More than two decades before he reached the Stanley Cup Final as a head coach with a staff of three assistants, a goalie coach, and a video coordinator, plus the support of more than two dozen scouts and analysts, Bruce Cassidy was working solo in the front row of a sleeper bus. He was breaking down ECHL game tapes with the help of a VHS deck connected to a small TV monitor.
The 1996-97 Jacksonville Lizard Kings had a staff of four: Cassidy, their 31-year-old, first-time coach; a trainer, an equipment manager, and a radio broadcaster.
On one road trip that season, the bus raced through the night down a familiar stretch of Interstate 10, bound for New Orleans. Most of the team was asleep in 12 coffin-like bunks, or curled up on the benches in the back. A couple of newcomers were stretched out on the floor, head to toe.
A series of thumps made Cassidy hit pause, and the driver pull over.
Did somebody not close the bays?
Everyone’s gear was stuffed in latched compartments underneath the bus. And because someone forgot to latch said compartments, some of the gear was displaced.
A few yards back was a toppled trunk containing a skate sharpener and other important items. “We walk back a little farther and there’s one hockey bag on the road, and it happened to be mine,” Cassidy recalled. “So it was good that it was none of the players’.”
Also sitting roadside: Cassidy’s skates, damaged beyond immediate repair. It had Cassidy awkwardly shouting instructions from the bench at the next road stop.
“I must have eventually borrowed someone’s skates,” he said, the years muddying the memory. “As the only coach, I had to go on the ice.”
The casual fan may not have thought much of the announcement earlier this month that the Bruins will keep Atlanta as their ECHL affiliate. The one-year partnership, extended in each of the last five seasons, came without fanfare. It is uncommon to see players rise from the second minor division of North American pro hockey to the NHL. Besides Jaroslav Halak, who spent part of his first pro season with Long Beach (2005-06), and short-timer Gemel Smith, none of last season’s Bruins spent a moment in “The Coast.” The most prominent Atlanta-to-Boston connection was struck in 2006, in the person of ex-Thrasher free agent signing Marc Savard.
Coaches and officials regularly start there, though. Last year, the league reported it had 66 former players on NHL opening-night rosters, but 42 coaches, including head men Cassidy, Jared Bednar (Colorado), Bob Boughner (Florida; since replaced), Bruce Boudreau (Minnesota), Peter Laviolette (Nashville), and Todd Rierden (Washington).
In their common past: bus trips of 12 hours or longer, fading small-city arenas, fast-food nutrition, and dusty motels. For coaches and players of Cassidy’s vintage — such as Boudreau and Laviolette, whose ECHL teams faced off against his in those days — they used pay phones and calling cards to keep in contact with loved ones. The common player salary was $400 per week.
For Cassidy, the experience was priceless. His first coaching job came three weeks after retiring as a player; the former first-round draft pick (18th overall, Chicago, 1983) was toiling on a bad knee with IHL Indianapolis. That team’s owner, the late Horn Chen, had just fired the coach of one of his other teams in Jacksonville. Cassidy, hardly prepared and barely older than some of his new charges, got the nod.
Soon, he got his bearings, and started building his coaching profile, one jostling bus ride after another.
“Juggling lines, all the time,” he recalled. “Back then we dressed 10 forwards, 5 [defensemen], and 17 players. You learned how to use odd numbers, not four lines. That’s where all that comes from for me.”
Cup Final loss continues to hurt
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy was speaking to an acquaintance 10 weeks to the day since Alex Pietrangelo lifted the Stanley Cup over his head at TD Garden, a display of sparks erupting behind the Blues captain. It remains a sore subject.
Game 7 has yet to stop twisting its knife.
“Nope, not really,” Cassidy said, when asked if he’s over it. “Today I am. Tomorrow, depends if someone asks me a question that just happens to hit a nerve.”
Training camp begins the second week of September. The season opens Oct. 3. “There’s no way,” Cassidy said, that he will be thinking about Game 7 while counting sheep in Dallas the night before the opener. He’s also honest enough to admit that he will indefinitely have a hard time seeing a Blue Note.
“There might be a time on the road next year and we’re sitting there and I’m watching St. Louis play, because they’re playing Montreal and we play Montreal the next night, and I’ll be like, [expletive], you know? That’s the time you might start going backward. But no.”
It was a short summer for Cassidy, slightly numbed by the way the season ended, and subsequent surgery.
