The two paramount features of any coach who lasts in the NHL has two readily identifiable features. It doesn’t matter if they are a players coach or a disciplinarian. They can give horrid, boring press conferences or be great communicators. They can be first year coaches who paid their dues in the OHL, or be a retread who is in their third or fourth head coaching stint.

The two points every successful coach has short term or long, eastern conference or western are first an appreciation for the talent assembled on their roster and knowing where to deploy those men. The second is an identifiable system for the players to adhere to. Getting ‘the most’ out of given players isn’t even needed to have multi year runs with a single team.

Look at coaches who have won the Stanley Cup recently. The Pittsburgh Penguins under Mike Sullivan play a very specific form of defense you don’t see anyone else employ successfully. The Los Angeles Kings consistently took the ice with a system that made use of a rugged style, great defense, and you could have changed the uniforms and you still would have known who they were. The Chicago Blackhawks in good games or bad you know who it is, not by the names on the back or the logo or the front but by the style. Claude Julien has deployed a consistent, successful system of play as well.

In forty or so games under Bruce Cassidy, a head coach who was gone from the NHL for over a decade after a very short first stint in the NHL, what have we seen? Erratic play, disinterested or possibly just dismayed players, and nothing like consistency. We’ve seen marginal third line wingers like Riley Nash be deployed as top six centers. We’ve seen turnovers galore,  and a smorgasbord of confusion. Are we seeing anything extra out of any player on the roster? I don’t think so.

We’ve established the two fundamentals of good coaches who stick around, and coaches who win. So what do we call a coach who can’t do either of those things? Short lived. We call them short lived.

This afternoon I had a discussion with a hockey fan who believes the Boston Bruins are tanking. Not just for this year, but for next year as well. I’m not saying I believe this idea, but with all the evidence it is certainly possible.

The Evidence:

  1. No one in the NHL, CHL, USHL, SPHL, AHL or anywhere else in first world hockey thinks that Bruce Cassidy is a better coach than Claude Julien.
  2. The resigning of John-Michael Liles and allowing him to play so much.
  3. The signing of David Backes who five years ago would have been the perfect pickup, but who now is only questionable without being outright wrong.
  4. Absolutely no upgrades at defense which many thought was their biggest need coming into the season.
  5. No additional scoring forwards
  6. Riley Nash was “added” to a team trying to get into the playoffs, when he couldn’t even stay in the NHL in an organization that wanted to be seen on the same page of the standings as the playoff teams.
  7. Allowing Jack Adams winning, Stanley Cup winning, World Cup winning Claude Julien, who knows any of the home grown players, and most of the rest of the roster better than anyone else in the league from having coached them for so long, go to the other half of the greatest rivalry in North American sports.
  8. Sliding a rookie defensemen onto the ice with Zdeno Chara to play against the best players on the other team.
  9. Failure to bury Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes in the minors or otherwise remove them from the roster to allow more talented forwards to fill the roster.
  10. Signing Anton Khudobin, who when healthy is a solid netminder to a two year deal, and who also hasn’t been healthy more than two months since the end of his first tenure in Boston.
  11. The entire fourth line. Seriously, Tim Schaller? Did marketing pick him because ratings were down in NH? Dominic Moore is, possibly, an accidental exception given that he’s having an above average goal scoring season. Or maybe he’s just in Boston because he’s a Harvard guy? Colton Hargrove, Noel Acciari, Austin Czarnik, and others could have done the job as well, and with more cap space left over to address very real needs in the theoretical top nine
  12. The fact that nobody is talking about this years draft, but that name for next year are coming up.

So here’s how this theoretical Rick-Rolling works: The Bruins were bafflingly in a playoff spot 50 plus games into the season, and that needs to change. Not just so the team has better draft position this year, but so there are lower expectations for next year when among other things the no movement clause on Rask’s contract becomes an NTC. Remember, this is Rask’s fourth straight year of sv% decline, and according to Hockey-Reference.com is a below average goalie already according to GSAA.

Also, for this theory to work you probably have to believe what 29 (going on 30) other NHL teams have thought of Bruce Cassidy for more than a decade; That he’s not a good NHL coach, assuming he’s one at all. He has never won at any level, when he was given the bums rush from Washington he belly flopped into the OHL. In his last 10 seasons as a head coach in the AHL, OHL, and NHL he as won just three rounds of playoff hockey. For comparison Ted Nolan who is not employed as an NHL coach right now won championships in both the OHL and QMJHL, and won a Jack Adams award for best NHL coach. That’s a stark comparison, and one would think if you’re trying to win, you take (or keep) a guy who has won, and who given the trends in the NHL, has done so with young players versus not at all.

