Over a week after being named the club’s full-time head coach, Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy joined WEEI’s Dale and Holley with Keefe to discuss his team, and also laid out some future plans for a group

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

Over a week after being named the club’s full-time head coach, Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy joined WEEI’s Dale and Holley with Keefe to discuss his team, and also laid out some future plans for a group whose run was cut short in round one.

The plans for Cassidy, whose team went 18-8-1 with him behind the bench to close out the regular season, include going even farther in the Stanley Cup Playoffs by this time next year.

“I do, I do,” Cassidy said when asked if he believes this roster, which with the exception of a few minor moves here and there, is expected to remain the same heading into this upcoming season. “Because I think some of these younger kids are a year older.”

For Cassidy’s Bruins, that increased experience goes beyond the forward group that includes David Pastrnak, Frank Vatrano, and bottom-six roleplayers such as Noel Acciari and Sean Kuraly, too.

“Going into last year, it was well documented that our backend was going to be a problem and I thought we played through that,” Cassidy said. “I’m not saying we’re the best defensive corps in the NHL, but I think that part of the group held their own.”

For the Bruins, that emergence on the point was led by the 20-year-old Brandon Carlo, who became a top-pairing defenseman in just his first professional season, while the 19-year-old Charlie McAvoy proved to be a capable fill-in during the club’s playoff run.

“A guy like Carlo, who was a pleasant surprise, you hope he doesn’t go through a sophomore jinx, and continues to get better,” said Cassidy. “A guy like McAvoy coming in, if he continues to develop at the rate we saw over the course of a couple weeks at the end of the season, then you got two young players right away that you’re injecting into your lineup.”

On top of their seemingly reloaded defense, Cassidy’s idea of future success also hinges on the idea of finding more rest for Tuukka Rask, which will be attainable if backup Anton Khudobin shines like he did after the coaching change, with six wins and a .922 save percentage in seven decisions under Cassidy versus a 1-5-1 record and .885 save percentage under Claude Julien.

But also hinting at the idea of a player like Jake DeBrusk, who has scored 19 goals and totaled 49 points in 74 AHL games along with three goals and an assist in five AHL playoff games this spring, joining the B’s top six, and with the idea of getting more out of a shoot-first winger such as Frank Vatrano (he had 10 goals in 44 games this season), the Bruins know they will not be the only team infusing more youth and energy into their lineup this season. Especially not in an Atlantic Division chock full of youth.

“But teams around you get better, so it’s all relative, but I think we will,” said Cassidy, subtly referencing many of the skaters in the middle lines of the Black and Gold this past season. “Obviously we gotta get a little bit more out of a few of the players we didn’t this year, and that’s fine, we’ll put the work in, and hopefully they do, and they’ll have good seasons for us.”

 

Blog Author: 
Ty Anderson
David Backes had 17 goals and 38 points in 74 games this season. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

David Backes had 17 goals and 38 points in 74 games this season. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

Deep down, the Bruins know that the early years of the five-year, $30 million contract handed down to David Backes, who turned 33 years old just two days ago, are going to be the most rewarding ones.

What they didn’t account for, however, was that Backes’ first year removed from the Blues, the team that he called his own for over a decade, would come with a whole different set of adjustments.

Those adjustments did not derail his first season in Boston, which featured 17 goals and 38 points in 74 games along with absences due to an elbow procedure and concussion, but rather appeared during Backes’ fair share of dry spells and production dips from years prior.

“It was a big transition. He was very honest in saying he was overwhelmed with moving from a place where he had been very well established, had a very identifiable role as captain, and a relationship with the coach,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said of Backes’ first season with the Bruins. “All those things are moving parts that he admitted openly that it was a little overwhelming at times, despite everybody doing what they can to make him comfortable.

 

“He was very grateful and happy that the wives and girlfriends helped his own wife and family adjust.”

“David had a hard time adjusting,” B’s president Cam Neely said at his year-end press conference on Tuesday, backing up Sweeney’s claims. “He mentioned that at the end of the year that it was more of a challenge to come to a new city and a new team and get to know 22 to 24 other players. That took a while for him to get adjusted.”

With goal-scoring dips in four straight seasons, and with a 13-point dropoff from 2015 to 2016, and then a seven-point dropoff from that season this past year, the writing on the wall in terms of Backes’ expectations is seemingly there. But the Bruins believe that they’re going to get an even better No. 42 next season with these adjustments a thing of the past.

