The decision to fire Bruce Cassidy, the league’s third-most successful coach since taking over behind the Boston bench in Feb. 2017, was certainly a choice.
Whether or not it was the right one made by Bruins general manager Don Sweeney remains to be seen. (And it probably won’t be answered by this time next year, if we’re being honest.) But moving on from a coach like Cassidy, who had qualified for the playoffs all six seasons on the job (and advanced out of the first round in four of those six years), really only comes with a simple question… just what are the Bruins looking for when it comes to his replacement in Boston?
“I just felt that the messaging and voice that was going to be required, I felt we needed a new direction,” Sweeney said after firing Cassidy last week. “I had met with the coaching staff like I normally do to go over not only the year and their feeling of where our team was and what we were capable of achieving.
“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.”
Read between the lines and the Bruins want a gentler touch. Cassidy’s brutally honest approach was excellent at holding players accountable and to the standard that any Stanley Cup contender should have, but the delivery sometimes soured players. The Bruins also ‘warned’ Cassidy about what his honest-but-vocal style could do to players. For guys like Jake DeBrusk, Jack Studnicka, Anton Blidh, and others, the frustrations were there or have been there. Even Nick Foligno seemed to take issue with his deployment, and he’s one of the oldest players on the team.
And given where the Bruins are trending — the organization stressed the need to integrate more young players into their NHL rotation at the end of the season — that communication style can leave no gray areas.
“The coach has to have the communication skills to be able to bridge that gap with older and younger players,” Sweeney hammered home. “I think that’s paramount now with integration. As I said, in a perfect world, all players are overcooked or over-baked. Kenny Holland and my peer group have used that terminology. And we won’t be any different. But I go back, you’ve asked me about the [Fabian] Lysells of the world [jumping to the NHL]. 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 older players, communicating with them and holding them to a standard that I think we all feel is necessary.”
This, to me, trends towards a younger coach. Or, at the very least, coaches with extensive experience in developmental programs, such as the AHL or college ranks. Maybe even a coach from the Canadian juniors ranks if they’re strong enough.
That would see the Bruins join in on what’s been a league trend. Of the last seven head coaches either hired or promoted, two had recent AHL runs (the Oilers’ Jay Woodcroft and Chicago’s Derek King), while Arizona’s Andre Tourigny came from the junior ranks. Most have trended younger, too, with Tourigny just 48, along with the Panthers’ Andrew Brunette (48), Montreal’s Marty St. Louis (46), and Woodcroft (45) all under 50 years old as well.
Does it have to be someone under 50? No, probably not. But, according to the Bruins, it has to be someone who they feel can evolve as the situation and game sees fit.
“As far as evolving, I think [Cassidy’s] confidence as a head coach and the messaging that he wants to deliver, I think is exactly as he wants it to be,” Sweeney noted. “Has it changed with the group that’s still here and is it as effective with the group that’s here? That was my determination. Not as effective as it was. Doesn’t mean it’s going to be less effective somewhere else. Because I do believe he’s a good coach and is going to have a similar winning percentage elsewhere.”
There’s also been talk of what the Bruins want to see changed from a systems point of view. Sweeney (like Cassidy, oddly enough), wants to see his defense activate more than it has. The Bruins also want to be a more possession-oriented team than a rush team. They feel that their inability to create anything other than rush chances has been their downfall against sturdier teams in the postseason. The Bruins are open to a ‘trade-off’ when it comes to what these changes mean at one end of the ice, but so long as it doesn’t compromise the entire structure of their foundation.
“I’m still going to be a process-driven and a structure guy. We’ve been an upper echelon power play and penalty killing team. I think that needs to remain. You’re seeing that rear its head in the playoffs. You watch Florida have a ridiculously good power play during the regular season and it sputtered in the playoffs, and it probably cost them a little bit,” Sweeney said. “So, I think those are difference makers as you’re going along. Again, I don’t dictate how the refereeing is going to go but I think you’re seeing a trend in that area that special teams are certainly playing a big part of it and the goaltending is going to be a part of it.”
(On the special teams front, it’s certainly worth mentioning that all four of the teams in the NHL’s final four this postseason ranked in the top half of playoff power-play percentage, and three of the four teams ranked in the top half in penalty killing. The Bruins, meanwhile, ranked just outside the top eight on the power play, but were solid on the kill.
The Bruins’ in-season analytics as one of the best teams at limiting chances also gave them reason for hope entering the playoffs, so it’s hard to see why they’d view it as part of the teardown process after a Game 7 loss.
So, for the Bruins, it seems to be about tweaks and communication more than anything else.
“I think the structure of our hockey club will remain,” Sweeney offered. “You watch Edmonton and Colorado get up and down the ice, it’s a talent-driven league. But structure, how you can defend – you look at Tampa and all the success they’ve had. We’re a good club. You’re in the top part of the league for a reason. Sometimes it just depends on where you are in your cycle. Teams have been in a position. It’s the first time Colorado has been in the Stanley Cup Final for 20 years. Joe [Sakic] has done a hell of a job. Chris [MacFarland] and Craig Billington, they’ve got themselves at the doorstep. And other teams are in a similar fashion. We’ve been a team that’s been very competitive, and I want to continue to do that.
“In this town, it is necessary to hold a team to a competitive standard. That coach has to walk that walk.”
As for who it is walking that walk for the Bruins, the B’s have cast their net wide.
Now comes — what else? — communicating.