From the moment Boston Bruins president and Hall of Famer Cam Neely blundered his way through his end-of-season media availability, it seemed as though head coach Bruce Cassidy was on super-secret probation.
As the days passed since the Bruins were eliminated in Game 7 of the first round in Carolina on May 14, it seemed as though maybe we’d misinterpreted Neely’s awkward response to Cassidy’s job security, which went along the lines of – and we’re paraphrasing here – “Yeah, well, not sure about the coach, nice guy but gee, well, might need some changes so we’ll get back to you on that.”
Surely you wouldn’t wait several weeks after being eliminated to fire your coach if that was what you were planning to do all along. Would you?
What sense would there be in that?
Why let the half a dozen other teams looking for a head coach get ahead of you in interviewing top candidates unless you’re not interested in a top coaching candidate, of course? And, again, what would the sense of that be?
And if you have any humanity, why let Cassidy twist in the wind for more than three weeks while you fiddle, Nero-like, deciding what you’re going to do, if you knew this was the path you were going to follow all along?
Well, all of this happens when you don’t have any humanity or, worse, if you don’t have a plan or a clue or both.
And that, folks, is apparently where the Bruins are at, having dispatched a coach who led them to the playoffs in each of the six seasons he was behind the Boston bench, including a trip to Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
Hey, you don’t like the vibe? It’s your team. Go for it. It’s what guys like GM Don Sweeney and team president Neely get paid the big bucks for, to make those sometimes hard calls.
And it’s clear there were issues with Cassidy over time as it relates to the evolution of young players and special teams. That, too, is inevitable when it comes to coaching in the NHL, and sometimes it is time for a change.
The New York Islanders inexplicably fired two-time Jack Adams Award winner Barry Trotz, and while we think Islander GM Lou Lamoriello is making a hash of things with the Islanders, at least he was direct about his plans and quickly installed Lane Lambert as his guy.
Will the Bruins move as swiftly? If the dallying over what to do with Cassidy is any indication, this is a team that won’t be rushing into anything, which may or may not turn out to be problematic.
Certainly, if you’re one of the top coaches on the marketplace, hard to imagine the Bruins would be anywhere near the top of the list in terms of the openings given that serious injuries are likely going to keep Brad Marchand and top defenseman Charlie McAvoy out of the lineup until well into next season and with Mike Reilly and Matt Grzelcyk also undergoing offseason surgeries that may delay the start of their 2022-23 seasons. And then there’s uncertainty surrounding future Hall of Famer Patrice Bergeron, who was just named Frank J. Selke Trophy winner but underwent elbow surgery and hasn’t made public his decision on returning to the Bruins as he is a pending unrestricted free agent.
Does the bewildering handling of the coaching decision impact Bergeron’s decision?
Well, you have to hope if you’re a Bruins fan that at least some of the long lag in time between “Um, about the coach, we’re not really sure” and the actual firing was spent in canvassing the team’s leadership group. If not, well, that’s a pretty significant dereliction of duty. And if there is a more honorable person in the game than Bergeron, we don’t know him, so here’s hoping he wasn’t caught unaware of this decision.
In his media briefing early Tuesday morning following the Cassidy firing, Sweeney talked about the message and the voice. Those are other words for identity.
When decision makers are unclear about the path they are following, when they can’t get their act together in simple matters like, let’s not go out in front of the public and half-bury our coach with faint praise and then wait three weeks to fire him, that’s identity, too.
Or a lack thereof.
Maybe the more important question is whether this team has been built in a manner that allows it to have an identity moving forward. What is the transition plan from the core that brought home a Stanley Cup in ’11 and went to a final two years later and again six years after that?
Zdeno Chara is gone. So, too, is Tuukka Rask. David Krejci left and the void his departure created was never filled, although there are whispers a reunion could be in the offing. Bergeron and Marchand, both future Hall of Famers, have given all you could ask for, but the finish line for both is clearly in sight, especially given the health issues both confront.
Is there a transition plan for this franchise beyond dithering over whether to fire Cassidy?
The reality is this roster is not built to make much of a dent even with Bergeron and Marchand healthy. It was the reality of the seven-game first-round series loss to Carolina. Unless Bergeron or Marchand were doing it, it didn’t get done for the Bruins.
One of the team’s best forwards, Jake DeBrusk, has been unhappy for a couple of seasons now. Does the coaching change alter that dynamic?
Taylor Hall is at best a complementary player and at worst a role player making $6 million 2024-25. His modified no-trade clause will make it difficult to move on from him as the seemingly inevitable descent into playoff bubble life or worse takes place starting as early as next season.
The Nick Foligno experiment has, fair to say, been an error in management judgment.
Hampus Lindholm had better be who the Bruins hope he is after acquiring him at the deadline and then extending him with an eight-year, $52 million deal. With the injuries to the blue line that will bleed into next season, Lindholm will have to quickly evolve into a top-pairing guy, or things are going to get ugly really quickly and not just in the short term next fall.
There is a train of thought that the Bruins are looking to scale back for a season with all the injuries and maybe get lucky in the Connor Bedard draft sweepstakes in 2023. Um, that’s not a plan; that is wishful thinking. That’s something fans do — it’s not something a team willingly enters into. So we dismiss that notion out of hand, or mostly out of hand.
Sweeney mentioned multiple times the injury issues that confronted this team and will continue to shape the team’s makeup and on-ice success. Usually when that happens, you don’t fire your coach, but the Bruins have gone down that road and, really, it seems unclear what kind of team this Bruins team will be moving forward.
In theory this is where we say the GM is under the gun, having made the decision to move on from a proven, successful NHL head coach. And we’re guessing that – of the teams looking to fill vacancies, Detroit, Vegas, Philadelphia, Winnipeg and Dallas, possibly Chicago and who knows about Edmonton and Florida, both of which have interim coaches right now – Cassidy will slot in somewhere behind Barry Trotz and alongside Rick Tocchet and John Tortorella and Pete DeBoer as a viable and attractive candidate.
As for the team Cassidy leaves behind, the dynamic is Boston is a little different, and over the years president and team icon Neely has become a central figure in the franchise’s power dynamic.
There are many who believe that if Neely had had his way he would have fired Claude Julien in the months leading up to the team’s first Stanley Cup since 1972 back in the 2010-11 season.
Neely’s anti-endorsement of Cassidy following the end of this season coupled with a promise to extend Sweeney’s expiring contract was at best awkward and at worst embarrassing. Whoever steps behind the Boston bench will have to make sure they’re marching to not just the GM’s drum beat, but the particular drum beat envisioned by Neely. That much is abundantly clear.
So if the clock is certainly ticking on Sweeney to find not just an adequate replacement for Cassidy but build a team that will play the way he and Neely want them to play, the clock must certainly be ticking on Neely as well, because his fingerprints are all over this messy exchange.
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