The morning after firing coach Bruce Cassidy, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney acknowledged the possibility that the team could be heading for a rebuild.
The Bruins of 2022-23 will start the season without Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy, and Matt Grzelcyk (all coming off surgery) and could be reeling from the loss of Patrice Bergeron to retirement. They will be incorporating young players into their lineup. They do not expect to go all-out this summer to add in free agency. They don’t have much cap space.
What would prevent what Sweeney termed a “directional shift” would be youth stepping up, players returning well from injuries, and Bergeron sticking around.
When he spoke Tuesday morning, Sweeney had no clarity on the captain’s call. Bergeron, he said, was not asked to weigh in on Cassidy’s future.
“Our group, what we were able to accomplish during the bulk of the year, January, February, and March, is a good hockey team,” Sweeney said at Warrior Ice Arena. “That being said, with the injuries we have, where the players come back health-wise, that could dictate that [rebuild decision]. The start we get off to may dictate that.
“We’re a competitive group and we’re going to remain a competitive group, but we may need to infuse [younger players] at some point in time. You have injuries and things that catch up to you, that you just can’t get out from under, that’s a problem. The Bergeron [decision] … could be a directional shift.”
Cassidy made the playoffs in each of his six seasons, reaching the second round four times and the Stanley Cup Final once. But the messaging got stale, Sweeney said.
When reached late Monday by the Globe via text, Cassidy declined to comment, noting that emotions were “still very raw.” Sweeney said both sides were left feeling unhappy.
“Not well,” Sweeney said. “As I didn’t in delivering [the news]. I sat there and said I’m the same guy that six years ago sat with you to believe in you, and I sat there yesterday believing in him as an excellent head coach. I just made a very difficult decision.”
Tougher decisions lie ahead for Sweeney, who enters his seventh season as GM.
During his news conference, he referenced several times his first season on the job, the summer of 2015, when he moved out mainstays Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton and recouped draft picks amid two years of playoff DNQs. Sweeney wound up with three first-round draft picks, and six in the first two rounds, in 2015. They iced a young lineup that fall that included an 18-year-old David Pastrnak.
This year, the Bruins do not have a first-round pick, having shipped it to Anaheim in the Hampus Lindholm trade along with second-rounders in 2023 and 2024. Players such as Jack Studnicka, Oskar Steen, Jakub Zboril, and 2021 draftee Fabian Lysell could dress on opening night. Several players with expiring contracts — Craig Smith, Erik Haula, Tomas Nosek, Trent Frederic, Connor Clifton — could be on the move if the Bruins do not succeed in the first half.
“I’d certainly like to add from a futures standpoint and be much deeper and stocked,” Sweeney said. “Chances are if you’ve been a team that’s been looking to win and be competitive every year for 15 or so years, you’re going to sacrifice some things and there’s going to be a tradeoff.”
There’s also the matter of Pastrnak, who is entering the final year of his deal and could bring back a massive haul. Sweeney has said several times he wants to keep the superstar winger here. Whether Pastrnak wants the same is to be determined; he said last month he hadn’t yet considered a contract extension.
In elaborating on Cassidy’s dismissal, Sweeney emphasized the need for a new voice and new messaging for a club in transition.
“I felt both the message and how it was being delivered, and more importantly maybe how it was being received, young and old … players felt they were very well prepared, but young and old, at times, they struggled,” Sweeney said. “Sometimes that’s the voice in their head.”
Sweeney said he had a list of candidates, and the search would “take some time.”
“The [new] coach has to have the communication skills to be able to bridge that gap with older and younger players,” Sweeney said. “In a perfect world, all the players are overcooked, overbaked.”
Asked if Cassidy was too firm in his ways, Sweeney did not deny it.
“I think his confidence as a head coach and the messaging that he wants to deliver is exactly as he wants it to be,” Sweeney said. “Has it changed with the group that’s still here, is it as effective with the group that’s still here? That was my determination: not as effective as it was.
“But that doesn’t mean it won’t be effective somewhere else. I think he’s a good coach and he’s going to have a similar winning percentage elsewhere.”
Sweeney also seemed to contradict himself by denying that Cassidy had lost the room. Players are “not driving the bus,” he said, in terms of making coaching decisions.
“You don’t go out and get 107 points, win 51 games, if players aren’t responding to you,” Sweeney said. “He was able to push the buttons that were necessary. But it takes its toll over the course of time. You’ve got to find a way to deliver that message a little differently, the personnel changes, and you cycle it out.”
Assistant coaches Chris Kelly and Joe Sacco are under contract, and could be kept around by the new coach. The future of goaltending coach Bob Essensa is unclear. Sweeney said Cassidy had already decided not to retain assistant Kevin Dean, with whom he had “a little friction,” the GM said, in recent years.
Sweeney’s own contract remains unsettled, but he said it will get done.
He acknowledged that Cassidy — frank, cordial, and a lifelong Bruins supporter — was a popular coach with fans. He said Claude Julien, whom he fired in 2017, also was popular.
“We haven’t won,” Sweeney said. “That’s why I stand up here today trying to make the necessary changes, and I will. And If I don’t, somebody else will be standing up here.”
Sweeney said he does not anticipate using the buyout option, which could cut Nick Foligno’s $3.8 million salary-cap hit. “Not today,” Sweeney said. “Could change.” … The GM said he has not spoken with David Krejci but has had discussions with Krejci’s camp. He expects to communicate with Krejci in the coming weeks … The Bruins signed German defenseman Kai Wissmann to a one-year NHL contract worth $825,000. Wissmann, 25, is listed at 6 feet 4 inches and 207 pounds. He put up 4-16—20 in 55 games for Eisbären Berlin in the German DEL, his ninth year in that league (6-62—68 in 285 games). He also skated for Germany at the World Championships, putting up 2-5—7 in eight games from the back end. He has spent his entire nine-year pro career in Germany.