After a miscue-filled 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy explained that he was “frustrated” with his veteran players because they “haven’t stepped up a little more.”
The David Pastrnak giveaway he was asked about — the question that elicited that response — was just one of several dozen similar plays made by Bruins, veterans and younger players alike, for more than a majority of the 60 minutes.
In fact, the Bruins made similar plays Tuesday too, but it was easy to forget those because Boston beat New Jersey in a shootout. Of course, the Bruins’ problems with puck management and decision-making even pre-date the win over the Devils. Boston is just 2-2-1 since returning from its weeklong Covid-19 pause, and has won consecutive games once — two in a row March 16 and 18 before that pause — since winning five in a row Feb. 1-12.
One hopes Cassidy has a plan to get things on track for the stretch run, but he sounded trapped in the past.
“I trust this group to bounce back. They’re very resilient, we’ve proven that over the years,” Cassidy said.
Over the years? In case Cassidy missed it, the veteran core of this group has been whittled down. The departures of Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug, without them being replaced, have been beaten like a dead horse — but both are missed off the ice as much as on.
Beyond those subtractions, Sean Kuraly was going in and out of the lineup even before he landed on the Covid-19 list. Chris Wagner can’t beat out Karson Kuhlman or Anton Blidh for playing time — all of a sudden — and Joakim Nordstrom was another player that left for nothing. The Bruins now lack a fourth line that can change a game with physicality, never mind one that used to be able to defend top lines and take some of the workload off Patrice Bergeron’s line.
Tuukka Rask and Kevan Miller are out injured, so there’s not much they can do to help the team on or off the ice. David Backes, for all his deteriorated skills that made him overpaid on the ice, was a voice of reason and positivity in the room and he’s long gone. (One could argue the Bruins overpaid Backes in the first place because general manager Don Sweeney knew his team needed the forward’s brand of leadership.)
Almost every hole, with the exception of the one Craig Smith filled when he came over from Nashville, is being plugged by a kid. Hate to break it to Cassidy, but this isn’t that “resilient” team he’s coached to one of the NHL’s best records since taking over in 2017.
Just as the captaincy passed from Chara to Bergeron, the rest of the leadership burden is being passed on to the likes of Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, Charlie Coyle, and Jake DeBrusk. But those guys don’t have the likes of Chara and Backes to lean on. Instead, they’re being asked — fairly or not — to drive this team with a load of inexperienced players riding shotgun.
Where once Cassidy could rely on a veteran team pulling itself out of the doldrums, he’s now going to have to take better command of the ship. He’s often been lauded for his patience with young players, but it’s time for some of them to begin improving. The old offensive defenseman can’t seem to get the kids to protect the net and take care of the puck.
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Cassidy, and more so Sweeney, set the Bruins up for what they’ve been going through. They wanted to let the kids play, and so they’re playing like kids. The NHL isn’t supposed to be a learning experience for so many at the same time, especially when the core Cassidy has such faith in is getting older, its window closing. When you have a Chara, you can break in a Brandon Carlo and then a McAvoy. You can live with their mistakes when there’s so many around to pick them up. A DeBrusk or Kuraly can lean on a Backes when things are going wrong.
When the likes of McAvoy and Carlo or Pastrnak falter, and there’s just a Jeremy Lauzon or a Jakub Zboril or Connor Clifton or Trent Frederic to bail them out (or fail to help), there’s going to be trouble. There’s going to be growing pains. There’s going to be a lot of unknown.
Cassidy can say he “trusts this group to bounce back” but he’s not basing that on anything tangible. He has no idea how this particular team, with the drop-off in experience from the teams of the past couple years, and the reduction in the number of veteran leaders, is going to respond.
Philadelphia has fallen off the map lately, but not enough to be out of the playoff picture. The Bruins can be caught and there are three games head-to-head with the Flyers next week. Six more games with Buffalo are off in the distance. Cassidy can’t relax, can’t rely on his leaders to just take his X’s and O’s and clean up the sloppy execution and keep the club at the right emotional level.
Keeping this team out of the ditch is going to take some Grade A, hands-on coaching like Cassidy probably hasn’t done since he was in the AHL. And it’s going to take some managing by Sweeney to get this group some legitimate help if he really wants to contend this May rather than just roll the dice and get ownership a few postseason home dates.
This Bruins team isn’t your older brother’s Bruins team and the quicker everyone faces that fact, the better off the Bruins will be.