Brandon Carlo flipped his eight-game 2015-16 AHL apprenticeship into an NHL job as a first-year pro. Charlie McAvoy needed only a four-game AHL tuneup to become a full-time varsity man.
Such rapid career advancement was not in Bruce Cassidy’s cards.
The Bruins head coach, who officially received his new permanent title Wednesday, mucked in the AHL for eight seasons, including three as a puck-pushing assistant. It was an eternal minor-league grind for someone who was practically as cherubic in coaching terms as the 19-year-old McAvoy when he claimed the head gig in Washington at age 37 in 2002. A year later, which probably felt like 10 to Cassidy, he was out.
In retrospect, Cassidy made the most of his eight-year Providence term. He was motivated to return to the NHL and prove that his premature elevation was not his major-league peak. Cassidy helped to polish future NHL defensemen such as Johnny Boychuk, Adam McQuaid, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Joe Morrow, Matt Bartkowski, and Matt Irwin. As Providence’s head coach for five seasons, he served as the primary contact for future Boston general manager Don Sweeney, formerly director of player development.
Cassidy and Sweeney clicked. Their relationship and Cassidy’s résumé led to his promotion as Claude Julien’s assistant for 2016-17. Cassidy was always going to be Julien’s successor, whether it happened at the conclusion of Julien’s contract (2018 expiration) or earlier. It turned out to be the latter: Feb. 7, to be exact.
Even after Cassidy became interim coach, it was only a matter of time until he grabbed a more permanent title. The Bruins could have continued flat-lining under Cassidy, and he still would have been the lead man to take the job. The bosses thought that highly of him before he ever stood in Julien’s spot for a single game.
But the postseason interview process that Sweeney once planned as a formality was rendered irrelevant following the Cassidy-initiated revival. The Bruins reeled off four straight wins under him, including one over their archrival. A 4-0 spanking of the Canadiens Feb. 12 helped convince Montreal GM Marc Bergevin to sack coach Michel Therrien and replace him with Julien two days later.
The winning in Boston continued. The offense that had not produced enough goals (141) for the league-leading attempts (2,709) it generated roared to life. The Bruins averaged a league-best 3.37 goals per game, going 18-8-1 to qualify for the playoffs after two straight misses under Julien. The Bruins likely would have been sipping drinks at the clubhouse two weeks earlier had Cassidy not initiated the turnaround.
The Bruins played with revved-up legs, a greater sense of determination, and a hungrier nose for the net. Gone were the rote passes to the point out of the corner. Cassidy’s message to his forwards was to trust their talent, keep the pressure on, and make life hard on opponents down low. He had the troops to execute his demands, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak being first to lead the charge.
Cassidy tried things. They worked. He split up the league’s best 200-foot-line by dropping Pastrnak to the second unit alongside David Krejci. David Backes, sleepy under Julien, played with beefier presence alongside Marchand and Bergeron, although most right wings would perform well next to the league’s top three-zone tandem. Krejci and Pastrnak played off each other’s strengths. When things weren’t working, Cassidy was quick to rearrange his personnel.
Cassidy had bad luck in the playoffs. He was without Krug and Carlo for the entire first round. Colin Miller limped off in Game 1. McQuaid went down in Game 2.
Up front, Krejci was unavailable for the first two games because of an upper-body injury. He battled through the next two games, albeit at a reduced rate of his usual presence. In Game 5, the No. 2 center took a knee-on-knee hit from Chris Wideman to end his season.
A clicking Ryan Spooner could have helped in Krejci’s absence. But Spooner was anything but clicking. Even before Krejci staggered off the Canadian Tire Centre ice, Spooner was unavailable himself, made a healthy scratch for the final two games of the series. The skilled center’s game had crumbled to the point where Cassidy deemed him unplayable.
In Game 5, Sean Kuraly took Spooner’s spot. Kuraly, who spent most of the season in Providence, responded with a two-goal thunderclap. In Game 6, when he could have gone back with Spooner, Cassidy tapped the ghostly Matt Beleskey instead. He had no choice.
Spooner (restricted), Beleskey (signed through 2020), and Frank Vatrano (signed through 2018) are three of the up-front players Cassidy will need more from next year, assuming they return. Where Julien practiced patience, Cassidy was quicker to push them down the lineup and give their shifts to more deserving forwards.
Part of this was because of necessity. The Bruins needed points. Riding his lead dogs gave Cassidy a better chance of banking them.
But there will be turnover up front. Kuraly, Jake DeBrusk, Peter Cehlarik, Danton Heinen, Austin Czarnik, Anton Blidh, and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson will push for NHL employment. On defense, Matt Grzelcyk and Rob O’Gara will try to prove they are worthy of promotions.
Cassidy will have to be patient and develop these youngsters on the fly. Sweeney’s vision was centered around bringing in more young players to support the core group. The kids are coming. They will officially be Cassidy’s charges.
Follow Fluto Shinzawa on Twitter at @GlobeFluto