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Haggs: Bruins Fans, Media Dead Wrong on Coaching Change



Boston Bruins

SUNRISE, FL – It’s time for Boston Bruins fans to admit they were completely wrong this summer.

There was an almost universal torching of Bruins management a few months ago when the decision was made to make a stunning change at the head coaching position, dropping successful head coach Bruce Cassidy without a hand-picked successor in place and ready to go.

The media was pretty well-aligned in frothy criticism for the Bruins as well, with some much more pointed in haranguing the Black and Gold than others.

Full disclosure: Boston Hockey Now had their doubts about the firing as well based more on the team’s performance rather than the players having tuned Cassidy out.

Combined with the early season absences of Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy, the Boston Bruins expectations bar was lowered significantly with the feeling that they were stepping back no who matter who was at the helm.

Welp, everybody spouting the conventional wisdom was wrong and the Boston Bruins were right when it came to firing Bruce Cassidy and bringing in Jim Montgomery to coach this B’s group. It’s inarguably obvious in the performance on the ice as the Bruins have roared out to a 17-2-0 start to the season while setting franchise records, and it’s just as clear in the way the system, the vibe and the culture adjustment has allowed many players to flourish over the last few months.

Some of it is X’s and O’s like using the weak-side defenseman more to break the puck out of the defensive zone, or having an overall philosophy of quality over quantity with shots on net from the forwards.

“We have, I think, 8 forwards in the top-3 lines that we’re going to mix and match throughout the year. Charlie Coyle, you’ve seen me use him on the right wing and as second-line center at times to close out games especially,” said Montgomery. “I think it’s reps upon reps of us being comfortable hanging onto the puck in O-zone play. The movement that comes along with it and trusting that the other four guys’ jobs is to get open for the guy with the puck, and the person with the puck’s job is to make good decisions with it.

“So, turnovers happen. The person I’m going to hold accountable is the person holding the puck because we should always know where our outs are and know where our options are aside from shooting the puck at the net.”

It’s been well-documented that Nick Foligno chafed at Cassidy’s mercilessly critical style last season when it came to challenging players and oft-times calling them out, and it played out in his performance on the ice. Some of it was Foligno battling through injuries to finish with two goals in 64 games, but it feels like even more of it was about the plain need for a coaching change.

At this point, Foligno is on pace for 17 goals and 47 points this season and has been a critical piece as a net-front presence and glue dressing room guy constantly making good plays on the ice. It was Foligno’s power play goal at the net-front on a rebound score in Monday night’s game vs. the Lightning that snapped the B’s out of their first period funk and led to a second period explosion that ultimately carried them to victory.

That it came after Foligno had taken three or four stitches after getting hit in the chin with a puck earlier that morning just added to it all.

“It’s unreal. He’s another guy that’s been a captain this league for a long time and you can see why,” said Montgomery. “He’s really dedicated to the team, and he relishes his role where he really helps out on the power play, he helps us 5-on-5 and he helps our grind game and our puck possession game. It’s nice to him getting rewarded.”

But it’s not just Foligno.

Look at the way Connor Clifton has played in the first few months. Many pointed to Brandon Carlo as a player that might really blossom with the coaching change, but it’s been Clifton that’s reached his potential with a coaching staff encouraging him to take calculated risks, play his game and be a player that will impact the game physically and at the offensive end on occasion.

That Clifton is playing this well this season after taking about going through emotional low points last season should let anybody know that the coaching change has done wonders for his game.

And Jake DeBrusk has been consistently strong this season as well for the Boston Bruins after being the most obvious player enduring Cassidy issues after requesting a trade in the middle of last season. DeBrusk is actually on pace for the first 30-goal season of his career and has largely played with the kind of speed, second effort and all-around game that was missing in the last few years.

The Boston Bruins are raving about the tweaks to the system they’re playing and how it’s factored into being the only NHL team still averaging over four goals per season. What they aren’t saying is how much better it’s working than what they were doing last season.

“I think that’s what’s so great about (head coach Jim Montgomery’s) system is it’s so fast but predictable, and I think we really enjoy playing in it,” said Foligno last week when trying to explain why the Bruins offense has really taken it up a notch this season. “I think it’s tailored to a lot of guys in the room, and I think we feel that when we are playing, we know where guys are supposed to be.

“You can kind of have that sixth sense. It’s dangerous because we’re playing with so much speed, too. And so, when those guys are in the right spots, it makes it really hard on other teams, and I think you’re seeing that right now.”

There are even those that wonder if David Krejci’s return is linked to the change in head coach, though the playmaking center has denied that even as he’s been a massive difference-maker this season back as the No. 2 center for the Boston Bruins.

One obvious area where the Boston Bruins are vastly different this season?

In the past few years, the talk and focus seemed to always be about the Perfection Line, the power play and Boston’s best players while other supporting players struggled to produce secondary offense and scoring diversity.

This season there have been 19 different goal-scorers for the Boston Bruins leading into Thanksgiving, and there’s been a clear culture focus on the whole team being greater than the sum of its parts. The B’s fourth line was given the starting assignment in each of the first two regular season games this season when it was usually a foregone conclusion the Boston Bruins were starting the Perfection Line over the last few seasons.

Shotblocking, stay-at-home defenseman Derek Forbort was singled out in the first few days of training camp as a player that stood out, a nod to what Boston’s unheralded players bring to Boston’s table. This all seemed to be by design from Montgomery for a hockey team that he knew had their heads screwed on straight.

“We have great leaders. It’s that simple,” said Boston Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery. “It’s such a luxury to not have to go and warn the team about ‘let’s not get caught up and read our press clippings.’ Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, Krejci, McAvoy…it goes on and on, Foligno. There’s an army of leaders and I have obviously said this before: We have the best captain in all of sports [in Patrice Bergeron].”

In the last few seasons, the Bruins could go weeks without using the 13th forward or 7th defensemen as those reserve players could gather rust in the press box watching games and waiting for injuries to open a spot.

This season those kinds of spare players aren’t going more than a week or two without getting into the lineup as it’s been a clear point of emphasis to keep everybody involved in the team concept.

Some of these things might seem slight or insignificant, but they are mighty important when it comes to building a proper, successful hockey team where everybody is at their best and contributing to the greater good. All these subtle things have greatly improved a Boston Bruins team that won 51 games last season and is now being looked at as one of the NHL’s best teams. Boston Bruins fans wondered who could possibly succeed a fired Claude Julien six years ago when he was embattled, and Bruce Cassidy proved to be the exact right guy at the right time.

Now Montgomery has done the same in a situation where Bruins fans couldn’t imagine anybody would be a better choice than Cassidy.  Boston Bruins management doesn’t bat 1.000 as the Mitchell Miller debacle of the last few weeks would attest to, but credit where it’s due.

The Boston Bruins nailed the hiring of Jim Montgomery as their new head coach this summer, and everybody owes them a massive mea culpa even if the message won’t ever get received at the B’s home office.

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