NHL: Boston Bruins at Carolina Hurricanes

Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy reacts during the team's Dec. 23 game at Carolina.

 

If he were Claude Julien, a torch-bearing mob would be outside Warrior Arena and on the airwaves calling for his head.

Instead, recent reactions to Bruce Cassidy’s manipulation of the Bruins’ lineup have induced head-scratching declarations of “disappointment,” “if only he would ...” and, my personal favorite, “he’s not the same guy.”

Oh, but he is.

Last year’s honeymoon of let the kids go out and play — and voila, 112 points — was only an initial step.

Step Two (ie. tougher love) is never as easy. Now the league knows your players, notes are taken, scouting reports are established, video studied, and meetings held. The prospects who thrived as entry-level NHLers have found that much of what made them successful in 2017-18 doesn’t work in 2018-19.

Brandon Carlo went through it last season and Charlie McAvoy (when healthy) is going through it this season.

Especially for ambitious defensemen, growing pains turn wins into losses and put mistakes on full fish bowl display.

Ramifications could have been more punitive for talented forwards Ryan Donato and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, whose probations were extended by a preseason trip to China that cut Bruins camp in half. Cassidy’s second full season as Bruins coach began by extending auditions in hopes prospects could develop on the job.

Complications persisted with injuries that cost Torey Krug the first 11 games of the season. Then McAvoy (20 games) and Jake DeBrusk (nine) went out with concussions. Kevan Miller, meantime, snuck four games in between two 13-game absences before returning Dec. 27.

Midway through the season, the Bruins have yet to ice a fully healthy lineup, and after Joakim Nordstrom broke his fibula in the Winter Classic, it will be at least another few weeks.

Somehow, Boston went 9-6-1 during the 16 games they were without both Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara.

Even after Bergeron’s triumphant Dec. 22 return (two goals and two assists in a 5-2 win over Nashville), a pair of listless losses to the Hurricanes and Devils had the Bruins teetering on the playoff bubble. They have since responded with four inspiring performances that make last year’s 50-20-12 record look surprisingly reachable.

After Thursday’s Game 41 victory over Calgary, Cassidy openly hoped for a better second half.

“We’d like to think we’ll get better, simply because a lot of the guys that were out that are key contributors are now healthy and the only one left is Charlie ... We hope to see him back on skates early next week,” he said before mentioning Nordstrom.

A healthier lineup will provide the long-awaited opportunity to establish consistent forward lines. This cannot be good news to every player who has helped get the Bruins to this point.

A week after Bergeron was injured, center Colby Cave was recalled from the American Hockey League. A darkhorse prospect whose sturdiness over 20 games helped the Bruins survive Bergeron’s absence, Cave was scratched on Saturday against Buffalo.

The decision got Cassidy a Bronx cheer on social media.

At 24, Cave is neither the youngest nor the sexiest of prospects. He takes the body, takes faceoffs and takes all 200 feet of the rink seriously, but rarely does he finish a scoring chance.

Players whose primary skills are coachability and compete level help teams survive crucial injuries and set strong examples for A-list prospects, but they don’t wear well with fans.

When Nordstrom is ready, Cassidy will play him despite the fact the Swedish mucker doesn’t score like Daniel Alfredsson. Regardless of how many more games Cave plays, it would be a terrible mistake to overlook his contribution this season.

As surely as Ryan Spooner and Frank Vatrano proved not to be Julien’s or Cassidy’s guys, coaching is not about winning popularity contests, just hockey games.

“How do I feel?” Cassidy was asked at the halfway point. “I feel pretty good, but we’re always going to push to get better and strive for that complete, 60-minute game.”

Despite his 50-win campaign last year, Cassidy stood no chance when NHL broadcasters voted Vegas’ Gerard Gallant the Jack Adams award as NHL Coach of the Year.

Cassidy is an unlikely candidate for the Adams award this year, but what he has done is coach the Bruins into a position that enables General Manager Don Sweeney to make a trade that could make the season last longer.