“I think that David will be an even better player for us going forward,” Sweeney noted. “I thought his production was pretty good overall. Played a couple of different roles and situations, sees himself probably staying on the wing, but can certainly provide the depth up the middle of the ice, depending on how the lineup looks and who emerges, and we’re happy to have him.”

It also helped that the Bruins probably saw some of Backes’ best in the playoffs, where he recorded one goal and four points, along with a forward-leading 29 hits in six postseason games in the club’s first-round loss to the Senators. Those contributions are a big reason why the Bruins signed Backes in the first place, as he entered the free agency market with 49 games of postseason experience with the Blues, including a 20-game run to the Western Conference Finals with the club back in 2016.

“I feel like David is really built for the type of playoff hockey you have to have and play to go deep. I feel he’s a great leader. He’s helped the young kids a ton. If he can pick up a little bit of a step in his game, which he’s going to work on in the offseason, I think that’s going to be beneficial for him and us,” said Neely. “But, I like his physicality. I like the fact that he’ll stand front of the net and pay the price to be there. I think offensive wise, we got kind of what we expected from him. Would we like a little more? Yeah. But, all the things that he brings, I thought that whole package was a welcome addition.”

Blog Author: 
Ty Anderson
Anders Bjork is still undecided on his future plans. (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)

Anders Bjork is still undecided on his future plans. (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)

Anders Bjork is not Jimmy Vesey.

But he could by all means become the next Vesey next summer following his senior season at Notre Dame. And the Bruins know it.

Seeing him an instant fix to their scoring woes on their second or third line, the Bruins want to bring him in. They want to do anything and everything they could to prevent Bjork from becoming a star, affordable free agent for all 31 NHL teams come the summer of 2018.

Drafted by the Bruins in the fifth round (146th overall) in 2014, the ultra-talented Bjork recorded 21 goals and 52 points in 39 games en route to a Hobey Baker nomination and Frozen Four appearance for the Fighting Irish. It almost goes without saying that he holds the keys to his future, beyond the idea of simply returning to Notre Dame for his senior season and a shot at the National Title or joining the Bruins.

 

Again, the Bruins know it, too, which is exactly why they’re trying to get this situation wrapped up as soon as they can.

“Well, we’re doing everything we possibly can,” Bruins team president Cam Neely said on Tuesday when asked of signing Bjork. “He had a very difficult decision right after his season was over. I think it was overwhelming for him.”

For Bjork, the decision to not follow Charlie McAvoy and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson’s roads to the Bruins, which featured a jump to the pro ranks almost immediately after their collegiate season with the Boston University Terriers came to a close, comes as a result of his deep connection to Notre Dame. His father, Kirt, attended Notre Dame and was an All-American for the school during his run with the Irish from 1979 to 1983. His mother is also a Notre Dame alum. And the feeling is that Bjork wants to give it one last run at a potential NCAA championship with the school, as they have never won it all in their program’s history.

At the same time, Bjork wants to play on a bigger stage.

That begins with his participation in the 2017 World Championships with the United States, and it’s after that tournament, which begins later this week, that the Bruins hope to know if Bjork will be in their plans this season.

“His camp has told Don [Sweeney] that he’s going to make a decision whether or not to return to college hockey or turn pro after the World Championships at some point,” Neely, whose team has already sign three different NCAA prospects in the last two months, said. “So, our hopes are that he sees where we’re at as a team and some of the young players we’re putting in our lineup and we hope that he understands that he’s a player that we think very highly of that can step in and contribute here.”

Neely also noted that he doesn’t believe that potentially playing for the United States in the 2018 Olympics (an event that is expected to go on without NHL players) is not a major factor in his potential decision to return to school for his senior season.

Bjork has 40 goals and 109 points in 115 games over three seasons with Notre Dame.

Blog Author: 
Ty Anderson
The NHL is not expected to let its players go to the 2018 Olympics. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

The NHL is not expected to let its players go to the 2018 Olympics. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

The NHL has already let it be known that they have no interest in going to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, and as of right now, they will not put their league on hold and send their players overseas.

Some players, many of whom skate for the Bruins, have also held out hope that NHL owners will eventually change their mind and will allow their players to compete in their sixth straight Olympics.

