Bruce Cassidy‘s name was not expected to be part of the offseason coaching carousel when the Vegas Golden Knights decided to part ways with Pete DeBoer, now the Dallas Stars’ new head coach. So you can imagine that finding someone who, as general manager Kelly McCrimmon put it, “embodies so many of the traits we were looking for” was a surprising boon for the organization.
The Golden Knights ‘getting their man’ can be considered a win for a club seeking a swift return to glory, but the work is just beginning in the aftermath of a disastrous 2021-22 season that has prompted something of an existential crisis. The Boston Bruins, Cassidy’s former team, seem to have acknowledged that their window of contention has closed and are expected to take a step back. Will Vegas, in what appears to be a similar situation, come to the same realization?
Cassidy’s impact on the organization will be one factor in answering that question. The health of a snake-bitten roster this season looms large over everything, as do fundamental questions about where things are trending in age and performance of the team’s core. Those are, of course, impossible to answer for now, but the Cassidy effect is well worth exploring. What does hiring this third head coach in franchise history mean for the Golden Knights?
Golden Knights Not Stepping Back
You don’t hire a coach with Cassidy’s winning track record only to move forward with a rebuild. Obviously, the Evgenii Dadonov for Shea Weber trade shipped out a 20-goal scorer with no active help coming the other way (more on that deal to come), but the $5 million saved in cap space brings its own crucial value.
There’s no guarantee that there won’t be more cap-minded roster-trimming to come, but McCrimmon is clearly focused on icing the best team possible with the goal of contending for the Stanley Cup in 2022-23. I’ve noted before how this was always the most likely path, given both the ceiling of Vegas’ talent pool and the challenges inherent in purging the cache of long-term contracts. For his part, Cassidy isn’t mincing words in highlighting that plan.
“I want my name on the Stanley Cup,” says Cassidy, “and I believe this team has the ability to do that.”
Making Special Teams Special Again
McCrimmon didn’t wade into specifics about what traits Vegas was looking for that they found in Cassidy, but inferences can easily be made considering that his strengths align with the Golden Knights’ deficiencies. While his emphasis on defense matches nicely with the club’s formidable back end, it is on special teams where he could really make a difference.
In five years under Cassidy, the Bruins sported the league’s third most effective power play (23.9%) and penalty kill (82.9%). That’s in sharp contrast to the abysmal showing of the Golden Knights in non-even strength situations. Their 18.4% conversion rate with the man advantage last season left them 25th in the league, while their penalty kill mark of 77.4% was only marginally better at 21st league-wide.
True, Cassidy undeniably owes a good deal of that success to Boston’s long-tenured and exceptionally talented top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrňák, not to mention power-play quarterback Charlie McAvoy. It’s worth remembering, however, that a Vegas group that boasts Mark Stone, Jack Eichel, Max Pacioretty, and Shea Theodore should be imposing in their own right.
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Expectations for Cassidy
As noted by McCrimmon, Cassidy brings a winning pedigree that includes six consecutive playoff appearances in Boston and a Jack Adams Award. Of course, DeBoer also boasted a pretty strong record upon arriving in Vegas, leading the San Jose Sharks to the postseason in four consecutive seasons at the helm.
Cassidy is stepping into a situation made murky by unclear expectations. Yes, this is a Cup-caliber lineup that just finished outside the playoff picture. But it’s also a roster with very real questions about long-term health and when age-related decline might hit some players. For now, at least, there’s plenty of reliance on goaltender Robin Lehner, who seemed at odds with the organization at times in 2021-22, as well as Stone (37 games last season), Pacioretty (39 games and will turn 34 in November), Alex Pietrangelo (nearing 1,000 total games) and Eichel (is he back in form?).
Encouragingly, Boston’s resident 30-somethings Bergeron (congrats on a fifth Selke!) and Marchand stayed healthy and productive last season, so Cassidy may have a plan in terms of keeping his most important players on the ice. That said, his biggest challenge may not come in staying healthy, scoring goals, playing defense, or succeeding on special teams; it could come down to figuring out how to achieve success in the face of disproportional expectations.
Hiring Cassidy, who is three years older than DeBoer despite having coached roughly 500 fewer NHL games, signals the belief in the Vegas front office that, with a few tweaks to shore up some weaknesses, this team still has Cup potential regardless of what 2021-22 may have indicated. The fit between coach and team seems strong. Now it’s just a matter of seeing if Cassidy can bring out the best in these Golden Knights.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.