Bruce Cassidy, Don Sweeney and the crumbling of a connective partnership with the Bruins

Bruce Cassidy, Don Sweeney and the crumbling of a connective partnership with the Bruins

On June 6, Bruce Cassidy felt safe. The previous month, following standard year-end meetings between management and the coaching staff, general manager Don Sweeney had indicated to Cassidy that he would enter the third and final season of his contract in 2022-23 as Bruins head coach.

Cassidy proceeded to inform Kevin Dean, his defensive assistant for 10 seasons (five in Boston, five in Providence), he would not be retained. Cassidy studied the playoffs — noting, in particular, the activation of offense — as preparation for the adjustments he planned to install.

Then everything changed.

That afternoon, Sweeney asked to visit Cassidy at his house in Winchester. Upon arrival, Sweeney told Cassidy he was fired. Cassidy didn’t take it well.

The meeting was the terminus for a similar route of stops. A partnership Cassidy and Sweeney had launched 14 years earlier had groaned under the strain of repeated divergence over coaching style, personnel decisions, on-ice tactics and player deployment.

It finally broke.

“Donny was very respectful in how he delivered the message. I don’t always agree with it, obviously,” said Cassidy on a Thursday Zoom session. “I want to be the coach of the Boston Bruins. But here we are. I’m on to the next challenge. Hopefully, I can be successful.”

‘The Bruin is basically tattooed to me’

Three days since the firing, Cassidy is deep into interviews with multiple teams. Vegas and Dallas are two veteran-heavy clubs that would benefit from his presence. Detroit would welcome his experience if Cassidy is interested in building a long-term contender alongside fellow Ottawa native Steve Yzerman.

None of this is what he preferred.

“I had term on my deal, and I wanted to come back and coach the Bruins,” Cassidy said when asked if he felt he got a raw deal. “It’s been a privilege and an honor. Fourteen years here in different capacities in the organization. The Bruin is basically tattooed to me. 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.”

In 2008, when Cassidy and Sweeney began their collaboration, turning prospects into NHL regulars was central to both of their missions. Cassidy was Rob Murray’s assistant in Providence. Sweeney was director of player development.

During Cassidy’s eight AHL seasons, Tuukka Rask, Brad Marchand, Johnny Boychuk, Adam McQuaid, Anton Khudobin, Kevan Miller, David Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner were some of the players he sent on one-way trips up 95 North. This convinced Sweeney, who was GM by then, to promote Cassidy to Boston in 2016-17 as Claude Julien’s assistant. It was natural for Sweeney to hand the wheel over to Cassidy after firing Julien on Feb. 7, 2017.

Cassidy’s initial urge was to open up the offense and give more operating room to younger players. Ironically, Sweeney identified a reversal in those two tenets that caused him to fire Cassidy — the latter in particular.

Over the years, one of Sweeney’s critiques for Cassidy was how he interacted differently with veterans than with younger players. Cassidy regularly acknowledged he gave Rask, Marchand, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci the full run of the dressing room. He believed, as ring-winners, they had earned that right.

Conversely, Cassidy thought youngsters needed regular — and often firm — guidance on NHL principles. Players noticed the disparity.

“I had my thoughts and beliefs on how some of the guys that drive the team deserve to be treated and how much rope they would get versus maybe other players,” said Cassidy. “So I would say that would get discussed from time to time.”

Most players who struggled under the weight of Cassidy’s heavy hand bit their tongues. Jake DeBrusk did not.

The left wing issued a private declaration to be traded last summer. On Nov. 29, 2021, one day after Cassidy made DeBrusk a healthy scratch against Vancouver, Rick Valette, the left wing’s agent, took his client’s trade request public.

DeBrusk, one of the Bruins’ three 2015 first-rounders, is still here. Many of his peers are not.

At one point or another, the Bruins had hopes that some of the following players would comprise part of their next core: Anders Bjork, Peter Cehlarik, Austin Czarnik, Ryan Donato, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Danton Heinen, Ondrej Kase, Karson Kuhlman, Jeremy Lauzon, Zane McIntyre, Colin Miller, Joe Morrow, Rob O’Gara, Nick Ritchie, Zach Senyshyn, Spooner, Malcolm Subban, Urho Vaakanainen, Frank Vatrano and Dan Vladar.

All were 24 or younger when they first played for Cassidy. None remain in the organization. Their lack of success, both in Boston and beyond, may say more about the talent evaluators that brought them in than the coach.

Whether the same fate awaits the next wave of under-24 players, such as Trent Frederic, Marc McLaughlin, Oskar Steen and Jack Studnicka, remains to be seen. If Sweeney believed Cassidy’s sternness stunted the development of the previous cohort, he did not want this generation to be similarly troubled. The Bruins cannot afford the few young players they have to fall short of becoming NHL contributors.