But one of the league’s most influential suits, Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, seemingly shot that hope down in a Tuesday press conference.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen, no,” Jacobs said. “When you stop and think about should we take those weeks out of our season, turn it off; continue to depend on these players to perform for us when they get back, if they get back, and if they come back in good condition. I said it earlier, I’ll say it again – do what they did with basketball. Play it in the summer. They could do summer Olympics just as easily. They won’t embrace it. So, it is what it is.”

In a perfect world, sure, you could move ice hockey to the summer Olympics, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do that. One player mentioned how it’s always hockey that tends to close out the winter Olympics, and how it’s the biggest event in terms of its reach and popularity. Putting it in the summer would make them the second fiddle to countless other events, including the one that they already battle with for TV ratings (and lose to) for almost their entire season in basketball.

There’s also the 13-hour time difference that’s going to be a real thorn in the side when it comes to the league letting their players bounce for three weeks. In other words, it’s not the mild, definitely-worth-it time difference of a Vancouver in 2010.

“Korea doesn’t necessarily help the situation at all for the Olympics. The time zones are so different,” Jacobs added. “If you want to watch it here at two or three in the morning, okay. But, I think the four people that watch it don’t justify the reasons for it.”

If their decision holds, this will be the first NHL-less Olympics since 1994.

Blog Author: 
Ty Anderson

Claude Julien was on the hot seat long before the Bruins finally pulled the trigger and relieved him of his duties back in February.

The Bruins fired Claude Julien back in February. (Eric Bolte/USA Today Sports)

The Bruins fired Claude Julien back in February. (Eric Bolte/USA Today Sports)

Claude Julien was on the hot seat long before the Bruins finally pulled the trigger and relieved him of his duties back in February.

And speaking with the media for the first time since he said that he expected a deep playoff run from his then Julien-led Bruins squad, Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs did not hold back when asked about the decision to move on from the club’s all-time winningest coach.

“My own impression is that it was overdue – maybe a little late,” Jacobs said. “Maybe I precipitated part of that and misplaced loyalty in that sense. But, it was the right move.

“I think I had a false sense of loyalty there. I think we gave Claude a lot of leeway and it didn’t produce, so it was time to move on.”

With the club teetering on the edge of a full-on collapse (and earlier than in previous years) with their 26-23-6 record, Julien was replaced by Bruce Cassidy, and the Bruins went 18-8-1 to finish the season en route to a return to playoff play for the first time since 2014.

“Coaches have a definite life it seems to be. [Julien] had been a long serving coach. He spent a good bit of his career with us, and hopefully he does well in Montreal,” Jacobs continued. “But, once Bruce took over, I think he either had the first or second best record of any team in the National Hockey League for that period of time. I don’t know the exact number, but I think it was 24 games or something like that. So, it was a very prudent move and it was very prudent there. Under those circumstances, I would say that Don did a terrific job in selecting him and motivating him and motivating the team.”

Under Julien, who won 419 of 759 games behind the Boston bench, the Bruins won the 2011 Stanley Cup and made it to the 2013 Stanley Cup Final against the Blackhawks. The Bruins also made it to the playoffs in all but the final two of Julien’s nine full seasons as the team’s head coach. And they advanced to the second round of play in all but two of those seven postseason runs.

But the B’s results under Cassidy spoke for themselves in a lot of ways, and left more than Jacobs impressed with the decision made by the B’s leadership group of team president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney.

“Don [Sweeney] certainly talked to me about the thought of removing Claude [Julien] and putting Bruce in as an interim,” Neely said. “What Bruce did and what the players did when he took over was pretty impressive. So, there was a different feeling around the locker room, he practiced differently, and it showed up in the way we played.”

The Bruins named Cassidy as the club’s full-time head coach last week.

Blog Author: 
Ty Anderson
Kevan Miller averaged 25:12 of time on ice during the playoffs. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller averaged 25:12 of time on ice during the playoffs. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Somebody on the Bruins will take a contract-long vacation to Las Vegas as part of the league’s upcoming expansion draft this June.

By now, the names floated out there as most likely to venture out to Nevada as an original member of the Vegas Golden Knights are well known. It’s a mix of guys eventually due for raises that the B’s may not want to pay (Ryan Spooner, Colin Miller), experienced veterans (Adam McQuaid), or potentially cap-crushing contracts, which could actually help Vegas reach the cap floor, such as Matt Beleskey or Jimmy Hayes.

