KEVIN PAUL DUPONT
john tlumacki/globe staff file
He landed behind the bench a year ago with the Bruins in need of a Mr. Do Something, handed a club that was only slightly better than break-even (26-23-6) and pointed in the direction of a third consecutive postseason DNQ.
Today, in the midst of a striking style change that emphasizes puck transition and speed — and delivers results — Bruce Cassidy has charge of what has been the NHL’s hottest team for the better part of the last three months.
Mr. Do Something has gone out and turned a faltering, sleep-inducing also-ran into a club that today appears as if it will be among a small clutch of favorites headed into the Stanley Cup playoffs in April.
“I thought we could be a very good hockey club,” said Cassidy, who was promoted to interim head coach on the same day Boston feted the Patriots for their Super Bowl win over Atlanta. “I think we’ve gone from good to very good in the last couple of months.
“You want to be great.”
The Bruins have lost only four times in regulation in their last 35 games. Since taking over last Feb. 7, Cassidy has gone 51-19-9, an eye-popping .703 success rate, the best around here since Claude Julien went 53-19-10 (.707) in 2008-09, his second year on Causeway Street.
The results, for the most part, have been delivered via Cassidy’s reworking of how the team moves the puck from its own end and how it transitions play between the blue lines.
The D-to-D pass, the tried-and-true lateral play between defensemen in the back end, has been rendered to antiquity, deemed a waste of time and energy, with blue liners now mandated to move the puck ahead, even jump directly into the attack when merited.
In the neutral zone, blue liners are encouraged to short-circuit opponents’ attacks earlier, Boston forwards programmed to trigger their attack immediately.
“Our transition game, I like to think, looks as good as anybody’s,” said Cassidy, a puck-moving defenseman in his junior days with the Ottawa 67s. “That’s the part I’d like to see us continue to grow, and I think we are getting there, to the point where other teams say, ‘Hey, if we do turn it over, they are coming right back down our throat.’ As opposed to, ‘Hey, we can turn it over, but they’ll take their sweet time coming up the ice.’ ”
The root of it all is speed, the defining, all-encompassing DNA of the NHL in 2018.
“That’s all around the league,” said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “Players have to be willing to skate, and if they’re not, then they find someone who will be.”
Cassidy, said Chara, has “completely gotten rid of” some of the breakouts that Chara and the rest of the Boston defensive corps implemented day after day during Julien’s tenure.
“They’ve gone right out the window,” said Chara, who, with his 41st birthday approaching, has seen his own game rejuvenated amid the makeover. “He likes to call them ‘dinosaur-age.’ And he’s right, because literally what was working for you three years ago, that’s not working for you anymore because the game is evolving so much faster. It’s changed, gone to a different level, and we got rid of certain stuff.”
Some six weeks into this season, the raves weren’t quite the same. Riddled with injuries among their forwards, the Bruins appeared to have relapsed, struggling to keep their record around .500 and again looking like a club that would struggle all season to pick off one of the last playoff berths in the Eastern Conference.
Shoddy work among the blue liners and some subpar goaltending by Tuukka Rask added up to a 4-2 loss in Anaheim on Nov. 15, dropping the Bruins to 6-7-4. It looked like too much of the same from the pre-Cassidy era.
“I gave the coaches sort of a message when they went out on the West Coast,” said general manager Don Sweeney, “and it was at the point [the season] could have gone sideways. We had a lot of injuries. I just sort of said, ‘Stick with the process. Trust what you guys are trying to do.’
“I wanted them to acknowledge the team we could be, and not the team we are today. And really trust in that.”
In the immediate, though, Cassidy wasn’t seeing anything other than red. Typically unflappable, he was perturbed the night of the loss in Anaheim. His blue liners had defended lazily and ineffectively, with one Ducks goal ricocheting by Rask off an unaware Chara at the top of the crease. Rask lost again, dropping him to 2-7-2 for the season.
“All our injuries were up front,” recalled Cassidy. “I thought our team needed to be carried by our goaltenders and our D. So I expressed my opinion.”
With a game awaiting the next night in Los Angeles, the agitated Cassidy called the club together for a video session that morning inside the Staples Center.
“A tough video session,” he said. “We’ve had a few this year. But that one was tough.”
The blunt review highlighted the back-end gaffes, but didn’t leave the forwards unscathed. Message received. The Bruins went out that night, with Anton Khudobin in net, and rubbed out the Kings, 2-1, paced by goals from rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy and Chara. Khudobin turned back 27 shots, leading Cassidy to name him the starter two nights later in San Jose.
“Some of the things Bruce has done,” noted Sweeney, “like trusting Anton in that situation, and then going with him again in San Jose, those are off-book a little bit.”
Nearly three months later, Cassidy considers the LA video session to be the turning point of the season. The defensemen recommitted themselves to stout work around the net, while also growing into the changes Cassidy wanted implemented on defensive-zone breakouts. Rask lost his next start, Nov. 26 vs. Edmonton, but has yet to lose in regulation since then, now 19-0-2 in his last 21 starts.
“They responded and took a lot of pride in it,” said Cassidy. “I think they were happy to hear how much value was placed on that part. That’s what I took away from it, like, ‘Heck, I should have told these guys a long time ago how valuable they are,’ and maybe that was part of the problem.”
Cassidy waited for over a decade for his second chance to be an NHL head coach. He was 37, with no NHL coaching experience, when he was hired out of AHL Grand Rapids to be the Washington Capitals bench boss in the summer of 2002. But after a successful first season, including a first-round playoff match vs. Tampa, he was canned only 28 games into the 2003-04 season.
The road back to being an NHL bench boss took some 14 years, though Cassidy returned immediately to coaching as an assistant in Chicago the season following his dismissal by the Capitals. He also was the Bruins’ AHL coach in Providence for five seasons before being promoted to an assistant on Julien’s staff prior to last season.
“What I’ve learned,” Cassidy said, “is that the work I put in the last nine years is paying off at this level. The first time around in Washington, there was a lot of doubts because (A) I was young, and (B) because I didn’t have much of an NHL career as a player. Those were my doubts at 37. You know, I’d never been in this NHL environment, and not knowing how it would work out.”
Now, feeling “more comfortable in my own skin,” said Cassidy, he feels that he’s hit his stride, with a team doing the same.
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