Bruins: How Much Credit for the Recent Turnaround Should go to Cassidy?

(Photo Credit: Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

By: Scott Wood | Follow me on Twitter @ScottHoHPodcast

There’s no question; a different Bruins team has emerged from their recent Covid break at the end of 2021. The statistics can’t be denied. They’ve won six of their first seven in 2022, and their only loss came in a game with questionable officiating that took control in the first period, only to lose it for the rest of the contest. 

Sweeney’s free-agent signings, the topic of much chagrin for Bruins fans, have emerged onto the scene with the juggling of the lines. At the time of writing, Erik Haula has two goals and five points in these seven games, matching his totals over the previous 25. Curtis Lazar has six points in 2022. Anton Blidh is a point-a-game (four), Craig Smith has five in seven (after only seven in his first 20 games), and Oskar Steen has played his way into what looks like a permanent place on the third line next to Charlie Coyle.

None of this has come at the expense of top-end production either. David Pastrnak has his first two multi-goal games of the season, both in the new year. Taylor Hall has eight points in his last seven. And Big Daddy Brad Marchand has eight goals and 12 points since the break. 

We haven’t even talked about Matt Grzelcyk’s five-point game, the first time that’s been accomplished by a blueliner in Boston since Ray Bourque did it in the early ’90s. 

One could not have scripted better results for the Bruins to start the calendar year, but who would have predicted the turnaround? We are merely two weeks removed from a bevy of issues surrounding the team, not the least of which were the criticisms of the Head Coach. 

David Backes stated frustrations in an interview in December on the Cam and Strick Podcast. “We had different views of how hockey should be played,” he said. Cassidy demanded that Backes change his style of play to fit a quicker attack, preferring him to carry the puck over the blueline and challenge defensemen one-on-one instead of hammering smaller opposing players on a heavy forecheck.

“I tried to lose weight to try to keep up more with the play, and in hindsight, I should’ve just said, ‘Hey, I am who I am, and you’re not gonna make. …I’m more of a hammer than… I am who I am, and I’m going to try to be the best version of myself, and hopefully, you can use me mucking in the corners and getting to the front of the net.”

It eventually led to Backes losing his spot in the lineup, including being a healthy scratch in a losing effort in game seven of the Stanley Cup Final against Backes’ former club, being waived the following season, and eventually being dealt to the Anaheim Ducks at the trade deadline in 2020.

Two players chosen in the now-infamous first round of the Bruins Entry Draft in 2015 asked to be dealt. Zach Senyshyn because he feels he should be given an opportunity to contribute in the NHL, a feeling obviously not shared by Bruins management. And Jake DeBrusk, who has struggled mightily in the past couple of seasons, and despite playing a more consistent game this year, feels it is best for his career to start anew elsewhere. 

The Bruins had lost three consecutive games going into their break, sat eighth in the Eastern Conference, and while having success against weaker opponents, had struggled against competitive clubs – a group they envision themselves to be among. Rumors began to swirl about Bruins Captain Patrice Bergeron getting into an argument with Cassidy over the coach’s treatment of teammate Matt Grzelcyk. These were never substantiated, but even the fact that they persisted and seemed believable to many at the time raises its own red flag. 

(Photo Credit: Wayne Cuddington/Postmedia)

After the new lines had played together for a few games, David Krejci lamented how his requests to play with Pastrnak were rebuked by Cassidy. “After years, I leave Boston, and suddenly that’s possible. That surprised me. [Bruce Cassidy] always told me that he had no reason to take Pasta off the first line and that it would be as short as possible to dismantle the forces. I had to take it. But now Pasta has five or so many matches on the line with Taylor Hall and Erik Haula. Strange.”

There has been plenty of smoke surrounding the Cassidy fire this season, but let’s take some time to give him some credit where it’s due.

Coyle being moved off of the second line for Erik Haula, despite personally exceeding expectations, was a bold play, perhaps even bolder than splitting up the top line. While Coyle and Hall never really seemed to “click,” Haula had been far less impressive and had not earned the promotion. The call for Pastrnak to put on to a line with Hall had been loud from Bruins fans, but no one was pounding the table for Erik Haula to be the pivot on that unit. 

Cassidy has also done a great job of integrating young players like Anton Blidh and Oskar Steen and given them consistent ice time, rolling four lines even with players like Trent Frederic, Tomas Nosek, and Nick Foligno missing time. 

Cassidy handled his goaltending, which had consistent issues early in the season, sporting bottom-of-the-league save percentages with grace and patience, and ensured that both netminders got significant games to work through their issues. Ullmark, in particular, has come up big of late, with nine wins in his last 11 games, dating back to the middle of December.

And as I mentioned in a previous article, the Bruins have regularly outplayed their opponent since the puck first dropped on the 2021-22 season, outdone primarily by timely mistakes and an inconsistent schedule that hampered the team’s ability to forge chemistry throughout the lineup. 

While the Bruins in 2022 have certainly shown a lot of promise, one still has to wonder how Cassidy will navigate the impending challenges ahead.

(Photo Credit: Chris O’Meara via Associated Press)

With nearly 50 games remaining, the schedule is more condensed than any we’ve ever seen. How Cassidy manages ice time, impending injury, and ebbs and flows in momentum will define this season. His shuffled lines have worked so far, but how much rope will he give them if the Bruins drop a few consecutive games? Can he keep upstart young players Anton Blidh and Oskar Steen in the lineup when Foligno returns? How does he manage his goaltenders if someone falters? With roster moves still yet to come via DeBrusk and the trade deadline, how will the coach maintain the current chemistry? After all, it took Cassidy 26 games before finally deciding to spread the talent around. He no longer has the luxury of that patience. 

2022 feels all good so far, and it’s easy to let the excitement creep in and overshadow the concerns many shared through the first quarter of the season. But as good as Bruins fans feel today, the biggest challenges are yet to come. 

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