On the other side, the people you want to see the Bruins protect likely remained the same from start to finish this season. But at the same time, it should have changed if you watched the B’s first-round series loss to the Senators with a close eye.

Specifically in regards to one person: Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller.

Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has already hinted that the Bruins are leaning towards the 7-3-1 protection plan, which allows the Bruins to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie. Again, the names up front are rather obvious and there’s no way that the Bruins do not protect Tuukka Rask, but it’s on the point where things become interesting.

The Bruins have two redundant contracts in McQuaid and Miller (Miller makes $2.5 million per year, McQuaid at $2.75 million per year, they’re almost the same age, and both are best as the right-side complement to a puck-moving defenseman like Torey Krug). McQuaid, for what it’s worth, has already expressed his interest in staying with the Bruins. The other Miller d-man, Colin, is also a player that the Bruins could consider protecting from the Golden Knights. It’s also obvious that Krug, who recorded a career-high 51 points this past season, will be the club’s second protected defender behind Zdeno Chara, who will have to be protected because of his no-movement clause (and should be protected) anyways. So, it’s that third and final spot on the club’s point that will come back to McQuaid, the Miller defensemen, or the previously unmentioned Joe Morrow.

And that coveted third spot, as a six-game playoff run told you, should probably go to No. 86.

Say this to me a year ago — or even six months ago, actually — and I would have laughed at you. But when the stakes were at their highest, Miller upped his game and became one of the club’s most dependable defensemen. He was the No. 3 in a close-game rotation that saw the Bruins give heavy minutes to Zdeno Chara’s and their second-defenseman-by-necessity Charlie McAvoy. But he also proved that he can be more than a No. 5 defenseman on a good team. There were times where Miller had strong plays with the puck to begin a rush the other way, or made the right pinch or offensive-zone read to lead to more offensive chances for the Bruins. Miller also remained true to what put him in this spot to begin with, with 20 hits and 17 blocked shots, and ranked third among Boston defensemen in time on ice during the postseason (25:14) and second among penalty-killing time on ice (3:56).

But it’s the former points that were interesting for the Black and Gold.

Miller, for all of his struggles for goals against — I prefer to call it the 2009-10 Dennis Wideman Effect, where everything that could go wrong did go wrong and appeared beyond glaring — recorded career-highs in goals (five), assists (13), and points (18) in 71 games in 2015-16. He followed that up with three goals and 13 points in 58 games during this past regular season. It’s the point-per-game pace that indicates that the career-high from two seasons ago would have been reached for the second year in a row had it not been for a 13-game dropoff due to injury (Miller missed a total of 24 games to injury this season, the most coming with a 19-game absence because of a hand injury suffered at the end of the preseason).

A student of Adam Oates’ skills coaching, Miller has made the necessary adjustments to become an impact talent for the B’s.

“I think, as a player, if you’re not trying to get better, you’re getting worse, especially in this league now,” the 29-year-old Miller said. “I think guys are getting faster, they’re getting bigger, getting better with the puck, I think, so it’s something that, every summer, you have to go out there and try and better yourself, not just for yourself, but for your team.”

The Bruins have seen that change on the club’s right side in the past season alone, too, with the emergence of both Brandon Carlo and McAvoy during this past season. That has, believe it or not, made Miller’s presence all the more valuable for the Bruins. A right-side defender for most of his Bruins career, Miller played significant time on the club’s left side this past season, where Chara and Krug remain the first and second pairing presences, and was just as effective there. A righty going to the left is not easy for most defensemen, and that versatility gives Miller some extra value to the B’s beyond everything already mentioned.

With improvements from year to year while refusing to stray from the physical brand your defense still needs even in today’s skilled-beyond-belief game (Miller finished the year with 121 hits and 77 blocked shots, along with the fourth-best Corsi-for percentage among Boston defensemen), the Bruins simply can’t let Miller and his affordable $2.5 million cap hit go for nothing, which is exactly what would happen if he’s exposed to the Golden Knights.

“I have aspirations of winning the Stanley Cup. That’s why I’m here,” Miller, an undrafted talent who has spent his entire career with the Bruins, said. “That’s why I wanted to sign here, and if you’re not getting yourself better, you’re not helping your team.”

