Reflecting on the Bruins’ Bruce Cassidy Era

(Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

By: Tom Heinlein | Follow me on Twitter @tomheinlein1

The Bruins firing of Bruce Cassidy earlier this week was a sobering moment. After five-plus seasons of success, including six playoff appearances, a game removed from a Stanley Cup, and the President’s Trophy, Mr. Cassidy left an indelible footprint on one of the Bruins’ most successful stretches in history. He will be missed.

The firing recalled a similar time when Claude Julien was dismissed in February 2017. Mr. Julien, who had led the Bruins to their first championship in nearly 40 years and returned them to the finals two years later, was a classy manager. He was someone easy to root for throughout his long, distinguished tenure with Boston. His dismissal—during the second half of the season with the team hovering just above .500—had, like the most recent firing of a Bruins head coach, also been to more than a few, both surprising and lamentable.

To help digest this latest coaching change, I sought out perspective by looking back to that time in 2017, when the coaching reigns had last changed hands, and a successful coach was let go: one, to recall the reasoning behind that decision and words spoken during the transition; and two, to try and pay some form of tribute to Mr. Cassidy, by revisiting how he fared in his first game as Bruins coach—his second chance as a head coach after a short stint with the Capitals over a decade earlier.

To point one, a striking similarity was evident in what management offered to the media and fans regarding the firing of each of these coaches. “Excellent coach. Sure to be rehired quickly and go on to success with another team. Wish him well.” Kind words, those a fan of a respected coach likes to hear but also begs the question, Then, why? Why let go of a coach whom management is certain will go on to do great things with a competitor? The refrain was similar: “Very difficult decision”; “need a new voice”; “need a new style of play”; “need a new direction”; and so on. And specifically mentioned as more came out the other day, “someone to put their arms around the players more.”

While it cannot be known how the Bruins would have fared under Mr. Julien over the last five-plus seasons, it certainly is clear how handing over the team to Mr. Cassidy turned out. The record shows it to have been a success—even without the ultimate, a Stanley Cup—and, despite some accounts, reasonable to anticipate a bright future under his leadership rather than “the end of the Cup window with his dismissal.” Readers may, after all, know well of Jon Cooper.

Mr. Cooper took over the Tampa Bay Lightning in late March 2013. For his first six-plus seasons, he led Tampa Bay to five Eastern Conference finals and one Stanley Cup final appearance—but had not yet produced an ultimate winner, delivered the coveted prize. Lighting brass stayed with him nevertheless. Now, Tampa Bay is in a position to do what nobody in the NHL has done since the early 1980s: win three consecutive championships.

Here’s hoping that the next five years will prove to be a similarly effective move (including maybe even a Stanley Cup) as was the 2017 coaching transition—and not be a missed opportunity in releasing the Bruins’ own version of Jon Cooper a season too early.

Now, to point number two, Mr. Cassidy’s memorable start as Boston’s coach. In addition to the February 9, 2017 game being the new coach’s first with the Bruins, two other things stood out that night. A blizzard covered New England, yet almost 10,000 fans braved the weather and showed up at TD Garden. And, maybe as an ironic twist, the home team welcomed another former beloved black-and-gold stalwart who was let go only to go on to greater glory elsewhere: Joe Thornton. He and his San Jose Sharks were in town to face off against the Bruins.

The night could not have gone much better for the Bruins or their new coach. The Bruins scored three goals in the first period to head into intermission with a 3-1 lead, an uncommon early advantage thus far that season. In fact, it took less than a minute in for Boston to light the lamp, with a rejuvenated David Backes—shouldering the burden of being a $30 million signing the previous summer while having gone the last 12 games without a goal—opening the scoring.

He sent a one-timer past the Sharks’ goalie on an assist from Torey Krug. The Sharks did counter next—yes, you guessed it, Thornton, who tied the score at 7:51 off a Bruins turnover before Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak countered with goals later in the period. (Side note on the former Bruin turned Shark: It was only Thornton’s fourth goal of the season and the first that was not an empty-netter, but I digress.)

The Sharks looked to climb back in it, as they scored early in the second, but the Bruins were not to be denied, wanting to make a good first impression upon their new leader. Tim Schaller made it 4-2 when he banged the puck home from close range, and then late in the period, Pastrnak scored his second of the night—both on power-plays—this time from the left-wing circle. It came on a tune that would be familiar many times over the last five-plus seasons: Bergeron to Marchand to Pastrnak: goal! It also temporarily gave the rising Czech star the lead in goals over linemate Marchand, 24 to 23. The Bruins coasted home in the third, with Marchand finishing the scoring—to again tie for the team lead in goals—with an empty-netter.

“All in all, it was a looser, lighter, sometimes unkempt product than the one orchestrated for a decade by the more defense-demanding Julien,” commented The Boston Globe afterward. The coach himself was satisfied, citing he liked that his team “got to pucks in the dirty areas and were willing to go there.” He also liked the team’s “resiliency when we got scored on . . .  that we re-established some urgency in this building.” This first night fit with what Mr. Cassidy would emphasize going forward: an uptempo, creative, opportunistic approach.

The Bruce Cassidy era had begun, and this first-night performance was not to be an aberration. For the next five-plus seasons, the Bruins were a delight to watch and cheer on, a team that gave fans confidence that each year would involve a post-season and real hope that the Cup was in reach.

May Mr. Cassidy’s successor fare as well.

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