- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

The first half-season of Bruce Cassidy's NHL coaching career did not go as smoothly as planned, as he is the first to admit. He is also the first to acknowledge that he had a lot to learn, and it would appear he is not forgetting his lessons.
There have been times when he probably thought nobody was listening, which was pretty close to the truth. He was here because the Washington Capitals had tuned out their previous coach, Ron Wilson. He was a new guy singing a different tune. It was frustrating until Cassidy suddenly started singing the same old melody but with a variation.
"Maybe it's the way you sing the tune," he said. "Ultimately, I think, that's it."
Could be. Four times this season Washington has been as much as three games below .500. But the team finished the first half with a record of 18-16-5-2, not having lost a game in regulation since Dec.14. Washington is on a run of 5-0-3-2, 10 straight games with points.
But it wasn't easy getting there. It was late November in Game 24 when Cassidy finally realized that this was not exactly what he had envisioned in the NHL, the highest plateau one can reach in his line of work. The pay was good, the travel was first class, the players were bright, but something wasn't quite what it was supposed to be.
He had spent the summer coming up with schemes that he thought the players would appreciate, complex packages with variations and options for instance, 15 different ways to get across the red line. And not only that, the packages could be and would be adjusted for each opponent, making the Caps difficult to scout and play.
"I think they were a bit confused from night to night," Cassidy, 37, acknowledged yesterday, accepting a lot of the blame for the team not getting off to a better start. He had misread the lay of the land. Generally speaking, instead of things becoming more complex as you climb into the NHL, they become simpler but that simplification is worked to perfection.
Though he had been a player in the league, he had forgotten that it operated on the KISS principle Keep It Simple, Stupid.
"You take a line like the checking line that can set the table for you," he said. "They want to be coached, to be structurally sound, to do whatever we ask. I think if you asked them to go to the other team's bench and start a brawl, they'd do it. They do whatever the plan is."
Nonetheless, players were asking questions as the systems multiplied.
"All we were trying to do was make things easier through the neutral zone," Cassidy explained. "I thought we were playing way too much in our own end."
On Nov.29, Ottawa was the opponent for Game24. It was a game Cassidy had been looking forward to because it was his hometown, his former organization, the one he represented when he was named American Hockey League coach of the year last season, the architect of the system he was trying to install in Washington.
The Caps and Cassidy were embarrassed. The score wasn't all that bad, 6-2, but Ottawa toyed with the Caps.
"We looked like boys against men," Cassidy said. "I was so disappointed. I just took a step back and said, 'Why not just go out and work hard and coach, do what you can to get them to play without taking it personal.' I've had a different approach since then."
Some of the differences are immediately noticeable. First, Cassidy no longer acts like a man with his pants on fire behind the bench, a man who carried intensity to undiscovered regions. The lines and defensive pairs are generally the same night-to-night, the schemes are pretty much the same. The level of play has improved because everybody now seems to be on the same page.
"Jags helped me there," Cassidy said, referring to right wing Jaromir Jagr and a meeting in early December. "He said, 'You know, I think the guys just want it simple and they'll be happy.' And that's coming from a top-end guy you'd think would want a lot of options.
Recalled Jagr: "What I said is, 'This is not like cosmonauts going into space and everything has to be perfect for them to land, This is different. You're going to make mistakes. If you make a mistake going through space, you die. Here, you've got 60 minutes to fix it, and you're not going to die. And after one mistake you cannot go over to the player and scream over every little detail. Believe in the player. I know when I make mistakes I've been a professional player for a long time. Don't make it worse by telling him all the time; he knows. Just let it go, it will heal itself.'
"I also said to make it simple, don't make it complicated. Don't make 15 breakouts, we only use one anyway. Don't make 15 because we don't have time. This isn't football where you have one play and 45 seconds to think of another one. In hockey, you have to think all the time, and it's much quicker. That's why you have more mistakes."
It surprised Cassidy that people even noticed him talking to a player after practice, even if the player was Jagr.
"Here everything is scrutinized," he said. "I had a meeting with Jagr, and that was something I never thought about. We talked for a half-hour one day after practice about hockey, philosophy, where he eats during the summer in Prague, and it's made out to be something huge. That opened my eyes."
And what's in store for the second half?
"A lot of what we've done in the past month, hammering away at what wins games for us, saying good defense will create offense. Play solid in front of your goaltender, be accountable to one another, things we've preached from day one," Cassidy said.
And watch how you sing that tune.

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