Hockey’s a tough sport to gauge the impact of coaching game to game.
Sure, the Coaches set lines, decides shift lengths, who goes out for what faceoff and whatnot but a lot of the time in-between that is the sporting equivalent of improv: a mostly rehearsed version of what the team would like to play like in comparison to the other team. Few sports can say they rely so much on individual player effort and simultaneously how they play with their teammates...it can give the impression that either the players, the coach, or the system both are locked in is either working as intended or coming apart at the seams depending on the night, or even the period if things are getting crazy.
That said, Bruce Cassidy’s Bruins are a marked improvement over the team Bruce Cassidy ended up inheriting.
And the crazy thing about this whole crazy run is that structurally speaking? Very little actually changed about how the Bruins play hockey.
...What, you didn’t notice? Good. That’s how Bruce would probably like you to see it.
Yeah, the vast majority of what worked for Boston over this stretch, if you look at it from the perspective of the whole season wasn’t really all that different from how the Bruins played prior to Cassidy taking the reins. The Bruins were still usually outshooting their competition by a noticeable margin, they still had the puck a whole lot, and the offense, while top-heavy (or in weird cases, bottom heavy), was scoring fairly regularly and keeping teams inside their own end. Then things took a turn for the...not good. The defense was spotty, and scoring even spottier.
Then Bruce takes over, and you might notice something interesting.
The Bruins actually aren’t playing like a whole different hockey team. They’re not bum-rushing the puck at every opportunity, they’re not sitting back constantly to keep the puck out and waiting for breakouts, they’re just...playing like they usually do with one or two noticeable changes in lineup. A team with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand playing like they are can’t be too bad for too long, after all. And now they’re just getting more of their shot attempts on net and scoring more. Minor things changed, and major results followed. One need look no further than where shots ended up getting to Rask and/or the Rotating wheel of backups between the two coaches. (Shoutouts to HockeyViz!):
And that is a big part of what Cassidy’s success is based on.
For new coaches it is so tempting and way too easy to assume that in order to make an immediate impact you have to scrap everything and bring out the “All New Boston Bruins” in order to give people what they want. This can either work out in cases where a team’s system is genuinely not all that great (Like Toronto’s situation) or it can backfire spectacularly as some of the same problems the team already had are exacerbated and it ultimately looks like they made changes just to make changes and are left with nothing too valuable by the end. (like Colorado’s situation)
Bruce Cassidy is a very smart man for not doing this particular thing.
Cassidy said in interviews immediately after the first couple of games that his coaching staff would not be changing anything about the way the Boston Bruins played defense, which was huge. In many ways, he implied that the way things were did have plenty of promise, but it needed a few tweaks here and there specifically on offense, and so he started making them. Such as:
- Forward planted squarely in the hashmarks/circle taking shots while in the offensive zone. This has been working to David Pastrnak’s advantage in a huge way.
- Rightly shifting who goes out for what shifts, such as the Bergeron line going out for far more defensive zone faceoffs and the Spooner line going out for offensive zone faceoffs almost exclusively.
- Actually giving Rask a night or two to recover. Anton Khudobin’s play picking up in relief helped a lot in this regard but giving your starter whose gone into games night in night out can do him a world of good.
- Noel Acciari! On the fourth line! Doing stuff! This isn’t a big thing but he’s very good and having him out there playing on that line does wonders for it.
And all of these relatively minor adjustments gives you a team that Bruce Cassidy can be proud of. And as with any coach, he still believes that there’s stuff to improve on (that third line isn’t getting any better, even with PP time.), and he’ll no doubt be fine tuning the team well into the playoffs.
I for one, am eager to see what he’s got in store.