Bruce Cassidy has been waiting in the wings almost as long as Claude Julien was coaching the Bruins.
The 51-year-old assistant was named interim coach of the Bruins on Tuesday after the team relieved 10-year coach Julien of his duties. Cassidy has been with the Bruins organization for 9½ years and was in his first year as an assistant in Boston after spending five years as head coach of Providence in the AHL, and three as an assistant there.
He has a strong relationship with general manager Don Sweeney (who was director of player development when Cassidy was developing players in Providence) and has long been considered the heir apparent.
His first message was to give Julien his due.
“I have nothing but respect for Julien,’’ Cassidy said after running his first Bruins practice at Warrior Arena as the guy in charge. “I feel we let him down.”
It wasn’t much later, however, when Cassidy said he was ready to move forward.
“I’ve been put in the position to be the head coach of an NHL hockey team,’’ Cassidy said. “I have no complaints. I’m going to relish the opportunity.”
Cassidy had great success in Providence, going 207-128-45 in 380 games, with winning seasons in all five years and postseason berths in each of his final four seasons.
He was once before a head coach in the NHL, leading the Washington Capitals for a year and half (2002-04) until getting fired after 25 games of his second season as the team spiraled down to last place in the NHL. According to reports at the time, Cassidy also went on a rant in the media about his players that included some personal remarks that later required an apology.
Cassidy landed with a new team, getting some more seasoning with a year as an assistant in Chicago before spending two years as a head coach in the OHL with Kingston.
Then he made the move to Providence.
With the Baby B’s, he has worked with many of the younger players who are starting to find their way in the NHL, including Ryan Spooner, David Pastrnak, Torey Krug, and Kevan Miller.
A journeyman defenseman with 36 games in the NHL over six seasons, Cassidy has been working with the Bruins defense this season. He brought his teaching skills with him from Providence.
“It used to be, the NHL, everyone said it was not a developmental league,’’ said Cassidy, who said one of the biggest changes since his last run as a head coach is the number of younger players. Oh, and “no more mullets.”
“I think now there’s a lot more developing going on on the fly,’’ he said. “There’s more teaching as a result of having younger players, so that’s the biggest change.’’
In his first coaching stint, now 15 years ago, Cassidy had to get used to the NHL way of life, what the players want, how to communicate.
“It’s a younger group now, so it should be easier this time around,’’ he said. “You hope so after 15 years and being around Claude and being around this organization.”
Changes for the short term: Eye-in-the-sky Jay Pandolfo will come down to the bench, and Joe Sacco will coach the defense. But Cassidy doesn’t plan to remake the team, nor does Sweeney expect him to.
“We’re going to tinker a little with our D zone and try and get pucks back quicker so we’re not defending quite as long in our end,’’ Cassidy said. “Then going on offense, we’ll get a little more secondary scoring as well, encourage that part of the game and get our D involve a little bit more there.’’
He mentioned two struggling players he’d like to get straightened out.
“Is Ryan Spooner a better center ice man or is he a winger to get the best out of him?’’ Cassidy wondered. “And the same goes for David Backes. Backes, what type of line he has the best chemistry with, but still what’s best for the team. I think he’ll stay on the wing.’’
Said Backes, “In the chaos of the morning, we got to speak for about three minutes trying to figure out if I was going to even practice at center or wing.’’
The first concrete change is that Cassidy likes a faster tempo at practice.
“Day 1 was really good,’’ said Pastrnak, who nonetheless was sad to see Julien, the only coach he’s ever had in the NHL, move on.
“I thought [Cassidy] gave us great direction of where we’re going — his practice lent to what he was saying of where we’re going.’’
As for moving on, the Bruins are currently outside of the playoff structure, with time running out. Cassidy’s quick assessment of the Bruins’ troubles was all-inclusive.
“Early on it was goal scoring,’’ he said, “and now it’s keeping the puck out of our net, so it’s kind of changed course a little bit. So if we can tinker with each, and turn those one-goal losses into one-goal wins . . . I truly don’t believe we’re that far away.’’