The Bruins hired Bruce Cassidy to take a young team to the next level.
Feeling he didn’t take it far enough, they fired him.
Cassidy was dismissed Monday, a little more than three weeks after a seven-game, first-round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The search for the franchise’s 29th head coach is on.
It adds to the most uncertain offseason in recent memory for the Bruins, who have a captain (Patrice Bergeron) who is mulling retirement, and a few key players (Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk) who will start next season sidelined after surgeries.
It also signals that the Bruins could be heading for a rebuild that emphasizes the growth of younger players rather than stars.
In their season-ending press conferences, general manager Don Sweeney and team president Cam Neely echoed each other in saying Cassidy needed to boost the club’s offense, which stagnated amid a fourth-place finish in the Atlantic Division (51-26-5) and first-round exit. They also noted Cassidy’s tough stances with young players caused friction.
“There is some of that. There’s no question, players being afraid to make mistakes,” Neely said last month. “Especially younger players. Because you hear about it. I was one of those players. I had to learn and grow. I heard about it, too, when I made mistakes as a younger player.
“You can’t worry about not getting back out there. I think that’s one of the things we have to change. When younger players make mistakes, they’re worried they’re not going to play the next game. Well, that game is still going on.”
In a press release, Sweeney said a “new voice” was needed behind the bench.
“After 14 years working with Bruce, this was an extremely difficult decision,” said Sweeney, who was the Bruins’ director of player development when Cassidy was hired as an AHL Providence assistant in 2008.
“After taking some time to fully digest everything, I felt that the direction of our team for both this season and beyond would benefit from a new voice. I want to wish Bruce, [wife] Julie [and children] Shannon and Cole much success as a family and with their future opportunities.”
Sweeney is expected to address the media in Brighton on Tuesday morning. Neely, who said last month a contract extension for his GM was in the works, has yet to announce that deal. On Monday he expressed “the utmost confidence in Don,” per the press release, “to conduct a thorough search to identify the best candidate that is going to help our team reach its full potential.”
Cassidy, 57, had one year left on a contract believed to be worth $3 million annually. It is unclear if assistants Kevin Dean, Joe Sacco, and Chris Kelly will be retained.
Cassidy, reached via text late Monday, declined to comment. “It’s still very raw,” he said.
The Bruins now enter the coaching market, which has experienced names like former Islanders coach Barry Trotz, ex-Columbus coach John Tortorella, ex-Arizona coach Rick Tocchet, ex-Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice, and former Bruins coach Claude Julien.
However, the Bruins seem more likely to bring in a coach who works with young players, such as ex-Providence coach Jay Leach, a Seattle assistant; his replacement in Providence, Ryan Mougenel; St. Louis assistant Jim Montgomery, the former Denver University and Dallas Stars head coach; ex-Rangers and BU coach David Quinn; or Providence College coach Nate Leaman. Another outside-the-box name of note: former Bruins winger Marco Sturm, a Kings assistant.
Cassidy, who replaced Julien late in the 2016-17 season, grew up a star defenseman in Ottawa, saw his promising NHL career derailed because of a knee injury, and worked his way through the minors to earn his first coaching job with the Capitals in 2002.
Turfed early in his second season in Washington, he authored a coaching comeback story after hooking on with the team he grew up rooting for in the days of Bobby Orr and the Big, Bad Bruins.
Hired as an AHL assistant under Rob Murray, Cassidy spent three seasons in that post before becoming Providence’s head coach from 2011-16. In eight years with Boston’s top farm club, Cassidy tutored many of the players who shined for the Bruins over the last decade-plus, including Tuukka Rask, Brad Marchand, Torey Krug, and David Pastrnak.
Cassidy was promoted to Julien’s assistant in the fall of 2016. After two years of postseason DNQs under Julien, the Bruins were 1 point out of a playoff spot when Sweeney fired Julien and replaced him with Cassidy on Feb. 7, 2017. They went 18-8-1 under Cassidy, finished third in the Atlantic, and lost in six games to the Senators.
Cassidy ends his 399-game run with the best regular-season winning percentage (.672, 245-108-46) of any Bruins coach who logged more than three seasons. The only coaches ahead of him: Tom Johnson (.738 from 1971-73), Bep Guidolin (.736 from 1973-74), and Cooney Weiland (.698 from 1940-41).
The Bruins did not miss the playoffs under Cassidy’s watch, made the second round four times, and took their 2018-19 season all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Cassidy won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year the following season, when the Bruins won the Presidents’ Trophy.
But the lack of a Stanley Cup — the franchise has one (2011) in the last 50 years — and a 36-37 playoff record are two more reasons Cassidy is now looking for a job.
At the January 2020 All-Star Game in St. Louis, Cassidy sat with a reporter and reflected about his road to his first All-Star experience.
“I would love — love — it if you look back and say, ‘Hey, that guy was a coach for the Bruins,’ and the Bruins fans say, ‘He did a pretty good job,’” Cassidy said. “Because that’s been my team my whole life.
“This whole story, to be able to make a comeback, and to do it with Boston? It’s a little surreal. It could have been 30 different teams. Why Boston?
“People believe in what they believe in, but maybe the hockey gods said, ‘OK, maybe we took a little away from him with some knee injuries and some lousy medical care, but we’re going to give a little something later on.’
“I believe that in life, you get out what you put in it. They probably thought, you know what, he worked hard, he coached the minor league team and did a decent job, let’s throw him a bone.
“I got an opportunity, I think I was ready for it, did a good job, and got rewarded. It’s that simple. Me and a lot of guys.”