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In a Q&A, Bruce Cassidy talks integrating youth into the Bruins forward corps

Bruce Cassidy wasn’t afraid to stick with some young players last season.FILE/JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

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ANDOVER — Bruce Cassidy was encouraged by the way his team played. But he didn’t spend much time analyzing.

The Bruins coach had just finished a round of golf at Andover Country Club — in a scramble format, as the celebrity fifth wheel of a foursome — for the Sports Museum of New England’s annual fund-raiser. It is the Winchester resident’s preferred summer relaxation activity, in addition to racking up miles on the bike paths north of the city.

NHL players, in Boston and elsewhere, are soon to trade soft spikes for skates. At Warrior Ice Arena, captain’s practices begin next week. By Sept. 10, Bruins rookies and veterans will be in Brighton for a fleeting moment, before Cassidy, management, and about 25 players depart for China for a two-game exhibition tour.


After chatting about his team with his inquisitive golf partners, the third-year Bruins coach sank into an Adirondack chair and previewed training camp with this reporter. The first of a two-part Q&A focuses on integrating youth into the forward corps.

Q. How the league is now, the way teams are built, every team is going to have a certain group of young guys. Do you think there’s a built-in growing process with every team now?

A. [Mike] Keenan, he used to say, “This is not a developmental league. If you’re not ready to play, you will not play.” That’s not the case anymore.

A lot of these young guys are not ready to play every night. That’s where we come in. We’ve got to get them — and if we’re lucky, that’s where Bergy [Patrice Bergeron] and Z [Zdeno Chara] and the veteran guys will show them how to be a pro. How do you take care of yourself off the ice, conditioning, eating, sleep? And then Donnie [Sweeney, the general manager] and I have had the understanding that there’s going to be growing pains.


We saw it last year, right out of the gate: [Jake] DeBrusk and [Anders] Bjork opening night are fantastic; two nights later, they can’t check their hat. But that was part of it. We made a conscious decision, we were going to spend the time with them.

At some point, if they can’t do it, they can’t do it, and they go down [to the minors]. That’s reality. But we were willing to let a couple of blips [happen], work through those. Whereas other coaches might want the more consistent guy, we wanted the guy we feel has more upside, we could bring along, so that in March and April he’s a better player.

I think we saw that with DeBrusk. It paid off with our young guys. [Matt] Grzelcyk, we made a decision with him to do that. He helped us and he got better. Charlie [McAvoy], I think’s a different animal, I think he was a little more prepared from the get-go. But it’s worked out. [Sean] Kuraly.

I think these younger guys — well, any guy, you show them a little bit of trust and faith, they’ll want to reward you. Doesn’t mean they will, but they’ll want to.

Q. How does that affect how you look at a training camp, where you put guys in spots on Day 1? Building your lineup, how do you approach it going in?


A. We did that exercise last year and we left spots open. We did not go out and sign . . . everyone said, “Ah, you need scoring wingers.” But we knew [Danton] Heinen, DeBrusk, Bjork, we felt pretty strongly two of those guys would be able to step up, and they did.

This year we’re doing the same thing with that third-line center [vacated by Riley Nash]. We feel internally we have some guys that are very close. If we’re wrong on that, then we’ll have to adjust our game plan, which is a little harder to do once the season starts.

There may come a point where we go, “Enough of the youth, we need to get better with proven guys.” Right now we feel we have those guys in the middle of the ice that are close. Or Kuraly might be able to move up.

Q. By those guys to play third-line center, you’re talking about Jack Studnicka . . .

A. Studnicka, [Trent] Frederic, and JFK [Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson], our three center icemen.

[Chris] Wagner played some center. Is it ideal for him? But that’s what he’d like. He wants to move up in the lineup. So you’re creating a bit of competition, but you’re also creating opportunity.

I think if you go into the year and think, “We’re going to have five guys,” that’s a stretch. But what we’ve done, I think, and Donnie feels, it’s legit for us to stay more than competitive.


Q. Same thing with the second-line right wing spot. With Rick Nash out of the picture, you’re looking at youth?

A. Well, Danton Heinen had 47 points last year. He may have outscored Rick Nash overall [Nash, acquired Feb. 25 from the Rangers, scored 34 points between the two teams]. Bergy and Marsh [Brad Marchand], what if we moved Pasta [David Pastrnak] down and tried Bjork back up there? We did that last year.

We feel we have people to plug the hole. They’ve just got to go out and do it, which is easier said than done.

Ryan Donato’s another one, an interesting guy. Where does he fit in? In small sample sizes, his numbers were terrific during the regular season. Playoffs, he went in a different direction. It’s hard to judge them when they’re in and out, at that age.

Q. How does the China trip complicate your decision-making?

A. It’ll be interesting. I haven’t gone through this. We’ve got the rookie camp to start [Sept. 7-10 in Buffalo], and that’s great. We’ll get a good look at these guys.

Generally if you can’t be one of the better players there, you’re probably not going to be a better player in main camp. I know that sounds simple but . . . I remember watching Pasta his first year. He was one of the better forwards. [Filip] Forsberg in Nashville. [Jonathan] Drouin in Tampa, I thought he was just OK. Well, right now he’s . . . you know, not where Forsberg and Pasta are. So there is some relevance to that.


We’ll watch the kids we just talked about, they’ll all be there, hopefully they’re ahead of their peers. That’s Step 1. Are you ahead of your peers at your age? Yep. OK, well now you’ve got to come in and be ahead of the guys in the locker room, sitting beside you, that have been in the league a couple of years, the [Noel] Acciaris, the Wagners, these guys, [Joakim] Nordstrom. They want to move up, they want to make their money, have more responsibility.

I like where we are that way. Eventually you’d like to be a little more dialed in. We’re still not there yet. And if we draft well, you’re always pushing [young] guys, which is kind of the circle of life in hockey.

Q. What would it take for you to break up the No. 1 line full time? What would you need to see?

A. The growth of a younger player to go out and play with Bergy and Marsh and handle the top defensive pairs every night, the top defensive players. It’s easy to say, “We’ll put a young kid up there.” He’s got to see top people every night that have been in the league a long time. That can be demoralizing for a young guy. That’s the first thing. You’ve got to have a guy who can go in there and handle that.

Krech [David Krejci] and DeBrusk have good chemistry, and I’d imagine Pasta would. It would be exciting for him. I have seen them play together, so that’s more about as the year goes on, what’s better suited for us to win hockey games against the more balanced teams. Is it those guys being together as a trio or is it better split up? I think we’ll do both throughout the year.

Our intention last year was to split them up, give us better balance. The injuries kind of threw everything out of whack, and they just kind of slotted in as we went, we just left it alone. You saw in the playoffs the scoring dried up. I’m not as quick as everyone just to say, “Well, you know . . .”

Q. “ . . . we didn’t have enough balance on our other lines”?

A. Yeah. But you know, we’re up in Game 4 at home [3-2, with 13:24 left]. If we’re able to finish that game off, now you’re in Tampa and it’s 2-2. Maybe we find our scoring again, the balanced scoring we had all year.

If you look at it, our third line didn’t produce either in the playoffs. To sit there and say it was all not moving Pasta — even our fourth line, in the Tampa series, Noel had 10 goals, [Tim] Schaller had 12. We had guys that scored and it didn’t happen [there]. I think the timing of that hurt us as much as not moving Pasta around.

Matt Porter can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mattyports.