The Bruins were already good. Then they changed coaches and got better. Now they are playing the best hockey in the NHL.
How did this happen?
There was a lot of negativity on Causeway Street when Cam Neely and Don Sweeney fired Bruce Cassidy in June. The demanding Cassidy, a fan favorite, had coached 399 games and taken the Bruins to the playoffs in six straight seasons. He came within one game of winning the franchise’s seventh Stanley Cup in 2019.
But Jake DeBrusk didn’t like Cassidy and asked to be traded. Brandon Carlo told The Athletic he felt “beat down” by Cassidy. David Krejci went home to Czechia for the 2021-22 season.
In true millennial fashion, player empowerment trumped player accountability. So Cassidy was fired, Sweeney explaining that the coach’s style “takes its toll.”
“I had a long history with Bruce,” Sweeney said before the Bruins’ 3-1 victory over Tampa Bay Tuesday. “I respect the hell out of him. He’s a fantastic coach. But sometimes you just take the pulse of where your team is at and where you think you can get to, and you make a really tough decision. This was difficult.”
Enter good fellow Jim Montgomery, a Montreal native who played at the University of Maine and served as the head coach in Dallas in 2018-19 and part of the 2019-20 season. “Monty” was brought on board to be more encouraging and less critical … to stress puck protection … to open up the game … to make the Bruins more fun to watch.
Tuesday’s Garden victory over the Lightning made the Bruins 13-0 at home this season. In a league that’s more than 100 years old, no NHL team had ever won its first 13 home games. The Bruins are tied with the Devils for most points in the first quarter of their season.
Most new coaches inherit bad teams. It’s relatively easy to make them look average.
This is different. This is making a good team better. And it’s rare.
It happened to the Larry Bird Celtics in 1983-84 when goose-stepping coach Bill Fitch was replaced by soft shoe K.C. Jones. The Celtics were already good. They’d won a championship under Fitch in 1981, his second year on the bench. They got to the conference finals the following season and won 56 games in 1982-83. But they were swept out of the playoffs.
“Everybody hated Fitch,” Cedric Maxwell said last week. “Except Larry, I guess. But Bill had to go.”
Fitch went to Houston. And Red Auerbach turned to his trusty brotherhood of champions and put Jones on the bench. The Celtics won two championships in the next three seasons and got to four straight NBA Finals with their less-rigid coach.
It happened to the Red Sox a few years later. Miserable John McNamara got them to the seventh game of the World Series in 1986, but his rough treatment of young players and toxic personality brought everybody down. When Mac got the knife in July 1988, he was replaced by Walpole’s Joe Morgan (who plowed the Mass. Pike during the blizzard of ‘78) and the Sox responded with 12 consecutive wins and 19 victories in 20 games, winning the American League East.
“Here’s what happened,” the ever-humble, 92-year-old Morgan said Tuesday. “Guys get in slumps. Occasionally even good teams get in slumps. Heck, I knew that was a good team, but they weren’t winning the way they should have been. They got out of that and played like they were supposed to. They did it on their own.”
Morgan, who played hockey at Boston College before his major league baseball career, sees the same thing in today’s Bruins.
“It’s hard to believe how great they are doing,” said Tollway Joe. “It seems like the other guy [Cassidy] was maybe too tough on the kids. The thing I didn’t like about him was that he changed lines every 10 minutes. It can’t be that hard to play hockey.”
So, what is different?
“It’s a combination of the way Monty sees the game,” said Sweeney, “similar to Bruce and Claude [Julien] in maintaining defensive structure, but also looking at a five-man attack and being involved. Communication styles are different for all coaches, and that’s part of Monty’s personality. That needed to be allowed to play out. I envisioned it, having connected with the players.”
Less than five minutes after Sweeney said those words, Taylor Hall scored in the second minute of play to give the surging Bruins another early lead. A Hall one-timer from the high slot on the power play broke a 1-1 tie in the third and delivered yet another victory.
Hall is a former NHL MVP. And he’s playing on the third line … behind the first line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and DeBrusk. And the second line of Pavel Zacha, David Pastrnak, and Krejci.
We haven’t even mentioned defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm. Or goalies Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman.
“Taylor probably hasn’t been on the third line for much of his career,” chuckled DeBrusk.
The Bruins have the league’s widest positive goal differential (plus-40). They are on a pace to obliterate the franchise record of 121 points set by the goal-machine Bobby Orr Bruins in the 78-game season of 1970-71.
“I think the biggest thing is that everybody’s going,” added DeBrusk. “We had minor injuries at the beginning of the year and we needed other guys to step up and contribute. Now everyone’s getting healthy while the ship’s running hot. Guys are coming back from injuries because they just want to be a part of this.
“It seems like everything’s going good right now.”
There’s a leadership component. The Spoked-B’s talk about the strong vibe in the room. Marchand and Nick Foligno are forceful leaders, and they’re playing as if there’s a need to win one last Cup for noble center Bergeron.
When Montgomery was asked to characterize the leadership in his locker room, he said, “Incredible. The best I’ve seen. I’m very fortunate to be around it.”
The feeling is mutual.
“We went through a really exhaustive process to try to find the right guy,” said Sweeney. “And Monty emerged as the candidate we felt could lead the team that we envisioned. Monty’s done a very good job of connecting with the players.”
They go for their 14th in a row at home Saturday night against the defending Stanley Cup champion Avalanche.