BOSTON – Bruce Cassidy is a different kind of coach: Honest to a fault, unafraid to speak his mind, open to ideas, and quick to try something out.
The Boston Bruins head coach’s mixing and matching of lines in the opening round of the NHL playoffs got the better of Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who rarely switched his lines in response preferring to stick to his system or his way. But that’s not Cassidy, who prefers versatility.
“I’ve changed lines around here almost daily, weekly. For me, that’s an asset,” said Cassidy.
And he’s also unafraid to change course and talk publicly and frankly about his plans for his lines. That’s a big reason why the Bruins beat the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
On the morning of the game, Cassidy told reporters he planned to use Patrice Bergeron’s line against St. Louis’ top line, centred by Brayden Schenn.
“He (Bergeron) generally plays against the best offensive line,” Cassidy said in morning. “I don’t think I’m telling you anything that’s a big secret. If we find their third line is dominating us, then we can make that switch over there.”
First off, most coaches treat every manoeuvre to something akin to giving up the nuclear codes. But during the game, the matchup wasn’t working. Schenn had scored. So Boston’s fourth line, featuring Sean Kuraly, took over defensive duties in the second period and the fates changed. Kuraly even went on to score the winner.
“It wasn’t going our way, it’s that simple,” Cassidy said afterwards. “I thought Bergeron’s line had a tough time finding their game and the other guys were a little bit ahead of them, in terms of their puck possession. So we’ve used Kuraly’s line all year against good lines. So we decided to maybe go that route which worked out for us tonight and we’ll re-evaluate on Wednesday.”
Frank, honest talk providing information without casting blame.
“He tells us how it is, and what he wants us to do,” said fourth-liner Noel Acciari. “When we do something wrong, he’s just honest. He’s not saying it because he’s mad, he just wants us to know so we can fix it. That’s why he’s been so successful.”
Until now, Cassidy may well have flown under the radar in an Atlantic Division that is filled with coaches with long resumes and big paycheques. In addition to Babcock, Joel Quenneville brings his three Stanley Cup rings to Florida this year, and Claude Julien — Cassidy’s predecessor — has a Cup ring in Montreal.
But it’s Cassidy’s approach to the Xs and Os of hockey that make him a breath of fresh air and the one whose team is in the Stanley Cup final.
“I’ve always felt the more players can move around, the easier it is for a coach to tinker,” said Cassidy. “You can use a centreman on the wing. Whatever the case may be. With (Danton) Heinen, you can move him from third line to first line to fourth line. If they can adapt their game. I appreciate those qualities.
“I don’t think you need them all to be like that, jack of all trades, master of none. You need certain guys in certain holes. But you need to be able to move guys around in an 82-game season.”
He says he’s a little more consistent with his players in the playoffs, but wouldn’t be against being more radical in the regular season, raising the spectre of Brett Burns, San Jose’s Norris-worthy defenceman who once played left wing for the Minnesota Wild.
“If I ever moved a left winger back on defence, that could really skate and break the puck out, maybe he’s not a scorer up front, would you guys look at me like I’m crazy? I do think that is something that will happen. I did a little bit of that (in the minors) when no one was watching. If I do it here, you guys are going to write about it. You know how that goes.
“But that’s a part of the game I’ve always enjoyed, thinking a little bit beyond the ordinary.”
This is Cassidy’s second go-round as a coach. His first didn’t go well. He was immature and didn’t communicate well with players in a season-and-a-half in Washington that ended 25 games into the 2003-04 season.
But after a bout with the Chicago Blackhawks as an assistant, then two years running the OHL Kingston Frontenacs, he joined the Bruins organization in 2008. His years in Providence, first as an assistant, then as a head coach, helped him grow, keeping the best of his old-school values with a new-look approach.
“Well the old school values, if you’re describing them as hard work, being held accountable to one another, we have good leadership in the room, so it allows you to do that,” said Cassidy. “The younger guys, how to communicate with them it’s just changed over the years, so you want to allow them to be successful, put them in positions to be successful, but you still got to hold them accountable. So I think how you hold them accountable has changed over the years. So I’ve tried to be up front and honest, sometimes it’s loud, they don’t like it, other times it’s a one-on-one conversation, other times you use the leadership group to send your message, they will talk to the players.
“So there’s different ways. At the end of the day I always think it’s a personal relationship you develop, usually based on honesty and trust and that’s what we try to do. It sounds simple, but telling the truth, why they’re playing, why they’re not playing, why we’re moving them around, I think that works at any age, to be honest with you.”
Kevin McGran is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran