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Bruce Cassidy’s first year as Bruins head coach has gone just right

Cassidy has helped the Bruins re-emerge as one of the dominant forces in hockey, and find their team identity in a changing sport.

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Boston Bruins Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

A coach once told me that when you win, the credit goes to the players, and when you lose, credit is placed squarely on the shoulders of the head coach. This last calendar year for the Boston Bruins does everything to try and prove that wrong.

A year ago Wednesday, the Patriots were celebrating their Super Bowl 51 victory, duckboats rolling down Boylston Street. Just down the road in Allston, the Bruins were in the midst of a press conference revealing that then bench boss Claude Julien had been let go. With a 26-23-6 record so far, Boston’s hockey team was sputtering. They weren’t dropping down the standings egregiously fast, but there was no upward movement for Julien to back up the team’s play. For a coach that had brought his club to the Stanley Cup Finals twice in the last 7 years and won it all in 2011, his time had finally run out. The new face behind the bench wasn’t so new, but still gave fans much caution to hear of his promotion.

Bruce Cassidy had an NHL coaching stint with the Washington Capitals in the early 2000s, with one season of success, reaching the first round of the playoffs, and 25 games of frustration leading to his departure. That dreadful second season ended up being the one resulting in seeing Alexander Ovechkin in our nation’s capital. As head coach of the Providence Bruins since the 2011-12 season, he had seen prospects come and go between his club and the big boys in Boston, and for Julien’s last season in Boston, Cassidy had been promoted to an assistant to the Blind River, Ontario native’s coaching squad. Now, it was his time to lead once again, back in the NHL.

Who were the Bruins that Bruce Cassidy was going to coach? When he took over, the Black and Gold had lost an identity. They were a slower, defensively minded, hard-checking team in a league swiftly skating laps around them, forwards getting speedier, shots landing on goalies quicker, more skill than brute strength. Cassidy kept elements of both a town known for its tough nose hockey and a sport growing ever faster and creative around them and has made his club an extremely hard team to play against.

Cassidy said, “We’ve solidified some of that energy. We wanted to get our core group back to playing like the Stanley Cup Champions that they are. We’re getting there. We’ve created our identity again, hard to play against, the Bruins have always have that, and part of that vision with the young guys was to be a faster checking team, and a faster attacking team. We’re working on that every day, but I think we’ve seen those two areas of our game emerge fairly successfully.”

“I think our attack mentality is the first [difference] that comes to mind, whether we’re down a couple of goals or we have the lead, we’re still trying to score that next goal,” Torey Krug said. “We’re trying to take time and space away from opposing players, and as a result of that, we’ve gotten more offense out of it. Our defense is killing plays at the blue line instead of letting teams come into our zone and get zone time. It’s transitioned into more chances for us.”

The team Cassidy inherited had a heavily experienced mix of guys: John-Michael Liles, Jimmy Hayes, Dominic Moore, the team bringing in Drew Stafford at the trade deadline left a big logjam for playing time up and down the lineup. For all of the success the 52-year-old had with the players he was given in his partial first year, the future of his club lay, literally, with their future.

“The vision we had, when I sat down with Donny [Sweeney] was we wanted to win now, but we wanted to incorporate more youth into our lineup,” Cassidy said on Wednesday morning. “We didn’t know which players it would necessarily be, we had a good idea, but we wanted to get some in there and give them the opportunity, if they could handle it.” With the emergence of Charlie McAvoy on the back end as an anchor to the top line, Matt Grzelcyk providing puck movement all the way down to the third line, Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, Sean Kuraly, and more all proving they can make plays in the NHL, Cassidy’s connection to the youth of his team has kept the Bruins on track.

They still had a veteran core, stars and holdovers from the Julien era, a captain in Zdeno Chara, and elite players in Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Cassidy credits guys on that end of the equation buying into his system so quickly for the team’s successes early on in his tenure.

“I think having the older guys, the character guys buying in so quickly, it’s a pleasure for me to see that, those guys, they’re willing to change the way they play to a certain extent, we’re not taking away all of their strengths,” Cassidy said. “Especially you see a guy like [Zdeno] Chara, he’s really bought into more of a puck-moving, higher pace type of a game, he wants to be a part of it. We’ve seen [David] Krejci, he’s got good legs this year with young guys on his wings, [Patrice] Bergeron’s starting to score more, take more ownership of that part, so good for them, all in all.”

Even guys somewhere in the in-between, not a rookie but not a largely grizzled veteran, continue to buy into what “Butch” preaches. Players like Torey Krug, who wore the “A” on Tuesday night in Detroit, understands the differences in expectation Cassidy puts out and how it’s translated to the team as a whole. “He expects a lot out of us every single day, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve won 10 games in a row or not. He expects if it’s a practice day or a game day, he expects us to play up to the standard that we’ve set as a group, and he’s set. We try and do that no matter what.”

A year after taking over the Boston Bruins, Cassidy stands at 50-19-9, a .699 winning percentage as a whole. Does the adage still stand that when you win, credit goes to the players? Yes, and it’s clear from the performance of players up and down the lineup. Some players not even mentioned thus far, like Riley Nash, have made huge strides to keep the Bruins competitive and thriving. The glue that holds all of the pieces together? That’s where you have to look at the man who stands behind the players every game.