So given that the Bruins are lacking top draft picks this season. What happens if they trade out of this years draft? What happens if they trade this years pieces for picks in the seemingly stronger 2018 draft class? They get high picks, and underdog status in the following season. Boston, all of New England loves an underdog. And in sports nothing, not even winning is sexier than hope. We know Sweeney loves draft picks. We saw him take three first round picks in a row in the low teens instead of trading even one of them to improve the team now. That’s unprecedented in the modern era. Think of trading one or more of those picks and bringing in Trouba or Dumba, but no, not the Sweeney way.

If you truly believe the Boston Bruins front office covets young men like Rasmus Dahlin or David Levin, or Joe Veleno and they might make people forget a couple bad seasons if they laced up and lit up in Black and Gold, I think it’s safe to say this idea might not be pure vapor. When you remember that there are articles and posts from people in the know pegging players at the top of the 2018 draft going back to more than 18 months before the draft, and look at other drafts where that happened like say in the 2009 draft one begins to wonder why the fan I spoke to had Rick Astley on the brain.

The Boston Bruins defense has more questions today than it has in several years. The eternal question of “who will play the point on the powerplay” is just one of them. With the end o the Andrew Ference Era in Boston, the question of who will add speed and agility to a large and imposing rosters. It is a given that Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg have their roster spots locked in. Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid will have to work hard to lose their spots, and that’s where it gets really interesting.

Injuries, illness and matchups showed us a lot bout the three young lions last year. Torey Krug’s speed, agility, and puck handling were overshadowed only by his refusal to give an inch and his ability to contribute to the offense. Matt Bartkowski proved reliable and consistent all over the ice against good competition or bad. Dougie Hamilton showed he as capapble of playing big minutes, and showed off a better defensive game than many, myself included, had expected to see. If you go purely on played as the best barometer of what Claude Julien and the coaching staff think of them, it would seem Krug is the front runner coming into camp for a spot. His scoring only strengthens the case for him.

If you look at experience in total under Julien, Hamilton edges the others, and he’s also a first round pick who was part of the return for the Phil Kessel trade, if that matters in real hockey arithmetic. Matt Bartkowski has two important advantages, and you just can’t overlook them in the system all three play in. First and most tangible, is that Bartkowski has proved he is highly coach-able and very driven. The upswing in his positioning and skating since his first NHL appearance is the type of thing coaches and players build their careers out of. The second is his age, he may have less NHL games than Hamilton, but he looks and sounds like a veteran, and is about the same age Boychuk broke into the NHL. With Julien “the veteran factor” is every bit as important as being Russian born at draft time.

Complicating things further are not so minor considerations like half a dozen defensemen aiming for a roster spot who have a legitimate claim to being NHL ready, and money. Among Krug, Hamilton, and Bartkowski there is a cap hit difference of over a million dollars from Krug down to Bartkowski. When you factor in Tommy Cross, Chris Casto, Zach Trotman, David Warsofsky, and newly acquired 1st rounder Joe Morrow, Krug and Hamilton’s cap hits are only a few dollars off the total of any three other players.

Given his displacement in the post season, a season spent in the AHL under Bruce Cassidy would not be a surprise, and 24-27 minutes a night of consistent play would be better for his development than 12-17 a night in Boston and sitting out specific matchups. One of the other possibilities is that another defenseman gets moved either because they have been eclipsed, or for cap reasons. Chara and Seidenberg aren’t going anywhere, McQuaid’s salary isn’t prohibitive, but his injury issues might make him a candidate for movement. Johnny Boychuck is a perfect candidate for trade if the Bruins think they can be a better team without him.

Boychuck who made his name in the AHL as an offensive defensemen, hasn’t cracked 20 points in the NHL. He’s currently the Boston Bruins second highest paid defenseman, but not many would list him as the second most valuable defenseman. With this, and another year left on his contract the return he could fetch in terms of prospects and or draft picks, might just help the team fill their deficit of right wingers, as well as free up almost $3.5m this year and next. With a good playoff performance behind him, it is doubtful his value is going to be higher anytime in the foreseeable future.

If Boychuk is moved, the Bruins will be a little fleeter of foot, a bit less physical, and likely better offensively. Whoever wins the battles or the 3-7 spots, it is hard to argue they will have a bad defense.

The Boston Bruins development camp was held last week and if it didn’t have a new top of the first round pick to draw people, some of the campers we’ve seen in the past were more than compelling enough on their own. Two notable prospects will be graduating this year. And one youngster in his second year made huge strides.

Malcolm Subban was a surprise pick to some just over a year ago. The goaltender, and older brother of Jordan Subban who was the Vancouver Canucks selection this June was the most recognizable name at camp. Even without the bright Belleville Bull’s color pads he sported last year, the athletic net minder will draw your eye again and again. The book on Subban coming into camp last year was that his glove side needed some polishing.

