By Joe Chrzanowski | Follow Me on Twitter @jchrz19
For the last three years, I have watched the NHL awards nominations and the subsequent awards show and wondered when Bruce Cassidy is going to get some recognition as one of the best coaches in the league? Even though he was nominated in 2017-18, everyone knew that Gerard Gallant of Vegas was winning the award that year (despite the B’s finishing with more points than the Knights. When will his time come, if ever?
Cassidy received his first NHL head coaching position in 2002. He was 37 years old and took over a veteran-laden Washington Capitals team with eight regulars that were over the age of 30. It must have been a pretty daunting proposition for the Ottawa native in his first kick at the NHL coaching can? His initial year in Washington went relatively well. The team had an above-average season, finished with 92 points, and made the playoffs after missing the season before under previous coach Ron Wilson. The Capitals were eliminated by Tampa in the first round in six games, but all in all a decent start for Cassidy.
Unfortunately, the following season was a different story. The team got off to a rough 8-18-1-1 start under Cassidy and he was replaced by Glen Hanlon (who fared no better). There were rumors of issues between veteran players and their young head coach. Any time players are only a few years older than the coach and things don’t go well, this is a possibility.
Cassidy had less than six seasons experience as a professional head coach and had been the coach of the year in the AHL in 2001-02 for Grand Rapids before making the jump to the NHL. It was a rapid rise and Cassidy may not have been fully prepared for the rough road his second season in Washington?
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) April 26, 2017
He returned to coaching in 2005-06 as an assistant for the Chicago Blackhawks. He would spend the next ten seasons honing his craft in the OHL and AHL before returning to the NHL as an assistant coach with the Bruins under Claude Julien in 2016-17 at the age of 51. The team had narrowly missed the playoffs the previous two seasons and after 55 games were only three games above .500. This was an unheard-of proposition for the proud Original Six franchise and GM Don Sweeney decided to make a change.
He installed Cassidy as Julien’s replacement with 27 games to go and the season in the balance. The B’s went 18-8-1 during that stretch, finished with 95 points, and qualified for the playoffs. After some key injuries, they were eliminated by Ottawa in the first round in six games. Probably not what Cassidy and the team had hoped for, but a solid beginning. It was no surprise that Cassidy would not get Adams Trophy consideration for 27 games, but I’m not sure what the reasoning has been since that time?
The following year (2017-18) would see the team take another step forward under Cassidy. They finished with a record of 50-20-12 (.683), and 112 points, good for 2nd in the Atlantic (one point behind Tampa). After a thrilling seven-game series and victory over Toronto, the Bruins appeared a bit overmatched vs Tampa Bay and were eliminated by the Bolts in five games. Still, it was a step forward for the organization, reaching the 2nd round of the playoffs for the first time in four years.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) June 21, 2018
Cassidy was nominated for the Adams but ended up finishing 2nd to the Vegas Knight’s coach, Gerard Gallant. As I mentioned earlier, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Gallant would win because of his success with an expansion squad, leading them to the Stanley Cup Finals. In retrospect, seeing the advantages this expansion team had over its predecessors and how well they were constructed, perhaps this vote should have been a lot closer than it was?
In 2018-19 it was more of the same for Cassidy and the Bruins. They finished the regular season at 49-24-9 (.652), with 107 points, and finished 2nd to Tampa Bay again in the Atlantic. One could argue that Cassidy did an even better job that regular season than the year before (despite having five fewer points). The B’s didn’t suffer any season-ending injuries, but they did have a variety of injuries to key contributors on the top two lines, both forwards and defensemen. Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Torey Krug, and Zdeno Chara all missed 15-20 games, with Charlie McAvoy missing almost 30. Cassidy plugged guys into the holes and the team didn’t miss a beat.
While the 2018-19 postseason started off the same as 2017-18, with a seven-game series win over the Maple Leafs, what followed hadn’t been seen in Boston since the 2012-13 season. The B’s followed up their opening-round victory with wins over Columbus and Carolina (in the Eastern Conference Finals), and faced St. Louis in the championship round. Ultimately, the Bruins lost a heartbreaking seven-game series to the Blues. Obviously not what the organization envisioned, but it was another big step forward.
Cassidy was not nominated for the Adams. That honor went to Barry Trotz for turning the Islanders around, Craig Berube for doing the same with the Blues, and John Cooper for a record-setting regular season. Ultimately the award went to Trotz after engineering a 23-point improvement for the Isles. Unfortunately, the Jack Adams Award is based solely on regular-season performance, otherwise, I feel like Cassidy would have had another strong candidacy. Despite the tough loss to St. Louis, the Boston front office had seen more than enough from their head coach the prior two-plus seasons and signed him to a multi-year contract extension in September of 2019.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) September 11, 2019
Which brings us to the 2019-20 hockey season, one like no other in history (unfortunately). There was a lot of talk last summer about Stanley Cup hangovers and teams struggling after losing in the Finals. Cassidy and the Bruins showed no sign of these maladies, getting off to a quick start, and finishing October with a record of 9-1-2. Despite predictions by many of an angry Tampa team coming out hard after their first-round elimination last season, it was Boston that led the Atlantic pretty much start to finish.
When the NHL recently announced their “return to play” plan and the regular season was officially over, the Bruins became the 2019-20 President’s Cup winners, finishing the year with a 44-14-12 record (.714) and 100 points. Because of the expanded playoff system, Boston will have to take part in a “play in” round to determine the top four seeding order in the East, along with Tampa, Washington, and Philadephia. This despite being the dominant team in the league all season (but that’s another discussion).
Cassidy replaced a coach who had won a Stanley Cup in Boston, which is no mean feat itself, but he also has made fans forget about Mr. Julien. His adherence to two-way hockey is nearly at the level of his predecessor, but unlike Clode, Cassidy appears to want his defensemen to “activate” and join the rush whenever possible. His demeanor with the press is also very different. I have been a Boston sports fan for a long time and his candid statements to the media are refreshing. At the same time, Cassidy manages to do this without being abrasive or disrespectful to the players. You get the feeling that “what you see is what you get” and that he has the same straightforward approach with the team.
Cassidy led the team to the playoffs as an interim guy. Followed that up by winning a playoff round the next season, and leading the team to the Stanley Cup Finals the following year. Not content to rest on his laurels, this season the Bruins finish with the most points in the NHL. Over three-plus seasons, Cassidy has compiled a staggering .682 winning percentage. He is second in wins to Tampa and John Cooper but has enjoyed more playoff success.
Due to the change in the season schedule, the NHL Broadcaster’s Association, which is responsible for voting on the nominations and winners of the Jack Adams Award, will not be announcing anything until an undetermined date later in the summer. Is there anything else Bruce Cassidy needs to do to get his name on that trophy? We shall see.