The audition is over for Bruce Cassidy. Officially named Wednesday morning as the Bruins’ coach, following a 33-game tryout as interim, the one-time puck-rushing defenseman now will be charged with pushing the Black-and-Gold roster beyond its brief dalliance in the playoffs this spring and shaping it into a Stanley Cup contender.
Cassidy, 51, was handed a club in February that was creatively stale and emotionally flat-lined after Claude Julien’s long, defensively centered tenure behind the bench. Cassidy’s charges responded with an 18-8-1 run (.685) that prevented a third consecutive postseason DNQ.
“It was for sure something that shook up the whole team, all the players,” captain Zdeno Chara said Tuesday as players cleaned out their lockers following Sunday’s Game 6 playoff loss to Ottawa. “Obviously, we had a coach here for 10 years, and he [did] a lot of good things. We won a Stanley Cup.”
But, as Chara noted, the move away from Julien was a “true wakeup call for everybody,” with Cassidy implementing a less structured, more open offensive style that helped launch the Bruins into a first-round playoff series vs. the Senators.
Had it not been for a spate of injuries to key players — particularly blue liners Torey Krug, Brandon Carlo, and Adam McQuaid — the Bruins might have avoided elimination at the hands of the Senators and now would be facing the Rangers in Round 2. In the end, the roster was too hurt, too thin.
The Bruins announced Cassidy’s hire via an early-morning statement. The missive made no mention whether assistant coaches Joe Sacco, Jay Pandolfo, and Bob Essensa will be retained. Cassidy inherited all the assistants from Julien; he had joined the varsity in September as one of Julien’s assistants, following five years as bench boss at AHL Providence.
There is no standard policy when it comes to assistant coaches remaining or being dismissed when new head coaches are hired. In recent years, assistants Doug Houda and Doug Jarvis were let go, even while Julien remained bench boss.
Assistant coaches are always vulnerable. Witness: Mike Kitchen getting turfed just days ago by the Blackhawks, even though he is a longtime pal and valued associate of head coach Joel Quenneville.
Born and raised in Ottawa, a city with no NHL team in his youth, Cassidy as a grade schooler became a Boston fan, a faraway devotee of the Big Bad Bruins. He fell asleep at night with transistor radio tucked under his pillow whenever the Maple Leafs played the Bruins.
A picture of Bobby Orr, flying through the air after scoring the Cup-clinching goal for the Bruins in 1970, hung on his bedroom wall.
Now it’s his job to give flight to the hopes of a franchise that has but one Cup victory in the last 45 years.
Cassidy, who had a brief stint as Washington Capitals head coach (2002-04), was not made available for comment Wednesday. Accompanied by general manager Don Sweeney, he will meet with the media Thursday morning at TD Garden.
Team president Cam Neely, joined by club owner Jeremy Jacobs and his son, CEO Charlie Jacobs, will hold court with the media at the Garden next Tuesday.
Cassidy inherits a roster, already in transition, that is guaranteed to see more changes over the five months leading to September’s training camp.
First, there will be some roster pruning; just how significant remains to be seen. Veteran backliner John Michael-Liles and little-used defenseman Joe Morrow likely won’t be asked back. Sweeney & Co. figure to look for someone other than Anton Khudobin to be Tuukka Rask’s backup in goal. Dominic Moore, a reliable one-year hire as a support forward, could lose his spot to one of the many young, eager fresh faces ready for more playing time.
In mid June, the start of the NHL’s two-week buyout period, Sweeney also might be encouraged to cut bait with forwards Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes, both of whom had poor seasons. Beleskey was barely able to crack the playoff roster. Hayes suited up only in jacket and tie for all six postseason games.
Cassidy should benefit from what could be the best surge in young talent the club has seen in decades.
On defense, Carlo, a rookie in 2016-17, was an impressive fit, pairing all but seamlessly as Chara’s sidecar on the top shutdown duo. Charlie McAvoy, a hurry-up signing out of Boston University following his sophomore season, was a horse (albeit in need of refining) in the playoffs.
Prospects Jeremy Lauzon, Rob O’Gara, and Matt Grzelcyk also could be in the mix in September, particularly if the Bruins lose Adam McQuaid or Kevan Miller in the June expansion draft that will stock the new Las Vegas franchise.
Up front, young forwards Frank Vatrano, Noel Acciari, Tim Schaller, and a slightly older Riley Nash provided energy and promise. And come September, a handful of other promising kids, including Jacob Forsbacka Karlsson, Peter Cehlarik, Danton Heinen, Austin Czarnik, Zach Senyshyn, and perhaps Anders Bjork (if signed out of Notre Dame) all could push for varsity roster spots.
Cassidy, in part through the necessity presented by injury, didn’t shy away from playing kids, McAvoy the best example. McAvoy logged a hefty 26:11 average TOI in the six playoff games, second to Chara (28:45). Cassidy also eagerly fed Schaller, Vatrano, and Acciari minutes as he churned through the forward personnel, searching for secondary scoring in the playoffs.
Unlike his predecessor, Cassidy allows young players more rope. He is more willing to use them, even in close situations and late in games, and eager for them to push the limits of their abilities. He fully embraces that, unlike decades past, NHL rosters are constructed now with an implied element of development.
“We’ll try some things,” Cassidy said upon inheriting the job. “We’ll pay the price sometimes, sure, and if we do, then we’ll dial it back. But let’s see how it goes. Guys made it this far for a reason, because they can make plays. We’re here to encourage them to try.”
Cassidy is the 28th coach in the club’s history. He enters 2017-18 with his 33-game primer. He made it this far for a reason. Come September, he’ll find out for sure whether he can make them play.