The Boston Bruins’ season ended in the first round. Their former coach, Bruce Cassidy, has his new team, the Vegas Golden Knights, in the Western Conference finals.
So, did the Bruins make a mistake by firing Cassidy? It’s certainly pretty easy to make that case right now, isn’t it?
Our own Adam Jones did just that Tuesday on Jones & Mego (beginning at 18:25 in the clip below).
“First round goes to Bruce Cassidy,” Jones said. “We used to keep this scoreboard with Belichick and Brady. It’s like Bergeron/the players vs. Bruce Cassidy? Big giant checkmark for Bruce Cassidy. … Patrice Bergeron, you got the coach fired. You’re a coach killer. So, you got what you wanted. Now you’re out in Round 1.
“…I said this earlier and I feel this way – and this would never happen – but if I could trade Bergeron and Krejci, the year we had with them, to get Cassidy back, I’d do it. The organization chose wrong. They chose to back the players. Krejci can go back to the Czech Republic. Bergeron can retire. I wish they still had Bruce Cassidy.”
Jones, to his credit, has at least been pretty consistent on this. Others have not. Many of those using hindsight now had no problem with the switch to Jim Montgomery when Montgomery was leading the Bruins to a record-setting regular season.
In fact, plenty of Boston fans and media who initially criticized the decision to fire Cassidy were quickly won over by Montgomery, admitted they might have been wrong about the move, but now want to go back to their original take of saying it was a mistake.
It doesn’t work like that. You can’t say that switching from Cassidy to Montgomery was a good move all season, but now it was a mistake because Cassidy went further in the playoffs.
It strips the situation of all context. Assuming Cassidy would have taken the Bruins further than Montgomery did, assuming he would have them in the conference finals like he does Vegas, would be a mistake.
Heck, assuming Cassidy would have even had a Boston roster capable of making a deep playoff run might be a mistake. Are we sure Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci even return for another season if Cassidy is still the coach? Would Jake DeBrusk, who had the best season of his career this year, have rescinded his trade request if there wasn’t a coaching change? Would Trent Frederic, who sputtered under Cassidy but also had a career year under Montgomery, be here?
If the roster wasn’t as good and the team wasn’t having as good of a regular season, would Don Sweeney have gone all-in at the trade deadline and added Tyler Bertuzzi and Dmitry Orlov? Would David Pastrnak have signed an extension mid-season if he was less excited about the team’s situation under Cassidy?
We can play this what-if game all day. Does Pavel Zacha have a breakout season under Cassidy, who sometimes struggled to draw more offense out of players? Would we be looking at Zacha as a top-two center of the future?
So much of the Cassidy vs. Montgomery debate has centered around players’ feelings and communication and messaging – off-ice stuff. But let’s not ignore the fact that there were also things on the ice that changed for the better under Montgomery.
The Bruins got to inside ice more and scored more goals in close, jumping from 15th in 5-on-5 high-danger goals last season to fourth this year. They got their defensemen more involved offensively, jumping from 24th in points from defensemen last season to second this year.
It’s fair to question whether Montgomery sacrificed too much defense in the pursuit of more offense. It didn’t look that way all season, but the defense certainly broke down against the Panthers. Montgomery wasn’t able to get it back on track, and the goaltending wasn’t able to bail them out the way it had when there were mistakes in the regular season.
How Montgomery handled the goaltending situation is another completely fair criticism. He admitted himself during his end-of-season press conference that he wishes he had switched from Linus Ullmark to Jeremy Swayman earlier than Game 7.
But let’s not pretend that Cassidy always found the right balance between offense and defense, or that he never made mistakes. Cassidy didn’t sacrifice defense in the pursuit of offense, but his offenses also went quiet in one postseason after another. And Cassidy had his own goaltending misstep in 2021, when he stuck with an injured Tuukka Rask despite Rask visibly and statistically struggling against the Islanders. The Bruins lost that series.
Montgomery also faced criticism for changing up his lines too much. Fair. Cassidy came under fire more than once for just the opposite: for refusing to split up the so-called “Perfection Line” even when the Bruins desperately needed to get a second line going.
Montgomery said he regrets not being able to do more to motivate the Bruins this postseason. Cassidy’s Bruins came out flat on home ice in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2019.
Despite all that, Cassidy undoubtedly was and is a great coach. His winning percentage, team defenses, regular playoff appearances, and ability to win at least one round more often than not all stand as evidence of that. There was never much debate about whether he is a good coach or not. No one doubted that he would have success in Vegas.
But even great coaches don’t stay in one spot forever. The nature of hockey, with very few exceptions, is that eventually a coach’s voice grows stale and the team makes a change. Heck, the Golden Knights themselves just did the exact same thing. They fired a really good coach in Pete DeBoer last year before hiring Cassidy. As fate would have it, they’re now facing DeBoer in the conference finals. If they lose, does that mean they made a mistake by switching from DeBoer to Cassidy?
It shouldn’t. But if we’re playing the hindsight game some in Boston are playing now, I guess that take will be out there.
The reality, however, is that the Golden Knights felt they needed a new voice, so they replaced one good coach with another. Same as the Bruins. And make no mistake: Despite a massively disappointing first round, Montgomery is a good coach. He has won everywhere he’s been, including winning two Clark Cups with Dubuque in the USHL, winning an NCAA national championship at Denver, and taking a Stars team that had missed the playoffs the year before he arrived to the second round in his one full season there. He has a long history of developing young players, at the junior, college and NHL level.
Criticizing Bruins players for not getting the job done and for not going any further under Montgomery than they did under Cassidy is fair. So is criticizing some of Montgomery’s decision-making. But criticizing the Bruins organization for making the change from Cassidy to Montgomery? That feels like a reactionary stretch that ignores some key blemishes on Cassidy’s resume.