- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

We know Jaromir Jagr can score. He might have broken out of his slump, with five goals and six assists in two games before last night's 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers at MCI Center, but the fact that Jagr is on a tear should be no surprise to anyone.
Since we really haven't seen the greatest of Jagr yet in a Washington Capitals uniform, it was news that he did this. But it was not news that he could do it. We knew that he could.
What we didn't know was if Bruce Cassidy could coach in the NHL. Let's face it, nobody knew it for sure not even the guy who went out on a limb to hire him, general manager George McPhee.
He thought the 37-year-old Cassidy could coach. He believed Cassidy could coach in the NHL. But he didn't know it, because Bruce Cassidy had never coached an NHL game in his life before this season. He was a minor league coaching success, winning in places like Jacksonville and Trenton and Indianapolis, compiling a 215-169-50 record over six seasons.
But this is the NHL, where the best players in the world play, a world apart from the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Now, after 45 games, we know that Cassidy can coach in this world, despite last night's defeat. We don't know if he can coach a team to the playoffs or beyond yet, because that's farther down the road. But by weathering a poor start and getting the Caps on a winning run, Cassidy has cleared his first hurdle.
Instead of collapsing after getting off to a 10-12-2 start in the first two months, Cassidy made adjustments and got this veteran group of players to start playing for him. The Caps have gone 11-4-3-3 since then. That is a test passed for Cassidy.
There are untested coaches in professional sports who are disasters from the get-go (see Leonard Hamilton, Washington Wizards). Cassidy has gotten over that hump.
"When we hired him, I thought we got a young guy with lots of upside," McPhee said. "There was certainly some risk in it in that there would be a lot about this league, about other coaches in this league, about this team and about these individuals. And it took about 25 games for him to know his players well enough to come up with a system that works for this team. He's still learning how to handle referees and what other coaches' tendencies are.
"But in terms of getting the right players on the ice at the right time for us and the right system for us, he's got that," McPhee said.
Nobody is more pleased about Cassidy's development than McPhee, because his future is clearly tied to the success of Cassidy. Ted Leonsis may be the one signing the checks, and it is his wallet that is on the line. But McPhee put his job on the line by taking the risk to want the untested Cassidy, when many thought a more experienced coach was better suited for an underachieving veteran team.
It only gets harder, though, because the playoffs are a whole different world, where a team can seize on another team's weaknesses and exploit it over a series. The Caps are going to have to pick up their special team play considerably to have any hope of success when success really counts. Going into last night's game, Washington was tied for 16th place in the league in the power play and 25th in penalty killing. The coach is going to have to find a way to change that.
"We're playing well, but I still think we can play better," McPhee said. "We're hopeful that we can continue to improve. But [Cassidy] has passed his first couple of tests, being able to handle the players, and we're winning hockey games."


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