He is eight weeks out from a long-awaited left knee replacement, is back golfing, and cleared to ride his bike. He is training mostly off-ice at Warrior Ice Arena, along with a group including defensemen Kevan Miller (broken kneecap), who might be able to start the season on time, and John Moore (broken humerus), who will not. Also seen recently: Charlie McAvoy, still without a contract. Cassidy hadn’t asked him about that, but said if McAvoy ever needed advice, “I would certainly give him my two cents.” Cassidy hadn’t yet run into Brandon Carlo, another unsigned restricted free agent, but expected to soon.
Cassidy and his staff drew up line combinations for the start of camp, but if the RFA impasse stands, he won’t be troubled unless the season begins and he’s unable to roll McAvoy and Carlo a combined 40-50 minutes of most every game on the right side.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney, at the team’s fan fest in Leominster on Thursday, said talks were not progressing “as fast as everybody would like,” but “we’ll find a finish line at some point in time. Brandon and Charlie will be part of our organization for a long time.”
Regardless of any extra need, Cassidy plans to get to know Boston’s best defensive prospects in camp (and home-away sets against New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Chicago).
“If everyone else was back, we’d have our top six: Z [Zdeno Chara], [Torey] Krug and Grizz [Matt Grzelcyk], and Charlie, Brandon, and Kevan Miller,” Cassidy said. “Without Moore. If some of those guys aren’t in the mix, well that’s where [Connor] Clifton, [Urho] Vaakanainen, [Jeremy] Lauzon, [Jakub] Zboril . . . am I forgetting anybody? I guess there’s always guys who could surprise. Cooper Zech, I guess he could surprise you. Chris Breen’s back. There could be some [surprises].”
Up front there may be few, other than new additions Par Lindholm and Brett Ritchie, on the books for a combined $1.85 million. On a club driven by its star-laden core, neither player has proven to be anything more than decent depth.
“I watched Lindholm’s shifts, Ritchie’s shifts,” Cassidy said. “Not going to say I’ve watched every one, but games against us. I’ve watched some of what they can bring. It’s the eye — you’ve got to see them first.”
Cassidy saw rookie Karson Kuhlman become a solid fit with center David Krejci last season, though he didn’t have as long to assess Charlie Coyle in that spot. Cassidy also sounds like he’d try Danton Heinen there. David Pastrnak is always a productive option, should someone such as Anders Bjork raise his profile. Cassidy sees David Backes as a fit on the fourth line, in Noel Acciari’s old spot.
Lindholm, who struggled to score last season (one goal on 139 shot attempts), had Cassidy believing he’s a fourth-line center who could maybe “grow like [Sean] Kuraly has and threaten to be higher in the lineup.” Ritchie’s tape shows an ex-Dallas Star who scored 13 goals the last two years combined, but his size (6 feet 4 inches, 220 pounds) and past production (16 goals in 2016-17) had Cassidy wondering if he might be able to play with Krejci.
“That, I have no idea though, yet,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy is excited to see, and eager to take the new knee out for a spin on the sheet. It will keep him from dwelling on the events of June 12, though that night will never leave him.
“It’s hit or miss, I think,” Cassidy said. “I think that’s just the way it’s going to be for a while. At least until the puck drops.”
Player tracking nears start line
Bruce Cassidy said he has “no idea right now” how the NHL’s promised player tracking data might affect the Bruins’ preparation for games and practices. Among coaches, he is not alone.
“We get our analytics, so we’ll continue to use those,” Cassidy said. “Whatever they add to or subtract from — which I can’t imagine they’ll subtract anything, information never seems to get subtracted — we’ll find a way to mix it in. But no, I haven’t thought about it.”
The NHL will collect a massive amount of data this season, thanks to sensors implanted in pucks and in the shoulder pads of players, which will send information collected by in-arena antennae and cameras. This will supplement the team of data keepers at every league game, who track events such as shot attempts and hits.
Until the league has at least a few months of tracking data to assess, the Bruins’ analytics department won’t be able to make hay with whatever numbers the NHL’s venture will provide. Like nearly all teams around the league, the Bruins are already tracking their own data — sometimes with the help of outside vendors — then distilling and distributing relevant readouts to Cassidy and his staff. The coaches translate it for the players, keeping it simple and usable.