#81 Malcolm Subban

#81 Malcolm Subban

This year, I don’t think I saw him beat to the glove side even once. When I asked him about the way his save percentage climbed year over year, he credited his teammates contribution and talked about his maturity as a goaltender. Despite facing nearly a full shot more per game this year over the previous season, and taking time to play in the World Juniors the key numbers were unequivocally better. In 2011-12 he had a very respectable .923sv% and GAA of 2.50, in 2012-13 he turned in .934 and 2.14. Even more indicative is the change in his post season numbers. His 2011-12 Memorial Cup playoff stats line was 6gp, 2.93 GAA and .917sv%, while 2012-13’s number improved to 17gp 2.00 GAA, and a .933Sv%. Not surprisingly he won Canadian Hockey League goalie of the week twice, and the best Sv% and best GAA in the Ontario Hockey League.

Year over year the most improved prospect was easy to spot. More than one observer at the week’s workouts and scrimmages had to be pointed at a roster to realize the young defenseman they saw this year, was the same one they saw last year. Matt Benning’s camp was a bit curtailed by injury last summer. His hockey season however boosted his stock, and tagged him as someone more than willing to work to get to the next level.

#86 Matt Benning at Bruins Dev Camp

#86 Matt Benning at Bruins Dev Camp

A sixth round pick out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League who jumped to the USHL this year, and won the league championship under Jim Montgomery with the Dubuque Fighting Saints. In the fall hockey fans can look for Benning in black and red at Northeastern University, making the transition with him will be Fighting Saints teammates Mike Szmatula and  John Stevens.

#86 Matt Benning Defenseman

#86 Matt Benning Defenseman

Anthony Camara came into camp having had the best junior season of his career. He was successful as a physical menace and as a points producer. Thirty-six goals and sixty points through the regular season by itself would have punched his ticket to Providence, and likely to being a late cut in Boston if that’s all he did. That is not however the case. Camara earned his place on an international squad for the first time representing Canada in the WJC. Then he went to the playoffs with the Barrie Colts and racked up nine goals and a point per game in 16 appearances.

What’s interesting about Camara is that he’s not one of those elite prospect like Subban or the exiled Tyler Seguin, he was a late third round pick. Only ten percent of the players drafted in 2011 have played a single NHL game. None have been from the third round. When Camara first came to the Bruins Development camp just days after being drafted he was clearly a project. His shot was so-so, he managed to drive himself into one of the stanchions, and his skating was on a level with Glen Murray and Milan Lucic’s first season.

#51 Anthony Camara #76 Rob O'Gara #88 Matt Grzelcyk

#51 Anthony Camara
#76 Rob O’Gara
#88 Matt Grzelcyk

At some point in the last two years, the major components of that changed. Camara entered what will be his last OHL season with a career high of 9 goals. He ended it with 36, and in less games than any of his previous seasons. While his skating isn’t going to be shaming speedsters like Carl Hagelin and Emerson Etem, or ice dancer Jeff Skinner he’s improved to the point where you only notice his skating by the fact that you no longer notice his skating. Camara’s work ethic is quite healthy, writers and fans noticed it, as did Bruins staffers. During a press conference Providence Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy mentioned Camara by name four times in eight minutes. He didn’t seem at all displeased to be doing so.

 

The Rangers have been eliminated short of the Cup again. The time to look at why is now, and as is frequently the case in sports the first place that gets looked at, and all too often the last is the coaches office. The case against Tortorella is seemingly damning. Last year he had a Eastern Conference finalist a bounce or two from the Stanley Cup finals.  The Rangers roared through the regular season and played strong hockey until getting beat by a slightly more cohesive team of wily veterans. This year with some significant changes in the forward group, they struggled all of the abbreviated season to even make the playoffs. They got into a slugging match with the Washington Capitals, and were just short of run out of the building in successive games by the Bruins. Not because, aside from game three, the team didn’t show up. Not because of overhyped problems with the powerplay, but because they lacked that winning attitude, you can call it elan, machismo, or swagger and not be wrong.

The Rangers as a whole have too many nice guys and creme puffs to own their own space. They aren’t quite the Speed Bag Sedin twin seen in the finals not so very long ago, but they are close. For all that Hagelin’s willing to play with an edge here and there, its not consistent, and I really doubt he’d make a list of the top 50 most intimidating forwards in the eastern conference. Derek Dorsett is a bad dude, he’s quite capable of ruining someones whole week when the gloves come off. But he’s not playing first or second line minutes. Derick Brassard played his heart out, he was a point per game player on a very defensive minded team. But let’s not kid ourselves, this was his first taste of the NHL playoffs, and while his contribution was heartening, in six NHL seasons he’s never even cracked 60PIMS.

