- Tim Burke
Notes: Reflecting on Bruce Cassidy's time in Boston; Jim Montgomery's leadership & the Jack Adams
Bruce Cassidy will return to the TD Garden tonight to coach against his former team. Cassidy's impact is still apparent with this current Bruins team as new Bruins coach Jim Montgomery has made little to no changes to the Bruins defensive zone structure that Cassidy implemented in Boston. Since becoming the Golden Knights coach, Cassidy has led the team to a record of 18-7-1 for 37 points, the best in the Western Conference. When the Boston Bruins fired Bruce Cassidy in June, it shocked many. The decision was unpopular among Boston fans and media. The consensus was that Cassidy was the scapegoat for the Bruins Front Office. It was widely believed that the Bruins roster was not good enough, and Cassidy got everything out of this group he possibly could. In December, things look pretty different. Moving on from Bruce Cassidy was the right decision for the Boston Bruins. Bruce Cassidy is a great coach, but several Bruins players have played drastically better under the Bruins new leadership. Here are three players who are thriving after the Bruins coaching change.
Connor Clifton has always been a popular player among Boston fans. His physical style of play is something Bruins fans adore. Clifton struggled to play consistent hockey in his four seasons playing for Bruce Cassidy's Boston Bruins. He was often a healthy scratch as he struggled to prove that he deserved to be anything more than a depth defenseman. Last season, Clifton played a career-high 60 games with the Boston Bruins, but given the substantial depth the Bruins have at the blue line this season, many believed Clifton could be the odd man out and be Boston's 7th defenseman. This season, Clifton has shown he belongs in the lineup every night. While playing for Jim Montgomery, Connor Clifton has seen a massive increase in ice time as he averages 20:13 seconds per game; only Hampus Lindholm and Charlie McAvoy average more ice time for the Bruins. Connor Clifton is relishing the increase in responsibility. He leads the team in hits with 64 and is second in blocked shots with 28. The 27-year-old defenseman is heavily involved at both ends of the ice and is making his presence known. Clifton is playing the best hockey of his career.
Jake Debrusk was the one player every was keeping an eye on with the coaching change. Last season, Debrusk requested to be traded away from the Boston Bruins after several tough seasons. It seemed the former first-round pick would not work out in Boston, and a change of scenery was best for the best layer. Thankfully, Don Sweeney could not find a trade partner to take on Jake Debrusk because he just needed a new coach. Once the announcement of Cassidy's departure was made, Debrusk rescinded his trade request. Since Jim Montgomery has taken over behind the bench, Debrusk looks like a much different player. He is on pace for the first 60-point season of his career, which would smash his previous career high in points at 43. Debrusk's confidence grew last season under Bruce Cassidy while playing with Patrice Bergeron and Jake Debrusk. But this year, he looks like a different player, using his speed to create plays and score goals. His all-around effort is better than we've seen in recent years. The resurgence of Jake Debrusk is one of the many reasons the Bruins are off to their record-setting start, but without him, they would not be where they are.
Former Bruins first-rounder Trent Frederic is playing with more confidence than we have seen from him. Last season, Frederic struggled to be an influential member of the Bruins bottom six. His physical presence and pest style kept him in the lineup, but his offensive and defensive struggles were frustrating. Bruce Cassidy often publicly called out Frederic for his mistakes and would scratch him after poor performances. Lately, Frederic looks like an entirely different player. Saturday against the Avalanche, the 24-year-old recorded the first two-goal game of his career. It was the best all-around game of his career. Not only was Frederic putting the puck in the net, but he was a thorn in the side of the Avalanche's top line playing strong defense all night, particularly against their best forward, Nathan MacKinnon. Following a career-best performance against the Avalanche, Frederic gave his linemates and new coach a shout-out for helping him improve his confidence and overall game. Frederic's game has improved more than any other Bruin in the last few months. He looks like a strong 200-foot player and is a strong contributor for the Bruins bottom-six forward group. Playing on what may be the best third line in hockey with Taylor Hall and Charlie Coyle, Trent Frederic's game should only improve as his confidence grows.
Those are only some examples of Bruins players finding success with new coach Jim Montgomery. Other Bruins players are benefiting from a new coach as well. Brandon Carlo has stated several times to the media that he enjoys the more positive energy from the Bruins coaching staff as he felt too much emphasis on mistakes in previous years, which affected Carlo mentally. It would be extremely tough for a stay-at-home defenseman like Carlo to focus strictly on errors. He plays many defensive minutes and will be on the ice for mistakes. It happens. But a player in Carlo's role doesn't need to worry about making mistakes; he needs to worry about doing his job well and killing penalties.
Jim Montgomery has gotten through to these younger guys on the Bruins team. Something Bruce Cassidy needed to do better. Cassidy is a great coach. What he is doing with a Golden Knights team, that missed the playoffs last year is impressive. Cassidy will likely be a finalist for the Jack Adams award for coach of the year. But remember that the younger Bruins players certainly did not respond well to his leadership, and he was often too stubborn to change the Bruins lines, which hurt the Bruins secondary scoring. Even though it's only speculation, I believe Cassidy's refusal to spread the wealth for the Bruins offensively was a factor in David Krejci's brief retirement from the National Hockey League. Now, David Krejci is centering a line with David Pastrnak, and Taylor Hall is playing on the B's third line with Charlie Coyle. The Bruins are a better and deeper team under Jim Montogmery's leadership and I think it is safe to say that Montgomery is the biggest reason for the Bruins being in first place. He deserves the Jack Adams award.