Bruce Cassidy met with the Boston media for the last time on Thursday wearing a Boston Celtics t-shirt.
Not visible on the Zoom screen were the big boy pants he was wearing.
Speaking for the first time since being fired as head coach of the Bruins, Cassidy was his usual honest and expansive self. He made it clear he very much still wanted to be coach of the Boston Bruins and that he went into the offseason after his meeting with GM Don Sweeney with the understanding he still would be. He also defended his impressive record.
But as a hockey lifer, Cassidy knows full well that coaches are hired to be fired. And while he defended his own record, he refused to take any potshots at the B’s fans’ new favorite whipping boys, Sweeney and team president Cam Neely. When asked if he got a raw deal – a reasonable question given the amount of winning his teams have done – he wouldn’t go there.
“The Bruin is basically tattooed to me,” said Cassidy in the call facilitated by the B’s organization. “That’s the difficult part. The friendships you make, the business relationships with people, the personal relationships. Raw deal? I don’t know about that. I feel I did my job. We can always get better. We can always be better. Every coach, management, player walks away from the game at the end of the year thinking where could I have been better to be the last team standing?….
“At the end of the day, I understand the business part of it. I really do. Coaches come and go. I got an opportunity because a very good coach (Claude Julien) who won a Stanley Cup here got let go. I get it. And at the day, did I still want to be here? Absolutely. Do I want to coach in this league? Yes, as soon as possible, because it’s what I do. I coach and I love to do it. I have a lot of respect for Donnie and how we’ve built our relationship over the years. He’s got a job to do. He made a decision. That falls under his purview to decide who the next coach is. He made a decision. So now I’m on to the next challenge.”
Cassidy had term left on his contract and was told he would continue in his role. He had even gone so as starting the process of tweaking his staff. He had let long-time colleague Kevin Dean go. Cassidy lauded Dean’s work with the defense and believes he belongs in the NHL but was looking for a more offensive-minded coach.
“Ton of respect for Kevin,” said Cassidy. “I just felt like he needed to go and hear another voice for him and we needed to bring in another voice.”
Now Cassidy will have to build a whole new staff, and the next challenge will most likely come very soon. There are at least six coaching openings in the NHL and Cassidy confirmed he’s already had teams reach out to him. Perhaps only Barry Trotz would be higher on the list of candidates for any job.
There is a narrative developing that he was too tough on young players, but Cassidy pointed out that in his first full season, he incorporated youngsters like Jake DeBrusk, Anders Bjork, Charlie McAvoy, Danton Heinen and Brandon Carlo, to name a few. He had varying degrees of success, but the fact of the matter is he made it to a Stanley Cup final with many of those players. It didn’t go as smoothly with some of the current youngsters.
“I’m very proud of my record with young guys,” said Cassidy. “I think what happens is when you’re a team that’s contending for a Stanley Cup, there’s just not as much room on the roster to put those guys in on a regular basis. We want guys to learn from their mistakes. It’s going to happen. Nobody’s perfect. And we’re OK with that. But at the end of the day, when you’re vying for a championship, the closer you get to that, any player, young or old, has to make sure that their game’s buttoned up.”
Always frank in his post-game assessments to the media, Cassidy said that Neely had told him once that he needed to be careful not to start any unnecessary narratives. Cassidy accepted that criticism as valid.
Cassidy conceded that the messaging with players brought more challenges this year. First there were a host of new players to incorporate, from the five free agents signed in the offseason to the three players added at last year’s trade deadline.
There were also issues on the power play that was helmed by long-term B’s. He often lamented that players were being stubborn, but he chose to give them more latitude because of their track record.
“I do feel at times some of our guys got away from the plan. And you know what, we’ve got a lot of faith in those guys that run the power play. They’ve done it for years here,” said Cassidy. “If you go back in time here and look at the statistics since I took over, our power play I believe was No. 1 in the National Hockey League over that stretch. And that’s a credit to Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, Torey Krug, now Charlie McAvoy, (Matt Grzelcyk) was in there, DeBrusk was a net-front guy, David Krejci had a lot to do with that. So there’s a certain amount of trust that you have to put in your players. I believe that. They’re the ones that drive the team. How much? Yeah, that’s always open to discussion. It was a little difficult at times in the month of April. As I said, we got stubborn. I told the players that… At the end of the day, we needed to be better at key moments. So the messaging on that, I had to find a better way and to be quite honest, it was a two-way street on that and I was hoping that they would receive it better because of the success we all had. It happened as the series (against Carolina) went on, but not quite enough.”
But in the end, it’s tough to look at what Cassidy accomplished with the B’s – six straight playoff seasons, .672 points percentage – and think that he was anything but a success. The loss in the Game 7 Cup final in 2019 still gnaws at him and probably always will, or at least until he does raise the Cup. If he does, it won’t be with the Boston Bruins.
But after being fired from his first head coaching job with the Capitals at the age of 38, after grinding for over a decade in junior hockey and the minors to get his next chance, and in his time with the B’s, Cassidy learned one very important thing.
“I learned I could be a very good coach in the National Hockey League.”
Few would, or could, argue against that now.