Blog Author: 
Ty Anderson
David Pastrnak will play for the Czech Republic at the World Championships. (Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports)

David Pastrnak will play for the Czech Republic at the World Championships. (Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports)

Defenseman Charlie McAvoy and prospect Anders Bjork, both of whom will suit up for the United States, are not the only Bruins heading overseas to the 2017 World Championships next week, as David Pastrnak will join them as he plays for the Czech Republic.

Given the fact that Pastrnak is healthy (unlike many of his teammates and fellow Czech, David Krejci, who is suffering from a knee injury), the jump to the Czech national was pretty much expected.

The invite also comes on the heels of Pastrnak’s best NHL season to date, with a career-high 34 goals and 70 points in 75 games this year.

This will be the second time that Pastrnak has played for the Czechs in the World Championships. He recorded one goal and six points in eight games for the Czech Republic at last year’s games. Pastrnak also skated in three games in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey back in September.

The 20-year-old Pastrnak, a restricted free agent this summer, will report to the national club next week.

But not before he heads off to Scottsdale, Ariz. for one more road trip with his teammates.

Blog Author: 
Ty Anderson
Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask won a career-high 37 games this season. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask won a career-high 37 games this season. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask’s season had its peaks and valleys.

Rask would be the first to tell you that.

“Pretty steady,” Rask said of his season. “I had ups and downs but for the most part I did my job and just tried to give us a chance to win every night, and for the most part I accomplished it.”

But it was the Bruins, out of necessity for the most part, that created those valleys when they overworked the all-world Rask. And Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has finally admitted such as a truth.

“A tremendous start to the season for us,” Sweeney said on Thursday when asked to assess Rask’s season as a whole. “We needed it, our backup goalie got hurt, Anton [Khudobin] was off to a slow start, Zane [McIntyre] was coming in as a young player, Malcolm [Subban] played a game. We needed him. Middle of the season I thought we rode him maybe a little too hard. He broke down a little bit.”

The numbers backed up that claim, too, as Rask began his season with 12 wins and a .938 save percentage in 17 games. He did that while also nursing an injured groin that put him on the shelf for three games back in October. Rask took a slight dip from those Vezina-pacing numbers in December though, with seven wins and a .915 save percentage. But it was in January where Rask hit a definite wall that nearly derailed the B’s season, and it was one that lasted a lot longer than the Bruins would have liked, as Rask won just 14 of 30 starts from Jan. 1 to Mar. 23’s ugly loss to the Lightning. Rask’s .888 save percentage over that span also ranked as the worst in the league among goalies with at least 24 games played.

Rask then missed a must-win game in Brooklyn (it was later revealed that Rask had a back injury), but after a weekend of rest-and-recovery, Rask returned to those October numbers to close out his season, with a 4-0-1 record and just four goals allowed on 140 shots thrown his way (a .971 save percentage). He then followed that up with a first-round showing that saw Rask steal two games (a.k.a all the wins that the Bruins had in their series loss to the Senators) and finish with a .920 save percentage.

It was the strong finish the B’s needed to reinforce the obvious: Rask is still a great goalie in this league when managed properly.

“He finished on such a high note, the player that we all know Tuukka is, and the competitor he is. He had some injury troubles that he was battling through the course of the season and really came back, after getting a little bit of rest, a better player,” Sweeney said. “He’s a big part of if we’re going to have success that we expect to have, that he has to be the go-to guy and I think he proved that down the stretch and in the playoffs that he can be that goaltender.”

It’s opened the door for the Bruins to find a solution to the backup goaltending spot, as a capable backup will give No. 40 the rest he’ll need to be closer to the goalie he was in the beginning and end of the season versus the worn out goalie you saw in February. Sweeney by all means said that Khudobin remains in line to be the club’s backup next season, but did not rule out the idea of one of McIntyre or Subban — both of whom are restricted free agents this summer — stealing the spot next season.

“If somebody passes Anton, be it Zane or Malcolm, then we move in that direction as well,” Sweeney admitted. “But we’ve been patient from the development standpoint of trying to look internally, and it’s a position that we’ve sort of been chasing our tail a little bit for a couple of seasons now and very aware of it, do not run from it, and I’d like it to be resolved.”

Sweeney also noted that the 30-year-old Rask, like teammate Patrice Bergeron, is going to wait and see if things ‘calm down’ before seeing if he will require groin surgery this offseason.

Rask won a career-high 37 games and eight shutouts this year, along with a 2.23 goals against average and .915 save percentage.

Blog Author: 
Ty Anderson