After advancing to the final game of the Stanley Cup Final last season, the Boston Bruins picked up where they left off to start 2019-20: Going 6-1-2 in their first nine games of the season.
They’re a plus-6 in goal differential, with the league’s second-best team save percentage (.935). Their top line remains perhaps the best in the NHL, with David Pastrnak (10 goals, seven assists), Brad Marchand (five goals, nine assists) and Patrice Bergeron (two goals, six assists) accounting for 17 of the team’s 26 goals.
“Standings-wise, we’re in good shape,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, in his fourth season behind the bench. “Our game, like most teams at this time of the year, has lots of work to be done on it. We have a competitive group, so we’re in every game, and so far we’ve gotten some good results.”
We spoke with Cassidy on the ESPN On Ice podcast this week about the state of the Bruins, his dominant top line, lessons from last season’s playoff run and his considerable hockey card collection.
ESPN: David Pastrnak is having an incredible season, with 10 goals and seven assists in nine games. The Boston Globe recently made the case for you to take him off the top line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, to spread the wealth in the lineup. I’ve always wondered: When you have a line that good, how you deal with the temptation to break it up vs. knowing it’s a line that can carry the team?
Bruce Cassidy: Typically I’m not gonna break it up until I’m comfortable with the line that Pasta’s going to go to. Right now David Krejci‘s out with an injury. Pasta has good chemistry with him. I’m not gonna drop him know, simply because I don’t think it makes us better. Now, you never know what you’re going to find out. But the first [test] is always whether you’re going to make yourself a better team by doing it. I’m not always convinced it is. I just like the chemistry with those three. It’s also [about] who can go up with them? How can go up there and sustain it? That’s the next part of it: We haven’t found a guy. Danton Heinen‘s gone up there and done well in spurts, but we’ve seen drop off eventually. Now, maybe he’s a year older, a year stronger, and a year more mature and can handle it. But until Krejci gets back, that’s probably not even in the cards right now.
ESPN: During last year’s playoff run, Tuukka Rask said one of the things that helped him was not playing as much last year. It really seems like you’re divvying the load between him and Jaroslav Halak. What’s your philosophy towards goalie workload management? Do you have to rely on two guys to have a winning club?
Cassidy: I don’t know if you have to. We do it that way because the data’s told us that Tuukka has a certain workload where he’s performed better. It’s a lot closer to 50 games than it is to 65. The other part of it is that we have a really good backup. We trust him. It started with [Anton] Khudobin who was good for us, and then Halak. Part of it is that. If your team doesn’t have confidence in the guy going in 35 times a year, then that’s a problem. So we’re lucky that way. That’s how we go about it, and we’re not going to change. The game is harder on goalies. It’s faster, more physical around the net. I think their workload is harder than it was in the past.
ESPN: Were there any lessons you personally took from last season’s run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final?
Cassidy: What I learned was the ups and downs of the playoffs, and how you have to stay consistent. I’m an emotional guy. Typically during the year when you lose a game, there’s a learning curve to it. You try to get better from it. I think in the playoffs, you almost have to shut the door and move on quicker. I haven’t had many playoff runs in the NHL, so that was the biggest thing for me: Put the previous game behind you, get ready for the next one and put the players back in a good place. A lot of that is just about positive energy than it is necessarily details or video or structural stuff. That’s what I learned personally. Whether the players took to it, I don’t know.
ESPN: Are there any trends around the league that you’ve noticed early on in the season?
Cassidy: I feel that teams are a little more wide open this time of year. That’s typical. Most players are healthy, have lots of energy, feeling really good about themselves. But I’d think in the next two or three weeks, guys will start to get a little banged up. Look at when we played Toronto: They’re already down [John] Tavares. We’re down Krejci. The players drop a little bit. Plus, coaches get a better feel for their teams and tighten it up. I’ve also noticed the top guys playing a little more early on. Coaches run with them because they’re healthy. You want to get points on the board. So maybe that balances itself out too, as minutes get more equitable among players. But I gotta tell you: I haven’t paid attention a ton to the rest of the league. We have some new players here, and ton of injuries, so we have to take care of our own business.
ESPN: You’re a busy dude. I think you get a pass on that one.
Cassidy: Well, listen. I love hockey. I watch games. But I also have two young kids. I’m in a hockey rink now, and I’m on my way to one in about 15 minutes. Sometimes it’s nice to get away from the NHL and watch 8- and 10-year-olds play sometimes.
ESPN: So what are the trends for 8- and 10-year-olds these days?
Cassidy: Yeah, there’s one kid that’s usually really good on every team and you gotta stop’em, or else you have no chance. [Laughs] They ruin it for everybody.
ESPN: Unless you’ve got that kid on your team.
Cassidy: Or it’s your own kid.
ESPN: You’ve been in this Bruins culture for so long. I was looking at the stats. The last two years, the Bruins were third in the NHL in goals-against average as a team. Go back five years, and they’re second in that category. Is it as simple as ‘we have Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and great goaltending,’ or is there something else to this formula?
Cassidy: It all started with [Claude] Julien. That was his culture. When I was in Providence [in the AHL], we played a similar style so when you’re coming up you don’t have to change a lot. We made some adjustments to the neutral zone to try to defend the blue line a little better, because our D-corps got more mobile over the years.
But you said it: With Z and Bergy and Tuukka, they’re constants. They’re part of the fabric of how we play. It’s a credit to the older guys that they buy in and understand what it takes to win. I’ve always been a believer in good team defense. We opened up things a bit more in the last few years offensively, but we tried not to lose our identity on the defensive side. For us, it’s all about layers. That’s been the big debate in hockey: layers vs. man-to-man defense. What’s the better style? Layers always worked for us. And we’ve been able to coach it over time so the players coming up are playing the same way.
ESPN: In the playoffs last year, Zdeno Chara suffered a jaw injury when the puck hit him. You have to be tight-lipped about it — pardon the pun — but looking back on it, what was it like behind the scenes with him being able to come back to the ice in the Stanley Cup Final?
Cassidy: He went in for surgery the morning before the game, and we didn’t see him that whole day. We’re assuming he’s not going to play because of the damage it did to him. I don’t know if it was revealed at the time, but he had two fractures in his jaw. We tried to downplay the fact that he had metal plates in there and wiring in there. Here’s a guy that had major surgery. He hadn’t eaten. And he walks right into the room the next morning, ready to go. You’re in awe of the guy. His pain tolerance was through the roof.
ESPN: Finally, you said recently in an interview that you had 5,000-7,000 hockey and baseball cards in your collection. When did you stop collecting — if in fact you have — and what’s your most prized card?
Cassidy: I’m going to work backward here. I have a Bobby Orr card. It might be from 1972 or 1973. It’s a purple backdrop, and he’s got a white jersey on, and he had all his trophies in front of him. I used to tape the cards to my bedroom wall. I know it’s in my attic somewhere. I just have to find it.
I must have stopped collecting when I was 12 years old. I grew up in Ottawa and had a paper route, so I started collecting at about 8 or 9 years old. My brother did it too. A lot of kids did. Did you ever play that game at school where you bring in your extra cards, fire them against the wall and see if you have a leaner to win the cards? We didn’t have video games back then. We had to entertain ourselves somehow.
My cards are all up in the attic. The funny thing is that I once looked through them and found, like, “Charlie’s Angels” and “Planet of the Apes” cards mixed in. And I was like, ‘where the hell did these come from?’ But the packs were a nickel back then. And the gum was sugary. So you couldn’t lose.