BRIGHTON, MA – One thing we can all confidently say right now is that the Boston Bruins decision to fire head coach Bruce Cassidy is one of the most unpopular actions that the Original Six team has taken in recently memory.
It’s right up there with letting future Hall of Fame captain Zdeno Chara walk in free agency and firing the winningest coach in franchise history, Claude Julien, midseason, which actually ended up working out quite well with Cassidy guiding the B’s to the six straight postseasons. But getting rid of a coach that had made the playoffs in each of his six season’s behind the bench and was coming off a 51-win season while patching together a bunch of new parts, it felt like shabby treatment that didn’t fit the stellar service the candid, innovative Cassidy had given the Black and Gold organization for the last 13 years.
So why did all of this have to happen after the Boston Bruins lost in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes following a season where they were fourth in the NHL in defense, 15th in offense while averaging more than three goals per game, 15th in PP percentage and ninth on the penalty kill? Some of it is about Bruins management preparing for the inevitable rebuild that may be hastened if Patrice Bergeron retires and the team falls apart in October and November while Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk are rehabbing from offseason surgeries.
That’s something Sweeney couldn’t deny while the draft-and-development piece that’s largely eluded the B’s during his tenure becomes much more prominent as players like Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask, Bergeron and someday Marchand as well keep riding off into the sunset.
“The Injuries are going to be a part of that, but we’re a competitive group and we’re going to remain a competitive group, but we may need to infuse [with more talent and future assets] at some point in time,” said Sweeney. “We have the injuries and things that catch up to you that you just can’t get out from under, that’s a problem. And with the Bergeron [decision] as I referenced last time I was here; it could be a directional shift as well [if he decides to retire].
“With the injuries we have and where the players come back health-wise, that could dictate [a possible retooling] and the start that we get off to may dictate that. Our goaltending I expect made some headway throughout the year and I think that’s hopefully going to continue. I think our defense, albeit needs to get healthy, as a group is pretty strong. The question looms for Bergeron. That’s the question in terms of when you’re talking about bringing back a similar type of roster, that he’s a big part of that and I still have to wait for that decision. I don’t have any clarity on that as I stand here today so I’m not going to fully answer the question because I don’t have that answer as I sit. Now we are going to take a shift not unlike 2015 where we institute some younger players, and we have to continue to do a good job of that when they’re ready.”
It feels pretty clear that the Boston Bruins will go for it at least one more time, and perhaps even round up David Krejci as well, if Bergeron decides to suit up for one more season at 37 years old. If not, then the decisions may have a 2015 summer ring to them when Sweeney traded away Milan Lucic, Dougie Hamilton and Reilly Smith while accumulating draft picks that they infamously botched with the selections of Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn.
None of that was Cassidy’s fault and neither were the failed free agent searches for a power forward that yielded Matt Beleskey, David Backes and Nick Foligno along with a ton of dead cap space over the years. Sweeney had to give up first round picks to get out from under the contracts for both Beleskey and Backes, yet another damaging development that wasn’t Cassidy’s fault either. But the one area where the Boston Bruins clearly felt a coaching change was needed was in the messaging, tone and style of delivery coming from behind the bench.
It’s no secret that DeBrusk and Cassidy didn’t see eye-to-eye to the point that the left winger publicly requested a trade in the middle of last season after one final healthy scratch rubbed the youngster the wrong way. Anton Blidh publicly griped about his role following this season after he was essentially benched down the stretch after a slashing tirade at the end of an April road game in Detroit that earned him 12 penalty minutes.
Cassidy was fuming after the loss to the Red Wings and Blidh played just one game the rest of the season, the meaningless final regular season game vs. the Maple Leafs in Toronto when a handful of the regulars stayed back in Boston.
Likewise, Trent Frederic was benched on numerous occasions in each of the last two seasons after taking penalties and admitted after this season that he doesn’t really understand where “the line” is for discipline. Admittedly, it’s a nigh impossible way for a young, physical player to thrive at the NHL level when he becomes gun-shy about the gritty style of play that the hockey team needs out of him to be effective.
There were even some interesting comments about Cassidy from David Krejci out of the Czech Republic after he noticed his buddy David Pastrnak was playing on the second line this past season when it rarely happened while the Czech playmaker was with the Black and Gold.
It would seem there were Boston Bruins players, both young and old, that didn’t necessarily respond the way they once did to Cassidy’s methods, a theme that was visited over and over again by Sweeney while explaining his decision.
“The coach has to have the communication skills to be able to bridge that gap with older and younger players. I think that’s paramount now with integration. As I said, in a perfect world, all players are overcooked or overbaked. Kenny Holland and my [general manager] peer group have used that terminology. We won’t be any different,” said Sweeney. “You’ve asked me about the Lysells of the world. Only when they’re ready. I mean, David Pastrnak is a great example of that a number of years ago. We didn’t necessarily believe he was ready, but he came in and scored against Philadelphia and next thing you know, he’s in our lineup for the rest of the year and impactful moving forward.
“Those will be the challenges that we try and find the balance of development and an infusion of talent, and the new coach is going to have to be able to communicate and bridge that gap from the older players, communicating with them and holding them to a standard that I think we all feel is necessary. And in this town, it is necessary to hold a team to a competitive standard. That coach has to walk that walk.”
Even some of the broadcasters around the team circled the wagons to the theme that the players had tuned out the coach.
From my NHL experience, there is a long list of coaches that were popular with the media and fans but not as popular with the Players.
— Andrew Raycroft (@AndrewRaycroft) June 7, 2022
One thing that Andrew Raycroft should ask himself: How many NHL head coaches that were popular with the players have actually won anything worth a damn at the NHL level?
The answer: Not too many at all.
There had been rumblings that it was more about a disconnect between many of the young players and Cassidy. Certainly, Jack Studnicka’s development has been stuck in neutral, and other high-profile prospects like Urho Vaakanainen, Senyshyn and Jakub Zboril haven’t exactly flourished in the Boston development pipeline. There were others like Danton Heinen, Ryan Donato and Frank Vatrano that never really flourished under Cassidy before moving on to other NHL destinations as well.
But Sweeney was quick to point out that he felt the “message” from the coaching staff wasn’t getting through adequately to both young players and to the veterans as well.
“Young or old, I think there is a message delivery that I think a new voice will resonate with them,” said Sweeney. “I felt that both the message and how it was being delivered and more importantly maybe how it was being received, you know, young and old and that’s where I reference both younger and older players and taking ownership of it as I would, and I do with where our roster’s at and the changes that I ultimately have to make. I think the players you know felt they were very well prepared but at times, young and old, they struggled, and sometimes that’s the voice that’s in their head and I think, ultimately, I had to make a decision that takes us in a different path.”
The Boston Bruins are definitely going to venture out into a different path.
It will be less “old school” and more geared toward the millennial player crowd with positive reinforcement and hockey hugs from coaches like Seattle Kraken assistant Jay Leach, Providence College coach Nate Leaman and former BU and Rangers head coach David Quinn. All have significant ties to the Boston Bruins organization and players in the B’s dressing room, and the hope is that can spur better performances out of young players that are quickly going to inherit this hockey team from Bergeron, Marchand and the remaining old guard.
One thing is for sure: If this “different path” doesn’t work out then the Boston Bruins front office will be running out of convenient scapegoats for a hockey club producing diminishing returns with each passing season.