BOSTON – Bruce Cassidy made just a passing mention of the 14 years in between NHL head coaching gigs, but there’s no doubt the newest head coach of the Bruins thought many times about a day just like Thursday morning.
His general manager complimented the work he did to lead the Bruins to an 18-8-1 record after taking over after Claude Julien’s dismissal and guiding the Bruins back to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
“I think it was an important step and I think that our players, our core players in particular, some of them had tremendous seasons. Their demand to make sure our younger players sort of catch up and play the right way – we pushed the group,” said GM Don Sweeney. “I think Bruce, in particular, our staff and Bruce, they really pushed the group to get to a higher pace. I think our aggressive nature churned.
“I think something that I felt would be injected into our group right from Day One at practice because I know what his core principles are, and I think the group responded. The record speaks for itself.”
Cassidy embraced all of the defensive strengths of Julien’s existing system and tweaked things for chances to be more aggressive and creative in the offensive zone with a Black and Gold roster that clearly had more to give.
Clearly, it came up short for Sweeney, Cassidy and the Bruins when their undermanned, injured roster fell to the Ottawa Senators in six games in the first round of the playoffs, but Thursday morning was a good day for the 51-year-old Cassidy after grinding his way back to the big leagues.
“I’ve made no secret that I grew up adoring this team and I’m very proud, honored, and privileged to be a part of it, and to be named the head coach [of the Bruins],” said Cassidy, who coached the Washington Capitals from 2002-04 and spent eight seasons coaching in Providence before joining Julien’s staff as an assistant coach this season. “To be quite honest, the core group, the veteran leadership, they gave me an opportunity to go in and earn their respect, and they bought into what we were selling for the most part…not for the most part, 100 percent.
“The veteran guys, they afforded me that opportunity and I can’t thank them enough. We’ve got some Stanley Cup champions in that room and it showed with the high character players and I was very thankful for that. From there, we’re trying to build something together now. That’s the process going forward.”
The numbers certainly didn’t lie. The offense went up in the post-Julien era and the defense actually performed better under Cassidy: The Bruins ranked first in the NHL in goals per game (3.37), first in the NHL in fewest shots allowed (741), tied for second in the NHL in wins (18), tied for second in the NHL in power-play percentage (27.8), tied for third in the NHL in goals allowed per game (2.30), tied for fifth in the NHL in face-off percentage (53.6) and tied for sixth in the NHL in takeaways (229).
Anecdotally, the Bruins also performed much more consistently on their home ice at TD Garden and pulled out of the kind of late season four-game losing tailspin that doomed the B’s in the previous two seasons under Julien. It was a challenge for Cassidy taking over midway through the season without the benefit of the training camp, but it was one that embraced and ultimately excelled at in earning the full-time gig.
“It’s hard to measure the degree of difficulty [taking over midseason]. You’re given an opportunity and it’s up to you to take advantage of it and be prepared. I’ve been a head coach before so, once you’re into that part of it, it becomes second nature. I was around since training camp, so I knew the players and some of their strengths and weaknesses, how we played, where I thought we could be better, where the players were looking for improvements after talking to them quickly in those first couple of days. So, we implemented a couple of things, and off we went,” said Cassidy. “You hope that you make the right call in those areas we talked about; right away, about being a team that would play – and the term “play fast” is getting thrown around a lot out there -- but, we were going to upgrade our transition game; how we were going to move the puck quicker and attack.
“I guess that was our description of playing fast. I think it worked. It got our D involved, so you start scoring and obviously, that helped. People get excited about that – scoring goals and getting on offense. I don’t think we lost a lot on the defensive side of things. As we went along, we tried to maintain that balance. That was the message right away. Players bought in and we had success, and that obviously helps. Winning solves a lot of problems and puts a lot of smiles on people’s faces.”
The biggest smile on a face on Thursday morning was on Cassidy, who has come full circle with life experience and a second chance to be the kind of NHL head coach he always knew he could be while working, growing and succeeding in the AHL. Now the Bruins have a president, GM and head coach all working in tandem with the same philosophies and world view when it comes to how their team should play and Cassidy gets another chance to prove how ready he is for the challenge of making good on his second NHL chance.