Effective leader: He may not be legendary, and he hasn’t won a title (yet), but his coaching success is notable.
Six Super Bowl rings in a 17-year span and the architect of one of the greatest dynasties in pro sports history puts Patriots coach Bill Belichick at the top — or, even for those who hate him and his organization, at least near the top — of the greatest coaches in NFL history.
Alex Cora has plenty of bragging rights of his own, having guided the Red Sox to a franchise-record 108 wins last summer in his first season as manager, then another 11 victories in a dominant postseason run that culminated in a World Series triumph.
Then there are those Green Team sycophants who will tell you that Celtics coach Brad Stevens is the greatest thing to happen in basketball since peach baskets were replaced with rims and netting. Truth be told, the 42-year-old does know the game inside and out and has worked tirelessly to bring Banner 18 to the TD Garden rafters.
And then there is Bruce Cassidy.
The Boston Bruins’ bench boss doesn’t have the championship pedigree of Cora or (certainly) Belichick, nor is he as universally adored by his team’s fan base as Stevens is with his. But he’s been wildly effective since being promoted from assistant to head coach in February 2017, his teams having amassed 111 wins during his tenure while playing an up-tempo style favored by the fervent Black-and-Gold fan base.
More importantly, he has the Bruins back in the chase as viable Stanley Cup contenders.
“Butch pushes all the right buttons with us,” said forward Chris Wagner, who has potted a career high 12 goals this season under Cassidy’s leadership after scoring only 17 in his previous 174 games with the Ducks, Avalanche and Islanders. “We’ve had a lot of guys out of the lineup at various times, and he’s played a huge role in getting certain matchups when he wants to. But at the same time, he lets us play our game.”
Fresh off a 19-game unbeaten streak that stretched through all of February and into March — almost all with the club’s best pure scorer, injured winger David Pastrnak — Cassidy has his team poised to face a talented Toronto team in the first round of next month’s playoffs for a second straight year. Should they shake down the Leafs, an almost certain rematch would await in Round 2 with the buzzsaw that are the Tampa Bay Lightning, then perhaps a date with the defending Cup champs from Washington in the conference finals.
Difficult hurdles all, but certainly not insurmountable. Not with the way Cassidy has been able to mix and match lines depending on who’s healthy; the game-by-game challenges he readily accepts; the expectations of a region hungry to add another championship crown to its already overflowing bounty.
“They’re grinds every night,” admitted the 53-year-old Cassidy, “and it’s our job to prepare the players. I enjoy that part of the game. But yes, it’s nice to look at yourself and where you are in the standings, take a deep breath and not be that team ... that are one point in (the playoff picture) one night and one point out the next.”
Adaptability pays off
Claude Julien had coached the Bruins for nine-and-a-half seasons, amassing more victories (419) than anyone in his position before him. He added another 57 triumphs in the postseason and claimed the Stanley Cup in 2011. But his preferred style of play had grown stale with players and fans, and with Boston on the verge of missing the playoffs for a third straight season, he was relieved of his duties by management on Feb. 7, 2017.
Enter Cassidy, the first-year Boston assistant who had been the head man in AHL Providence the four years prior and, like Julien, was a short-time NHL defenseman who stayed in the game through coaching.
As the interim boss, Cassidy helped the Bruins to an 18-8-1 mark to close out the 2016-17 regular season and slide into the playoffs. The players bought into his aggressive, attacking style in the offensive zone while losing none of their defensive responsibilities.
Having his job title become permanent in the offseason, he helped Boston reach the 50-win mark for the 10th time in franchise history and a spot in the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals.
After defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets in overtime, 2-1, this past Saturday, Cassidy’s charges had a 43-20-9 mark entering Tuesday’s game against the Islanders, good for 95 points as they head into the final straightaway of the regular season.
Not bad, considering Cassidy hadn’t been an NHL head coach since being fired by the Capitals in December 2003. In his way back to calling the shots at the NHL level, he worked as an assistant for the Chicago Blackhawks for a season, spent two years as head coach in the Ontario Hockey League with the Kingston Frontenacs and eight years total in Providence before getting the call to assist Julien for the 2016-17 campaign.
This season, Cassidy has helped develop symmetry between goalies Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak early on, riding Halak when he was hot in the early going before turning to his established No. 1, Rask, who went more than two months without a regulation loss. As a result, Rask has played in just over half (40) of Boston’s 72 games and should be fresher than hyacinths in a spring breeze when the playoffs begin.
He’s weathered injuries and ailments to some of his best players (Patrice Bergeron, Charlie McAvoy, captain Zdeno Chara, Pastrnak, Rask) while integrating guys like Trent Frederic, Steven Kampfer, Connor Clifton and Paul Carey into the lineup at various times.
He’s had the four-time Selke Award winner, Bergeron, thriving offensively again at age 33, with his points-per-game averages the last two seasons (0.98 and 1.18 points per game, respectively) the best marks of his 15-year NHL career.
He’s helped keep the 42-year-old Chara’s minutes down, resulting in a player who isn’t worn down by the regular season slog and is better prepared for a long postseason march.
Now, the push for another shot at lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup has already begun for Cassidy and the Bruins. They’re trying to remain in second place in the Atlantic Division ahead of Toronto, thus guaranteeing themselves home ice advantage in a first-round playoff series, while eagerly awaiting the return of injured regulars Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Matt Grzelcyk, Marcus Johansson and Pastrnak.
Knowing where you stand
Cassidy loves to see different players contributing whether they’re moved up or down the lines, asked to fill in on the blue line or chipping in something specific that leads to victory: a shorthanded goal, a clutch penalty kill, an open ice hit that changes the game’s momentum.
“They play for one another every night. It’s not always perfect, but they’re great that way and happy for each other,” he said after a recent win over Florida. “You don’t see that in every team, trust me; some guys are not happy for others. They want to be ‘the’ guy, (but) I think our guys are genuinely happy for each other’s success.”
Part of that comes with the players’ ability to adapt.
Second-year left wing Jake DeBrusk, who had his difficulties over the first 40 or so contests, has found his mojo playing alongside veteran center David Krejci. Soon-to-be 35-year-old winger David Backes has also had his struggles and thrice has been a healthy scratch, but has found his way back into the lineup by his willingness to drop his gloves and engage with willing foes.
“I asked Butchy when we were in Vegas and we had a meeting if I could be put in roles or places that would have a bigger impact in games,” said Backes, whose three fights this season have all come since Feb. 26. “And you know, whether that’s with my gloves off or my gloves on, I think he’s provided me those opportunities — and hopefully I’ve done my job for him.”
Wagner might be the best example here, a complementary player before coming to Boston who has not only shined in a bottom six role, but even earned time on the top line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, rewarding his coach’s faith with a tip-in for the game-winner in the final minute of a recent home win over Ottawa.
“We got a spark from Wags there a bit and kind of fed off of that,” said another second-year winger, Danton Heinen. “So yeah, (Cassidy’s) definitely making some good decisions on the fly and it’s paying off.”
“You usually know where you stand with him, which is always huge whether it’s good or bad,” added Wagner. “Butch is aware of how we’re feeling and knows what the chemistry is like in the locker room. He doesn’t want to screw that up; he complements it.”
For all of his accolades — mentor, motivator, open, honest, competitive, driven — the one thing Cassidy wants to add to his coaching resume is simple: Stanley Cup champion. And given what he and his squad have accomplished so far during his short stint as the Boston boss, who’s to say he can’t do so?