“Donny indicated to me that the messaging was not being received. Or delivered the wrong way,” Cassidy said. “As coaches, I think you have to evolve over the years. Players change. But at the end of the day, to be perfectly frank, I’m very proud of the work I’ve done. My background is in the American Hockey League. So it started there. Then with the Bruins over the years, when I came on board, we changed a lot of players. We infused our team with a lot of young talent.”

Fundamental differences

In mid-December, the NHL slammed the brakes on the 2021-22 season because of COVID-19. The Bruins were in fifth place in the Atlantic Division. They were out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference.

Erik Haula, Tomas Nosek and Nick Foligno, three of Sweeney’s five 2021 free agency acquisitions, had combined for three goals. Taylor Hall, Sweeney’s deadline acquisition the year before, had one five-on-five goal in 26 games.

The GM was not happy.

It may not have been a coincidence that, in the first game after the NHL’s re-opening, Cassidy did what he was always wary of doing: breaking up Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak. He made Haula his No. 2 center between Hall and Pastrnak. The Bruins took off.

“I think it’s easy to say I should have done them sooner after watching how it unfolded,” said Cassidy. “But I guess from my perspective, we did have a lot of new players. When you meet in September and August once they’re all signed, you go up to the board and say, ‘OK, this is where I see this guy.’ Obviously Donny signs free agents and makes the trades. So there’s a conversation: ‘OK, here’s where I see that.’ ‘OK, that’s how we’ll start. Let’s see how it works out.’ It either takes off, chugs along or crashes and burns. There’s different things that can happen. We ended up making some adjustments that worked out better for us, to get players more comfortable where they were. I’m glad we made the switch. It made us a better team.”

In 60 games from Jan. 1 to the end of the regular season, Haula scored 37 even-strength points, third-most on the team after Hall and Marchand. Nosek’s goal-scoring touch disappeared, but he made himself a valuable plug-and-play forward.

Foligno, meanwhile, finished with two goals and 11 assists in 64 games. The former Columbus captain made it clear he was dissatisfied with his fourth-line role.

Sweeney may be on Foligno’s side. The GM is not currently planning to execute any buyouts. Foligno has a year left at a $3.8 million average annual value. Foligno may not meet the fates that befell Matt Beleskey and David Backes, two previous widebody UFA targets who Sweeney ended up moving.

As for Derek Forbort and Linus Ullmark, Sweeney’s other two 2021 signings, they played big parts in the Bruins’ defense-first approach. It was Cassidy’s most reliable commodity. He did not think releasing his grip on D-zone structure would benefit the team.

Hampus Lindholm’s missed time upon arrival because of knee and head injuries limited Cassidy’s options. So did Grzelcyk’s shoulder, McAvoy’s shoulder and COVID-19 diagnosis, and Mike Reilly’s ankle. The Bruins had to play it safe.

“As a coach, you would have loved to have for years that type of weapon back there that can allow you to change your style of play to have success,” said Cassidy of Lindholm. “It’s easy to say, ‘OK, let’s open the door and get after it.’ But if players aren’t built that way, can’t finish and aren’t tilted offensively to make those plays, then the risk-reward is on the wrong side of the ledger. Something that every coach strives for every year. We would have, again (next) year, addressed to try to get us to be more of a threat offensively.”

Cassidy will not have that opportunity.

We have different pages

As 2021-22 progressed, other responsibilities took Sweeney away from the day-to-day hands-on management of the team. There was the World Junior Championship. He had pro and amateur meetings to run. Draft-eligible players required in-person viewings. Sweeney had to monitor prospects like Fabian Lysell and Mason Lohrei.

It may be why their phones became the preferred medium of messaging between Sweeney and Cassidy. In-person interaction did not happen regularly.

“I don’t know if it broke down that much,” Cassidy said of their communication. “Other than as a coach, you’re going to get, ‘This is working. I believe in it. What about this way?’ Sometimes you stick to your guns because you have to. Other times, you’re open-minded: ‘Yup. OK. We’ll try that.’ I don’t think that was any different than a lot of other years myself. He may think differently.”

Sweeney, methodical with every decision, will take his time to select Cassidy’s successor. He may interview veteran coaches just to pick their brains and gain ideas, even if a younger and more progressive thinker is where he lands.

By then, Cassidy will, in all likelihood, be employed. He wants to work in 2022-23. He has learned from his 14-year experience—even from the ending.

But Cassidy knows who he is and sticking with it.

“I believe in myself when it comes to coaching young guys,” said Cassidy. “In my next challenge, I’ll make sure I’m mindful of the messaging. Because I respect Donny when he talks to me about what you need to do better. He’s been in the game a long time. That’s something I’ll have to take with me to the next job. But still drive home the accountability. Because I don’t think you have much of a team if players aren’t held accountable to a standard.”

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(Top photo of Bruce Cassidy and Don Sweeney: Steven Senne/Associated Press)

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