When the Boston Bruins fired Claude Julien in February 2017, right in the midst of a hotly contested playoff race, it couldn’t have seemed more misguided.
By all measures, underlying or otherwise, the Bruins appeared prepared to punch their ticket to the dance and contend for the Stanley Cup. Boston boasted a talented core, strength at all positions and possession numbers that suggested it was nothing more than a bout of bad luck – six losses in nine games at a crucial point in the campaign – along with the threat of a third consecutive season on the outside of the post-season looking in that made the Bruins panic just enough to give Julien the axe.
And replacing Julien with assistant Bruce Cassidy, well, that seemed to be cause for even greater concern. Had Cassidy done great work down on the farm? Undeniably. He was fresh off of a run of four consecutive playoff appearances in five seasons behind the Providence Bruins’ bench. But his NHL track record was next to non-existent. He had spent parts of two seasons, a total of 107 regular season and six playoff games, behind the Washington Capitals’ bench and another year as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks, but that was back in the early aughts and by no means an overwhelming success. Hardly enough to hang his hat on at the time.
The Bruins and Cassidy could not have possibly proved doubters more wrong, though.
To close out the 2016-17 campaign, Boston posted an 18-8-1 record under Cassidy’s guidance and earned a divisional playoff berth before bowing out to the Ottawa Senators in a first-round series that legitimately could have gone either way as four of the six games were decided in overtime. What followed was a 2017-18 campaign in which Cassidy led the Bruins to the fourth-highest point total in the NHL and within one point of the Atlantic Division crown. And then came what has thus far been Cassidy’s coaching masterpiece. This past season, he guided the Bruins to another near 50-win season that culminated in heartbreaking fashion as Boston came within one win of the Stanley Cup.
At this point, however, everyone seems to understand what the Bruins have in Cassidy, and Boston acknowledged the bench boss’ work Wednesday by handing the 54-year-old a multi-year extension. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported Cassidy is set to earn in the $3-million range.
Though it’s the on-ice results that have undoubtedly led to Cassidy’s new pact, earning the extension goes beyond his record. As noted, when he took over from Julien, Cassidy was inheriting one of the league’s best possession clubs, but he managed to maintain that aspect of the team’s game while transforming the Bruins into one of the league’s most dangerous units, a sound club at both ends of the ice that can beat any opponent on any night in almost any style of game.
Consider the following: measuring Julien’s final 219 regular season games in Boston against Cassidy’s first 191, the current Bruins coach has shown nearly across-the-board improvement in advanced metrics. Taking into consideration 18 categories – the 60-minute for and against rates as well of percentage of shots, Corsi, goals, expected goals, scoring chances and high-danger chances at 5-on-5 – Julien’s Bruins were better in only expected goals against (1.98 vs. 2.03), scoring chances against (22.7 vs. 23.1) and high-danger chances against (8.78 vs. 9.4). The rest were either marginally or decidedly in Cassidy’s favor, including a nearly six percent increase in goals for percentage at five-a-side.
Of course, those increases don’t occur in a vacuum. While almost the entire core is the same, the personnel with which Julien worked is still somewhat different from the group with which Cassidy has worked. But what should also be noted is that Cassidy has done wonders in working with and developing incoming talent at the NHL level.
Cassidy alone can’t be heralded for the breakouts of Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, but he’s pushed the right buttons to continue the upwards trajectory for both players. All the while, Cassidy has also been around to shepherd the likes of Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Sean Kuraly, Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo into the league. All five have flourished in Cassidy’s system, and he seems ready to help Matt Grzelcyk and Connor Clifton take yet another step forward, as well. This is to say that while Cassidy hasn’t been the one stocking the cupboards, he’s done excellent work finding the right fits for the up-and-comers.
His influence on both aspects has ultimately resulted in Cassidy making his mark where it counts most in the business of winning, too. Since coming aboard in February 2017, the Bruins’ 117 wins and 256 points are second-most in the NHL. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning have been better. That’s not to mention Boston boasts the sixth-most goals, second-fewest goals against, third-most successful power play and a penalty kill that is second to none.
So, while Julien’s firing and Cassidy’s hiring was questioned at the time, there’s no need for second-guessing anymore. We’ve seen the results. And if he continues as he has over the past two-plus seasons, there’s a good chance this won’t be the last time he’s inking an extension with the Bruins.
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