minutes after Neely held his end of the season presser at Warrior Ice Arena in Brighton, MA, on Wednesday. “Butch has done an amazing job and I just can’t see Donny [Sweeney] stay and not keep him around, but this isn’t the first time Cam’s dropped bombs like this.”
As I pointed out in my last ‘Murph’s Take’, Neely did the same thing to then Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien mid-way through the team’s 2010-11 Stanley Cup-winning season. Obviously Julien kept his job and ended up leading the Bruins to Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks, and then a President’s Trophy in 2013-14. That was a much more stacked and well-rounded team in their prime though and would easily sweep the most recent edition of the Boston Bruins and have their way with maybe every Don Sweeney edition of the Bruins except for the 2019 squad.
When speaking to the media in his end of the season presser on May 17, Cassidy didn’t exactly go all Bill Parcells on Sweeney and Neely, but he made sure to remind his bosses of how much turnover he’s had to deal with as a head coach.
— Joe Giza (@JoeGiza) October 25, 2017
“Our start was. …inconsistent, not to our standards,” Cassidy said on May 17. “There’s different reasons for that. We added five players. You can add ‘Sway’ [Jeremy Swayman] into that a little bit as six, and then three at the deadline last year. Don’t forget those guys came in and you’re just getting them ready to play for the playoffs. So, and then [Hampus] Lindholm at the deadline. So, you got almost a full half a roster turnover so it took a while to get the pieces in place and I give the players a lot of credit for finding their way in the second half. We had to move some pieces around and I was proud of the guys. We were on top of our game, beating good hockey clubs down the stretch, winning against good clubs that maybe weren’t able to do earlier in the year. That’s growth on the team.
Then the playoffs come and we’re playing one of the best teams in the National Hockey League. I think we can’t overlook that. This team was a top team all year. They didn’t spike; they had one little down shift towards the end of the year I think; very consistent, and they’re good for a reason. They’ve grown together as a group, we saw it playing against them earlier, so it came down to a Game 7 where they make a few more plays than we do. We bounce back, down 2-0, we got ourselves back. There’s a lot of positives I think that happened with this team. To say that we weren’t a contender, I think, yeah of you don’t get out of the first round, that’s not what we want; we want to win a Stanley Cup, that’s what we’re here for and as the series went on, I think our guys started thinking this is a team we can beat, we just didn’t get it done in Game 7.”
Cassidy also acknowledged that he can and his willing to tweak his style and he’ll likely be forced to if Patrice Bergeron retires.
“We’re playing for rebounds so we can recover the puck first,” said Cassidy. “Bergeron does that as well as anybody. (Charlie) Coyle’s line, when they’re going. We’re not one of those teams that’s looking for … I think the Rangers are more of that. They’re looking for that play that’s high percentage. That’s certainly open to discussion. Should we be more of that team? Hang on to the puck, look for that really good chance instead of playing and putting pressure on a team over and over and getting some second and third chances. That’s a little bit of philosophy that we have to discuss.”
Still though, even if Cassidy did more of what Neely wanted and wants going forward, are the Boston Bruins really beating the Carolina Hurricanes, who, by the way, were still undefeated at home in the rocking barn that is PNC Arena in Raleigh.
“We just happened to run up against a team that was rock solid defensively,” Cassidy said. “Were we that far off from it? Is it all on us? Or do we give the appropriate amount of credit to the team that we lost to that was a very good hockey team and knows how to shut teams down?
I think it’s a little bit of both. We need to find ways to generate more offense. Is the personnel in place to do that and we’re just playing the wrong way? Do we sacrifice defense, what we’re very good at, to generate some offense? We may have to consider that. That’s definitely a possibility. Are there some players that can give us more? There always is. Some of the best offensive chances come from a good breakout where you’re trapping. That’s where your rush game comes from. If you break out clean and trap some guys — or break up a play, because he’s good at anticipating — you’re going to get some rush offense.”
Sweeney, speaking a day before Neely, did sound similar to Neely but didn’t directly lay fault on Cassidy.
“It’s great to be idealistic and say, ‘OK, every clean breakout leads to a great transitional play through the rush.’ That’s what forwards want,” said Sweeney. “But when the other team does what they’re supposed to do, that doesn’t necessarily present. So how do you create in-zone? Earlier in the year, we weren’t creating as well cycling-wise. Then we got much, much better. We got to the interior. You watch Taylor Hall transform his game a little bit, going to a net front and doing a pretty good job there, those are areas that can be improved in players. That’s how you have to manufacture offense. It’s not just going to be, ‘Let’s be clean. Let’s execute off the rush.’ It may happen, which we want to be good at. For the most part, we are. But if you’re just in a trade-chance mentality and neutral-zone turnover rates go up, chances are it’s going to be in your own end. We’re trying to find a balance.”
Like Neely, Sweeney couched his criticism with praise of Cassidy and his staff, but even more so than Neely. Still, Sweeney made sure that he let everyone know that he felt the coaching staff, players and himself underachieved.
“My message was I believe we’ve left something on the table this year in terms of what we needed to accomplish,” said Sweeney.
The read here is that ultimately Cassidy will be back but as the source above said, it will be with a short leash. In the humble opinion of this puck scribe, Bruce Cassidy is the least of the Bruins’ worries, and maybe there wouldn’t be anything left on the table if Sweeney and Neely let the 2020 Jack Adams Award winner do some of the grocery shopping with them. Whatever they do, firing Cassidy won’t help them achieve their goals; it will only send the Boston Bruins backwards.