To name one potential application, the NHL’s tracking of player skating speed and movement will surely be of interest to the Bruins. It is a largely veteran group that just came off one of the longest seasons in league history (starting line in China, finish line Game 7 of the Cup Final). In theory, being able to analyze the in-game explosiveness of, say, Patrice Bergeron, could help coaches deploy him more intelligently, and keep him fresher and healthier. Goalie tracking is another intriguing area. Studying the up-and-down, side-to-side movements of goalies in the crease, their position in relation to pucks and players in front of them, could reveal strengths and weaknesses previously unknown.
“I like what the analytics can bring us,” Bruins president Cam Neely said in June. “I tell our department, you’ve got the resources, how do we get wins from it?
“You look at offensive-zone starts, defensive-zone starts, inner-slot chances, all those things that are tracked, it’s important for our coaching staff to say, ‘We need to do a better job here, we need to do a better job there.’ They look at it, but the analytics department, they’re really diving deep. It’s a great tool to have. But the eye test will never go away.”
Beecher will be one to watch
Former NHL forward Bill Muckalt is now a senior assistant at the University of Michigan. One of his brightest incoming pupils: Bruins first-round puck John Beecher, taken 30th overall in June. Michigan believes Beecher, listed at 6-3 and 210 pounds, will be able to better hone his finishing ability with a spot on the top two lines and the power play, which he wasn’t always getting in his two years with the National Team Development Program.
“We don’t want to put any pressure or expectations on him, but I think he’s going to get every opportunity to play,” Muckalt said of the center, who reports for freshman orientation this coming week. “He certainly plays a pro-style game. With his size, he skates and moves very well . . . He had a tremendous summer. We’re very optimistic and excited to have him.”
At the NTDP, Beecher was playing behind No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes (New Jersey) and Alex Turcotte (No. 5, Los Angeles). The Bruins drafted Beecher largely because of his size-speed combination, believing he could be ready in a few years to push for a spot, along with Jack Studnicka and Trent Frederic, as Bergeron and David Krejci approach their sunsets.
The Bruins will be closely watching the Wolverines, who open Oct. 11 against Clarkson. Muckalt called Boston “hands-on and proactive” with its prospects. “Some other teams,” he noted, “not so much.”
Mike Hall, the father of Bruins 2018 draft pick Curtis Hall, has a special distinction: He played under Cassidy in each one the coach’s pre-NHL stops, before he got his first gig with Washington in 2002. The elder Hall spent time in Jacksonville (ECHL) in 1996-97 and 1997-98, Indianapolis (IHL) in 1998-99, Trenton (ECHL) in 1999-2000, and in Grand Rapids (IHL) in 2000-01, before the IHL merged with the AHL. Hall also played 18 games with the Providence Bruins in 2001. His son is entering his sophomore season at Yale . . . Muckalt is high on Flyers blue-line prospect Cam York, who heads to Ann Arbor after posting a 14-51—65 line in 63 games with the NTDP last season. “I think he’s going to be special,” Muckalt said. “I think he has a chance to be like Brian Leetch. He’s a good defender and offensively his instincts are phenomenal.”
The Wild appear to be on the right track with the hire of GM Bill Guerin. The Wilbraham and Boston College product spent two of his prime years in Boston, scoring a career-high 41 goals in 2001-02. His new club finished last in the Central Division, seven points out of the playoffs . . . The IIHF suspended Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov four years for testing positive for cocaine use, but the NHL won’t levy similar sanctions. The league doesn’t consider it a performance-enhancing drug, rather a “drug of abuse,” according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, “for which intervention, evaluation, and mandatory treatment can occur in appropriate cases.” Daly, in a statement released Friday, said Kuznetsov sought help through the NHL/NHLPA resources and agreed to regular testing as part of that program. He’ll also meet with commissioner Gary Bettman prior to training camp . . . The hockey world lost a pioneering journalist in Russ Conway, who died last Tuesday at 70 after battling an illness. Conway, who arrived on the Bruins beat in Bobby Orr’s rookie year (while still a student at Northeastern), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while working for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. His masterwork: a series of articles exposing the fraud and embezzlement of former NHLPA head and agent Alan Eagleson, who bilked players and tournaments out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Orr, Eagleson’s first client, nearly went bankrupt. Conway’s work became a 1995 best seller, “Game Misconduct.” Eagleson was booted from the Hockey Hall of Fame three years later. The NHLPA is stronger than ever and salaries are skyrocketing, in large part because of Conway’s work. “I lost a great friend yesterday,” tweeted Sportsnet commentator Brian Burke, the former GM and NHL executive. “And the players lost an even better one. Russ Conway, the players’ conscience. RIP, Russ.”