By Dylan Botelho, Contributing Writer
It was just a matter of time before Bruins management fired long-time coach Claude Julien. On February 7, the deed was done.
Julien was formerly the NHL’s longest tenured coach, with nine and a half seasons behind the bench for Boston. Although Bruins’ management believed the move had to be made, it was not without scrutiny from media and fans alike. Many believed it wasn’t the right move, as Julien was arguably the greatest Bruins head-coach of all time. It seemed impossible that the Bruins could do any better without him.
Enter in, Bruce Cassidy. Bruins General Manager, Don Sweeney is fond of his “own guys.”
As the former General Manager of Boston’s AHL affiliate, the Providence Bruins, Sweeney knows the struggle and patience it takes to move up from the minor-leagues to the big show. So, instead of hiring outside the organization, Sweeney decided to promote former Providence head-coach and first year Bruins assistant coach, Bruce Cassidy to serve as interim head-coach in Boston.
Not one person gave Cassidy a chance, and why should they? Sweeney’s time as GM has been riddled with awful moves and fans have watched the team fall from a President’s Trophy winner and perennial Stanley Cup contender, to a fringe playoff team with the likes of Philadelphia and Florida.
Cassidy however did have NHL experience with the Washington Capitals, one that did not leave him with the best reputation. Cassidy coached the Capitals to 47-45-9-6 record in his two seasons there (he was fired 25 games into his second season). In his last season with the Capitals, the team went on to finishing with the second worst record in the league, earning them the first overall pick in the 2004 NHL draft. Who’d they select you ask? Just some young Russian named Alex Ovechkin.
In Cassidy’s defense, he was young and inexperienced. Cassidy was only 37 when appointed head-coach of the Capitals back in 2002, the league’s second youngest coach.
With no prior experience coaching at any level, the Washington Post put it best in their 2003 headline, “A Young Hire, Plagued by Inexperience from the Start.”
Relative to Boston, Cassidy did not have high-expectations. As an interim head-coach, Cassidy would have been shipped back off to Providence if the team didn’t feel he was the right fit. If he failed extraordinarily, it’s likely the blame would have gone straight to Don Sweeney, who many feel is utterly incompetent. When we look back at his decisions however, hiring Cassidy may be his most important – and best yet.
The Boston Bruins are 8-2 since Cassidy took over as head-coach with their only losses coming at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks and New York Rangers. For comparison, the Bruins were 4-6 in their last 10 games under Claude Julien. The Bruins have turned their game around – and turned QUICK – since Cassidy has taken the reigns.
It hasn’t just been a matter of an increase in goal production, the team has a clear confidence and drive to them that hasn’t been there the last few seasons. The Bruins were a tough a team to play against and they thrived on teams knowing that. They came into every game expecting to win during their peak years in 2011 through 2015. That may be the most important factor that was missing from recent teams. Somehow, someway, Bruce
Cassidy has harnessed that ambition and the big, bad, Bruins seem to be back.
The confidence instilled in the Bruins starts from the top down. At age 51, Cassidy has been given ample time to improve his coaching ability. He has clearly learned from his mistakes in Washington and sculpted his style over the years while in Providence. The Bruins captains and elite players have also upped their game, as we finally expected. Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, and Krug are all averaging at least a point-per-game since Cassidy took over.
Under Julien, the Bruins offense was ranked 22nd in the NHL with 2.56 goals per game, under the league average. In the 10 games under Cassidy however, the Bruins offense ranks 2nd in that span, averaging a whopping 4.14 goals per game. This is thanks solely to confidence and accountability trickled down through every player who laces his skates.
Whether it’s seasoned veterans or young guns, everyone has been giving it their all.
Cassidy’s implication of the Bruin’s younger players has been crucial to his success. Frank Vatrano, Ryan Spooner, and Brandon Carlo have potential to be stars in the league; yet, they often felt under-utilized by Claude Julien and his system.
Vatrano and Spooner have both been very outspoken on their relationship with Julien, which has earned them some criticism from those who think opinions should be kept in private. “I felt like the last coach, he just didn’t really trust me,” Spooner said. “It might’ve been kind of on me not really playing to the potential that I have, but at the same time I just don’t think that he really liked me as a player. It’s kind of in the past now.”
Vatrano then touched on the matter when asked about Spooner’s comments later that week on 98.5’s Toucher & Rich adding, “For me, I didn’t have the best relationship with Claude, but that comes with time. Obviously now with Butch [Cassidy] here I have a good relationship with him, having been with him last year.”
Spooner and Vatrano have both been two of the best recipients of playing for a coach who, allegedly, likes them better than the last (once more: allegedly). In his last 10 games, Spooner has tallied 7 points, just over 20 percent of his total points this season. Vatrano on the other hand, has seen a drastic increase. Although his season has been hindered by injuries, in 31 games this season Vatrano has scored 17 points. In just his last 10, Vatrano has scored eight – yes count them – eight points, practically half of his points for the season!
Although it has been a small sample size so far for Cassidy, the Bruins look to be on the right track. Currently the NHL’s hottest team, this boost of energy could not have come at a better time. With time left in the regular season dwindling down and the playoff hunt commencing, the Bruins will need to stay hot. The battle for the third and wild-card seeds in the Atlantic Division are as wide open as ever. Teams 2 through 5 are all within 5 points of each other in the standings, and it’s likely only two of those teams will make it through to the post-season. Once the Stanley Cup playoffs begin, anything can happen. The Bruins may just surprise the world, and make one more run.