For a Bruins forward under duress in the offensive zone, the safe play under Claude Julien would be to relieve pressure by dishing to a defenseman at the point.
On his second day on the job, new coach Bruce Cassidy wanted his forwards to change their thinking. Instead of using the automatic up to the point, Cassidy’s message to his down-low puck carriers was to trust their one-on-one skills, attack the net, and strike a balance between initiating offense and being responsible with the puck.
“It creates havoc around the front of the net,” Cassidy said. “Whether the goalie sees the puck or not, the defenseman has to defend. It draws penalties. It gets action at the net. There could be a rebound, a bounce that goes your way.
“What’s the worst that could happen? The puck gets blocked and maybe they go the other way? The same thing can happen on a low-to-high. So we’re trying to find that balance.”
The Bruins land a league-high 34.5 shots on goal per game. They are the NHL’s best puck-possession team during five-on-five play. It has not translated to consistent goal scoring.
Cassidy’s mandate is to improve the quality of looks, promote frenzy around the net, and encourage his players to jam away in the hard-hat areas instead of giving opponents a reset.
“It allows their team, at times, to recover to a good defensive position or to get the puck away from the net,” Cassidy said. “We’d like to get the puck closer than that, where teams are scrambling to recover to D-zone coverage so we can get some goals around the net where we outnumber them.”
General manager Don Sweeney has made minor adjustments to the roster this week, promoting rookie wing Peter Cehlarik (18-15—33 in 40 games) and goalie Anton Khudobin from Providence.
Everything else is the same save for the coach, which is exactly the point. Sweeney and Julien didn’t agree on the quality of the roster. So by replacing Julien with Cassidy, Sweeney wants to see whether the former Providence coach can extract better results from the team he built.
It will take more than two practice sessions for Cassidy, his assistants, and management to settle on solutions. On Wednesday, David Backes rode as the No. 1 right wing with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. One day earlier, Backes practiced as the third-line right wing with Matt Beleskey and Ryan Spooner. Frank Vatrano, the No. 1 right wing on Tuesday, shifted to third-line left wing the next day alongside Spooner and Jimmy Hayes.
Even though Cassidy spent 55 games on the bench next to Julien this season, his eyes were trained mostly on the defensemen. As head coach, his oversight expands to every player. So Cassidy is approaching Thursday’s game against San Jose with an open mind, waiting for the players that demand ice time to earn it with their play.
As much as making the playoffs remains their primary objective, the Bruins are in a jam when it comes to postseason qualification. They are 1 point behind Philadelphia for the second wild-card slot, their best route to the playoffs. Ottawa, No. 2 in the Atlantic, is 2 points ahead with four games in hand. Third-place Toronto is also 2 points up with three games in hand.
Cassidy’s more critical task is to repair the seasons of players for whom expectations were greater. Cassidy has no need to do anything to Marchand, Bergeron, and David Pastrnak — the best line in the league, in his opinion. But he will earn his money by encouraging Spooner and Backes, among others, to do more.
Cassidy knows Spooner well. He coached Spooner for parts of his first three pro seasons in Providence. At times, Spooner was a dynamic offensive center for Cassidy, just as he was under Julien for most of 2015-16, when he had 13 goals and 36 assists in 80 games. This season, Spooner’s production has dipped to an 8-19—27 line in 54 games, perhaps partly because of his shift to left wing.
Spooner has practiced as the No. 3 center for both of Cassidy’s on-ice sessions. He is likely to be in the middle against the Sharks. It will be Spooner’s first crack at a fresh start as the Bruins evaluate whether the pending restricted free agent is worthy of an extension or better off deployed in a deal.
“He’d have to answer the question, but I think he’d prefer to be a center iceman,” Cassidy said. “That’s what he’s been. So we have to either do a better job at selling the value of being a wing, or he goes back to the middle and see if we can get the best out of him.”
The 25-year-old Spooner has trade value because of his age and skill. In contrast, at his current pace of play, the 32-year-old Backes (11-11—22) is the definition of untradeable, and not just because of his no-move clause. Backes is signed through 2021 at $6 million annually. The Bruins have no choice but to demand more out of Backes, perhaps starting as a first-liner against the Sharks.
“What those two guys do together is something I’ve never seen before,” Backes said of Marchand and Bergeron. “The way they read off each other, complement each other, it’s fantastic.
“It seems whoever they put there has been complementary and been able to help them have a lot of success.
“Hopefully it will be no different with me.”
This is Cassidy’s second crack at being an NHL head coach. It will go better than his first if he can place some players’ seasons back on track.