Maybe the biggest credit to Bruce Cassidy is how quick he is to share the credit.
Maybe the best part of his leadership profile is how willing he is to let others lead.
Because if you try to ask the Bruins coach about the job he is doing here in his second full year on the bench, he will tell you about the players on his watch, and how the way they play for each other is the reason they have forged a particularly strong bond this season. And if you try to pin him down on how the tone he sets from the top creates the atmosphere for such unity, he will tell you about the leaders on his roster, and the way they hold each other accountable.
But as Cassidy takes the Bruins one game deeper into the Eastern Conference finals Sunday against Carolina, maybe it’s time to take the full measure of his place among Boston’s big four coaches, time to recognize that being the least heralded should not imply he is the least accomplished. What Cassidy has going on this postseason is making quite a case for increased attention, with a deft touch not simply in the daily requirements like writing out lineups or devising power plays, but in understanding the bigger picture, of knowing how to feel the pulse of his locker room, of respecting a room well-stocked with veterans who don’t always need a heavy hand.
“His technique and knowing when to push the right buttons has obviously worked pretty well for us,” forward Chris Wagner said Friday, as the team enjoyed a welcome day off, a rare commodity this postseason as the Bruins went seven games against Toronto and six more against Columbus. But no matter the circumstance in either of those two series, being down three different times against the Maple Leafs, trailing again against the hard-hitting Blue Jackets, Cassidy pushed the correct button.
Splitting up and ultimately restoring his top line until David Pastrnak rediscovered his scoring touch alongside Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Benching and then reinserting veteran David Backes, reaping the dividend when Backes’s heavy skating helped restore balance against Columbus. Resting goalie Tuukka Rask enough during the regular season that he’s been as sharp as he’s ever been on this playoff run.
Tough decisions, but ones well received by his players because they trust his intentions and feed off his energy.
“I’ve always been a passionate guy, lots of emotions, so I direct that message,” Cassidy said. “It depends on how your team receives it, as well. Sometimes I do believe our bench will get flat and it’s up to the coaches to push some buttons, and that’s something I don’t mind doing. Between periods once in a while you have to get their attention.
“You are who you are. I don’t think I’ll ever change. I don’t think I’ll ever be this stoic guy behind there that never says a word, that’s just not my personality. But I do believe to pass some of that on over the years, [you learn] to pick your spots a little better, and I’ll learn even more the next year and year after.”
The best leaders aren’t always the loudest, but they are the most secure, the ones who are confident enough in their own stature not to be threatened by the stature of others, thus allowing for other voices to be heard.
“I think it’s more that he allows it to stay in the room, stay with the guys, and kind of stays out of the way more than anything,” Wagner said. “Especially with the leaders we have I think that’s easy for him to do. Because he trusts Bergy and Marchie and Krech [David Krejci], Tuukka. Those guys have all been there, been through the battles like we’re about to go through here. He only has to say so much, but in the end we are the ones playing the games, the ones who have to execute. It’s more on us.
“He’s hard on us when he has to be, but I think he also knows when to step back and leave it to someone like Z [Zdeno Chara] or Bergy to say something in the room to get us going.”
The Bruins got it going in impressive fashion in the third period Thursday night, exploding for four goals en route to a 5-2 series-opening win. Seven more results like that and Cassidy’s Bruins will win the Stanley Cup, the first for the franchise since 2011, the first in forever for the second-time head coach. Unlike his abbreviated tenure in Washington that ended in 2004, Cassidy finds himself emboldened by deeper and more mature communication skills this time around, lessons learned from years of waiting for his second chance, from years of coaching in the minor leagues, across years of settling down and raising his own family.
He knows to savor this — he broke into a smile Friday when talking of Bobby Orr’s visit to the game Thursday and how he got his childhood “idol” to sign a book for him, and marveling at Ray Bourque, another youthful favorite and inspiration, serving as pregame flag bearer. But he also knows to stay focused on the opportunity, because they don’t come around that often.
“To be around that is a privilege, I’ve said it all along,” Cassidy said. “You can’t let it affect you every day. You’ve got to be in the moment.”
Boston has enjoyed its share of memorable sports moments and Cassidy is looking to join the party. He hasn’t yet won a championship, never mind the multiple ones by Patriots coach Bill Belichick, but he knows how to channel a Belichickian stare when he needs one. He isn’t coming off a historically dominant title like the one Red Sox manager Alex Cora won in his Boston debut, but his expansive, introspective answers in interviews rival those of his baseball counterpart. And he hasn’t yet come within a game of competing in a Stanley Cup Final, the way his basketball buddy Brad Stevens did when he led the Celtics to within a game of the NBA Finals a year ago. But while Stevens is home nursing the disappointment of this year’s second-round flameout to the Bucks, Cassidy is still on the clock.