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Bruce Cassidy's success forced Bruins to make him full-time coach

by: Ty Anderson on Wed, 04/26/2017 - 1:43pm

Bruce Cassidy went 18-8-1 as the interim head coach of the Bruins. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)It took 27 regular season games and a six-game playoff series, but finally, the ‘interim’ tag has been dropped from Bruce Cassidy’s title and he is now officially the 28th coach in the franchise’s history. It seemed like the obvious move given the team’s success under Cassidy versus their general, did-not-qualify despondency regularly displayed by the club (and even by their best players) in Claude Julien’s 10th season behind the bench.

And really, my only question is: Why did this take so long?

In his first NHL head coaching gig since 2003, when he was unceremoniously ousted by a Capitals group that straight-up hated him by the end of it (and he was there for just two seasons), Cassidy essentially forced the B’s to make him full-time. 

First, he was not the disaster that he very well could have been given the state of the roster, which just days before Julien's axing said that they still believed in their coach, and Cassidy's own aforementioned and forgettable-yet-unforgettable past in his last NHL stint.

But Cassidy was more than a spark that faded down the stretch like Doug Weight did with the Islanders. He was more than a fill-in that took over a stacked roster like Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh a year ago. And his success came in little steps that ultimately led the club to big steps out of the doldrums that made them borderline irrelevant for two straight years.

“It’s always tough to lose a coach in the middle of the year. It’s my first time I’ve ever gone through it during the season in my pro career. But I’ve seen it happen before and it is tough,” Brad Marchand, one of the players most visibly upset by Julien’s firing in February, said. “It’s a tough change on the guys in the room, but they all did a really good job as a unit working together without changing too much – they didn’t make it hard on us by changing the whole system, they just incorporated a couple little things and allowed us to play our game and we saw that it worked on the stretch.”

Under Cassidy, the Bruins went 18-8-1, and fixed almost all of their issues while also remaining true to the strengths of the team. When Cassidy took over, the Bruins were just 12-13-0 at home. That ranked as the third-worst mark in the NHL, and their 29-31-6 home record since the start of the 2015 season was also the third-worst in the NHL. It was one of the biggest issues that Cassidy mentioned needed fixing in his introductory press conference, and he delivered, with an 11-4-1 home record to close out the season, which ranked as the third-best in the NHL over that span. Cassidy also stopped trying to force chemistry that simply wasn’t there (David Backes and David Krejci, Ryan Spooner as a winger), and focused on balancing an undeniably top-heavy forward corps the best he could. Meanwhile, the Bruins still excelled in their special teams game and their goaltending returned to where it’s been when the team has been at its best, and most of all, Cassidy garnered the respect of a veteran-heavy locker room. 

“We obviously had some success with [Bruce Cassidy] and it shows with the way that we played,” Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, who finished this season with a career-best 51 points, said. “The guys were excited to play for him. I think the guys in this room would echo that same message.”

But back to the original question, why did it take the season’s end to make this official? 

Well, for one, it would not make a ton of sense for the Bruins to eliminate their options before they had to. Who’s to say Mike Babcock didn’t have a massive falling out with the Maple Leafs and decided he wanted out? Or that Joel Quenneville said that winning in Chicago was getting old and that he wanted to go somewhere new, right? These things obviously did not happen, but the Bruins waiting for those sort of things to play out seemed like the right call. That looks especially true when you look back at how the Bruins did not do that with Julien in either of those years where he was ‘on the hot seat’ and how they almost seemed forced to keep Julien around because they did not want to lose him without a viable replacement available if they did indeed fire him but then swing and miss on an upgrade. I’m also not sure how many better options were truly out there for the Bruins this summer. 

And under Cassidy, the expectations were set -- fair or unfair -- for a potential replacement. 

With 18 wins in 27 games, Cassidy’s full-season pace would be 55 wins and 112 points. Of course, you can say that Cassidy experienced a great deal of luck during his 27-game sample (the Bruins saw their five-on-five shooting percentage go up nearly three percentage points while their save percentage increased by a staggering .021 percentage points under Cassidy from where it was under Julien) -- and that you can’t realistically expect this team to be a 50-win or 110-plus point group. But the overall record did not lie, and it would be unfair to hold a hypothetical slump or dip against what he was able to tangibly accomplish with this roster, and with little to no breathing room in a playoff race.

They were the results that Cassidy needed to deliver in order to make the Julien firing worth it.

I think you could make the case that Cassidy’s overall message and desired pace of play is where the Bruins need to go if they’re to keep up with an Atlantic Division (and entire NHL, for that matter) that is getting faster and more aggressive with each passing draft of babyfaced, highly-skilled burners, too.

“It was kind of a new scene and stuff when you have a new coach, so, we wanted to make the playoffs, and obviously Butchy wanted us to, everyone here wanted to be in the playoffs, so I think we played a more aggressive game, and I think it ended up good for us at the end,” B’s winger Frank Vatrano said. “When you’re playing more aggressive, you’re not really playing on your heels, you’re playing on your toes the whole time. It helps, and I think that’s what we did down the stretch.”

And the players, from the top-liners to the healthy scratches, from the ace to the backup, bought in. 

“We were more unified I think going down the stretch,” Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid, who suited up for a career-high 77 games and put up his first double-digit point season in five years, said. “[Bruce Cassidy] did a great job. He came in and didn’t change a whole, whole lot. But, [he] just put a good feeling in the room and a confidence, I think, and it helped a lot.”

It’s a good feeling and confidence that the Bruins hope becomes full-time with Bruce.