With former Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy scheduled for his first visit to TD Garden for a game on Monday night, the questions were already starting to come this weekend. With the reports abounding that Cassidy’s message wasn’t getting through to the players anymore and that a number of younger skaters chafed under his old school, hardline approach, it was time to check in with some of them as many players that struggled last season are blossoming under the approach of new head coach Jim Montgomery.
The most obvious example is obviously Jake DeBrusk, who infamously requested a trade last season while struggling to maintain his role under Cassidy. It ended well with DeBrusk topping 20 goals for the first time in three seasons while securing a role on Boston’s top line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron and the 26-year-old winger rescinded his trade request once Cassidy was relieved of his head coaching duties this summer.
There were others that seem to be thriving after the coaching change, of course. Connor Clifton is enjoying his best NHL season with the threat of being a healthy scratch removed from the back of his mind, and Nick Foligno has been outstanding on and off the ice after he also reportedly clashed with Cassidy about his role on last year’s team.
Certainly, Bruce Cassidy admitted he learned from the situation even as it’s extremely difficult to argue with the won-loss success he had in Boston during his five plus seasons running the Black and Gold bench prior to his dismissal.
They all freely admitted that there’s a different feeling around the Boston Bruins dressing room this season even as the players remain mostly the same.
“It’s resonating with a lot of guys honestly,” said Clifton, of the “focus on the process” message that Montgomery has been preaching since the start of training camp. “A lot of people are playing really well, and we’ve come together. We quickly learned this year the way that we work and the way that we work together. We still had a great team last year. A lot of similarities with the players, but I think from the start of the camp we’ve continually built and keep getting better each night.
“There is a different feeling [this season]. Obviously, it’s a special group. But as to what, I’m not too sure. We’re rallying around the same goal, and it’s been working for us.”
Certainly, the young winger didn’t enjoy being critiqued publicly by Cassidy during his time in Boston, but that’s probably only part of a story of a player like DeBrusk wanting out when he seemed otherwise content with being a member of the Boston Bruins. Fair or unfair, DeBrusk was the poster boy for last season’s discontent with Cassidy, so what does Monday night’s meeting with his former head coach mean to him?
“With the things [that happened] in the offseason, I obviously wanted to come in with a statement [with my play] under the new coach. With the injuries we had at the time I knew there was going to be opportunity and I wanted to take it,” said DeBrusk to Boston Hockey Now, who then was asked about Cassidy coming back to town. “It’s one of those things where it’s just another game. It’s probably going to be weird.
“It’s probably going to be weird for him as well. But we’re going to be looking at our process and how we’re going to be playing. It’s one of those things where we’re focused on what we’re doing in here. We’re just trying to keep climbing and climbing. It would be nice to keep the train going.”
So what’s the biggest difference feeling-wise for DeBrusk when comparing this season’s 20-3-0 start to last season when it felt like guys like him were disconnected in some form or fashion?
“I think we went through a lot as a team last year and I think that helps a lot. We obviously lost two guys in [Curtis Lazar] and [Erik Haula] and those are obviously two big losses,” said DeBrusk, to Boston Hockey Now. “But getting [David Krejci] back and obviously [Pavel] Zacha and a few other pieces that have filled in, they’ve just bought into what we do. I think it made our group tighter last year just in general. Coming in getting Krejci and Bergeron back was a good energy vibe, and then getting off to a good start always helps. It’s a completely different league when you’re going the other way. Having a good start was crucial for us, especially with the guys we had out. And having other guys pitch in.
“I think there’s probably five or six guys that are on pace for career years, so to see everybody have success is contagious. You’re happy for them and everybody is buying in, and obviously with a new coach it’s a different kind of look and vibe. It’s been working. That’s what we’re really happy about and we’ve been really pumped with the changes that have been made. Our record speaks for itself. It’s as early as you can get, but everybody thought we were going to be out of a playoff spot and nobody thought this was going to happen. But we have bigger goals. It’s about getting into the playoffs and going from there.”
Clearly, it’s a better vibe for DeBrusk and others this season with DeBrusk on pace for a career-best 29 goals and a 61-point pace that would shatter his previous season-best in his NHL career.
And as he said, the 20-3-0 record that’s taken the NHL by storm is speaking volumes even as Cassidy is off to a similarly excellent start preaching his accountability message with the Vegas Golden Knights. It all means that it could make for a really interesting game on Monday night when Cassidy comes back to the Boston Bruins in the strange role as visiting coach with the Golden Knights.