By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
When Bruce Cassidy took over for longtime Bruins head coach Claude Julien in early February of 2017, the team that calls TD Garden home was in peril. Having failed to reach the playoffs the prior two seasons – and looking as if they were in danger of making it a hat-trick of early tee times in April – it was clear that Julien’s time as the B’s bench boss was over.
For two years in a row, his squads seeming quit on him down the stretch, and it looked as if they would do the same as the dog days of the NHL schedule approached. Under the gun themselves, the Bruins general manager Don Sweeney and team president Cam Neely turned their lonely eyes – and lucrative careers – toward the guy they call Butch, to help bail their asses out.
And boy, did he ever.
The Cassidy led Bruins went 18-8-1 to qualify for the NHL’s second season – something that seemed to be the prime directive from the Jacobs Family if Neely and Sweeney wanted to remain in their comfy offices on Causeway Street – and more importantly, he turned a lifeless team into one that was fun to watch again.
And while even though they would bow out in the first round to the Ottawa Senators in six games in the first round, those who bleed Black and Gold had a reason to be hopeful again. In contrast to Claude’s philosophy of winning games 0-0, Cassidy opened up the game plan and it seemed that the weary group he inherited bought in fully.
Whether or not the Bruins brass will admit it now, a little over two years ago Jeremy Jacobs gold mine was laying rotten eggs. Hamstrung by former GM Peter Chiarelli’s spending spree following the 2011 Stanley Cup win and the run to the Finals in 2013, Sweeney was handed a bucket of warm spit when it came to the salary cap, and he hadn’t exactly established himself as an executive at the NHL level.
In fact, Sweeney’s moves during his first draft in 2015 remain under scrutiny, and it seemed as if the aging core of Cup-winning veterans window was closing rapidly. Even with the improvement in play in Cassidy’s first couple of months at the helm was not enough to change the minds of those around the game that the Bruins were in the midst of a rebuild, and it was likely to get worse before it got better.
Not even Cassidy’s closest friends and family could have predicted the monumental strides the team made under his first season behind the bench full time. And yet, when the playoffs came, their lack of depth was exposed when the still Stanley Cup favorite Tampa Bay Lighting made light of their lack of secondary scoring when they summarily dismissed them in five games in the second round last spring.
This past summer when Sweeney swung and missed on the two biggest offensive targets in free agency – John Tavares and Ilya Kovalchuk – it was obvious that the B’s front office was going to lean heavily on Cassidy’s ability to bring the most out of his still unbalanced bunch that he would be given to start camp in September.
In truth, Cassidy wasn’t afforded much of a training camp in the fall. Due to the pull of the almighty dollar, the Bruins sent half of those invited to camp to China with their head coach to play a pair of exhibition games against the Calgary Flames, while the other half stayed stateside under the watch of assistant coach Joe Sacco.
Not exactly the best situation for a team that was hoping to see some pretty substantial progression from the fringe portions of their roster.
Nevertheless, faced once again with extensive injuries to key components that he was hoping to rely on – especially early in the season – on his roster, Cassidy has somehow kept his mishmash of next men up in the playoff picture entering the New Year.
Now that the New Year is only days away and the Bruins are seemingly returning to health, one would think that the heavy lifting heading towards crunch time in the NHL should shift towards Sweeney as the trade deadline approaches at the end of February.
However, whether or not the B’s GM gives his bench boss more to work with when the playoffs start in April, those who carry a vote for the league’s Coach of the Year vote should not forget the superb job that Cassidy has done carrying his team this far under such adverse conditions.
The year may not be over yet, but when the calendar flips in a few days is when the real fun begins for hockey fans. If Sweeney can do half the job his second-year head coach has done since he was hired between now and then, it could be an extended run of playoff hockey for Bruins fans this spring.