When you look at the biggest names, you begin to see the problems. Rick Nash is not, and has never been a power forward. He’s not Alex Ovechkin in either skill or willingness to hit or be hit to make plays. He’s not got the snarl of David Backes, or even the much smaller Wayne Simmonds. Rick Nash is a big, skilled forward. But he’s exactly as much a power forward as Erik Karlsson is an elite shutdown defenseman. Brad Richards is ordinarily a pretty good player. This year he was awful. Maybe it was the lockout throwing off his training schedule, maybe there were some off ice issues he was dealing with that sapped his energy.  Whatever it was that caused him to deviate from being a nearly point per game post season player, it is unlikely to last.

Clearly the construction issues of this team are paramount, but before pushing a coach out the door you have to ask a couple vital questions:

  1. Is the coach a bigger problem than the construction of the team?
  2. Is the coach the right coach for the team we intend to have after changes?
  3. Is there a better coach available for the we have or want to have than the one we have now?

For the first questions, that’s an unequivocal no. This team lacks the bloodlust to win. That is not a problem with a fairly combative coach, it is one that can be covered up by it in some regards, but no in this case, the coach isn’t a bigger problem, unlike say Alain Vigneault who always had an excuse for his teams failure.

For the second, you have to decided what team you’re building. The Kings are hardly the most combative team in the league, but they will still hit you every chance they get. The Bruins have to play highly combative teams like the Flyers and Leafs and were equipped to win playing that style. The Kings won with an ultra-balanced, ultra-deep team we’re unlikely to see a reprisal of anytime soon. They Kings and Bruins aren’t that dissimilar from the Rangers except in depth. If the direction going forward is to more strongly emulate one of them, then removing a coach doing most of what they do with a far smaller toolbox is probably foolish. If however they choose to go in the opposite direction and play a more smooth skating, high end passing, offensively overloaded style like the Penguins, he might not be the best choice

For the third, there are some similar coaches like Guy Boucher, and arguably Mike Keenan, but are they actually going to be better? After those two you’ve got Lindy Ruff, an then you’re dipping into the AHL and looking at guys like Bruce Cassidy of the Providence Bruins, or Gordie Dwyer of the PEI Rockets of the QMJHL, a guy who has been there and done that. There is a good case for bringing in someone who isn’t an NHL retreat, especially with a team that has a lot of youngsters, but the questions remains; are they better? The answer is maybe.

For me, if I’m the team owner, dropping the coach isn’t going to fix the problem, and if that’s the general manager’s solution, he’s not the man to fix the problem either.

Today’s skating drills were revealing. Some guys are more agile than they show in the course of a scrimmage. Not surprisingly the players who have done these drills in the past do them best. Ryan Spooner stood out and that was in no way news.  Several of the bigger players like O’Gara and Ferlin did quite well, and despite the questions about Cross that should have been stuffed and mounted long ago he went through drills that  look painful more smoothly than Hamilton.

I spoke with a couple players after practice, O’Gara who is headed off to Yale in the fall says his goal is to get bigger and stronger. Using the camp stats as reasonably accurate if he puts on 5-8lbs of mass and stays all four years he’ll wind up somewhere in between 205 and 217, I can’t imagine many forwards wanting to go into his corner. Had the most physical shift of the day smashing the larger and older Justin Courtnall repeatedly.

Local boy and USNDT Matt Grzelcyk will be staying local and playing for Boston University for the next few years. Bruins fans can look forward to the nearly inevitable BU/BC Beanpot games have at least once prospect on each team. The smooth skating defenseman was drafted in the 3rd round this year and is among the smaller players at camp. Watch him closely.

Jared Knight says the playoff experience in the OHL helped him develop, and that he’s focused on improving his game and going into camp focused.

The most entertaining and informative exchange of the day however was off to the side as Khoklachev and Subban worked on one end of the ice while the rest of the campers practiced rushes. Khoklachev is held out of contact for a few more weeks. Until the lacerated kidney is completely healed he can’t be a full participant in camp. Subban was in net. As Khoklachev swooped in from the blueline for shot after shot the two ratcheted up the skill level, the two found the competition increasingly humorous. At one point Khoklachev was lying on the ice laughing. The two exchanged mock exuberant celebrations after a save or score. Good to see players who might well play together for ten years making fun out of their very serious work.

Dev Camp ’12 Saturday June 30

Coach Cassidy spoke about the development of various players. Tommy Cross was praised for coachability while playing two games in Providence last year. Stressed that the camp was about developing individual players and familiarizing players with the Bruins expectations and way of doing things. Later he mentioned the Providence Bruins not only had 11 1st year pros, but fourteen concussions, the highest in the AHL last year. He’s expecting a better season this year.