The Bruins’ reasons for moving on from Bruce Cassidy have yet to be fully explained, and by now, all parties have moved on. Still, we might have finally gotten some confirmation of what we thought all along.
The news cycle rolled on after the team fired its coach via a Monday evening press release June 6. Cassidy wasn’t on the open market for long, quickly scooped up to take over in Las Vegas. The Bruins eventually caught up by hiring Jim Montgomery as Cassidy’s replacement, turning to a coach with a history of developing young talent. Thursday night’s start of the NHL Draft officially moved us into the 2022-23 season.
But it was in the middle of a pre-draft conversation with reporters that Bruins president Cam Neely, intentionally or not, shed a little more light on what still has to be considered a shocking dismissal of a successful coach.
In the midst of confirming that Jake DeBrusk had rescinded his trade demand, Neely made it pretty clear players were chafing under Cassidy’s tough hand and were clearly ready for a change. The long-rumored notion was amplified when former NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney said on his podcast that he’d heard “the players really hated him.”
Given the chance to dispel the assertion, Neely all but did the opposite, saying, “I like to keep things in the locker room. Obviously, if others want to talk, that’s their prerogative. Right or wrong, when you have a coach five, six, seven years and the players remain on a club . . . unfortunately at some point the voice does get old.
“We’re going to see a little bit of a different approach, maybe change things up a little, that hopefully excites our fanbase. I’m excited about it.”
Which, really, is fine. Coaches, at least those not named Bill Belichick, are hired to be fired. They know it, we know it, players know it.
But what should concern the Bruins’ front office now is how much the players know it, and how risky it could be to put Montgomery in a position where he knows the players know it. Players should certainly be heard, but it’s a fine line when they have a hand in pulling the strings, and no coach wants to be on the wrong side of that line knowing how much it can erode respect inside a locker room.
No one is saying DeBrusk or any other Bruin is an NHL version of Tampa Bay Tom Brady, retiring and then suddenly un-retiring once Bruce Arians was out as coach. Heck, Brady initially went to Tampa in part because Arians was such a looser hand than the one Belichick held over him for 20 years.
But sometimes an overcorrection isn’t the answer either — for all the times a K.C. Jones is the perfect replacement to a Bill Fitch, sometimes you end up with a Bobby Valentine after Terry Francona, or Pete Carroll after Bill Parcells. Players might be happier, but without the edge of discipline, structures can collapse. Jones was the perfect answer for the ‘84 Celtics, letting a wildly talented team roll the ball out and just play, winning the first of two NBA championships in the next three seasons. When the player-friendly Francona was let down by his hard-partying pitchers across the infamous chicken and beer end to the 2011 season, the “disciplinarian” Bobby V answer was an abject failure, and done in one season.
Not to say that will happen here, or to cast a shadow specifically on Montgomery. No matter the circumstance, there is never a shortage of reasons to change coaches — even one with a record as good as Cassidy’s. He had a 245-108-46 record from February 2017 through the end of last season, taking the Bruins to the playoffs all six of his seasons on the bench, including a memorable run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2018-19. Though the past year ended in disappointment with a first-round playoff exit against Carolina, getting an injury-ravaged, aging roster to 100-plus points was quite a feat.
But as the Bruins headed into an offseason that was always going to be filled with questions, starting with the will-or-won’t-he retire fate of Patrice Bergeron and straight on through the how-fast-can-they-recover from surgeries for Charlie McAvoy and Brad Marchand, the does-he-want-to-come-back decision facing David Krejci, and the will-he-sign-a-long-term-contract one facing David Pastrnak, Neely decided Cassidy was no longer the answer.
He continues to praise him, also saying the other day in Montreal, “I didn’t see any quit in [the players]. They came to play every night.”
But Neely didn’t waver on his decision, and while he still hasn’t revealed specifics, the word of the players and their exhaustion with Cassidy came through.
“We have a little bit more information than the media and fans do,” Neely said. “Things that happen inside the locker room. There’s not one specific thing. Bruce did a really good job for us. Got to the Final [in 2019]. He was well-liked. He was a good coach, still is a good coach.”
Just not the right coach, it seems. The players got their wish, and now the Bruins better hope they don’t abuse that power.