Bruce Cassidy arrived in Washington last June as a fresh-faced contrast to sarcastic predecessor Ron Wilson. But a year of coaching the maddening Washington Capitals could take some of the kid out of anyone. Gray has yet to show in the 38-year-old Cassidy’s hair, but the NHL’s second-youngest coach doesn’t look quite so youthful anymore.
“Crow’s feet for sure,” Cassidy said with a smile during a break between practice sessions in yesterday’s opening day of training camp.
Said general manager George McPhee, who bypassed bigger names and more experienced coaches to gamble on Cassidy: “It’s a lot for a young coach to undertake, coming into this league without much experience. You don’t only have to get to know your players, but you have to learn the opposing players and coaches, too.
“We were trying to do too much early on last year, trying to play different systems. At this level, it’s about coming up with a simple, risk-free system and using it every night. You don’t have the time to teach.”
And after a 10-13-2 start that culminated with a 5-4 loss to lowly Atlanta on Dec.1, Cassidy’s system clicked in and the Caps were a fine 29-16-6-6 the rest of the way.
“I assumed at this level that players would want a little more freedom,” Cassidy said. “A few guys — the Jagrs, the Nylanders — play better like that, but the others crave more structure. Whenever you’re in a position of authority, whoever is under you is going to try to see what they can get away with. We have a good group of coachable guys. It’s just getting them to be consistent every night.
“In the minors, you can make judgment calls and get away with them if they don’t work without being criticized as much. Everything is more under the microscope at this level. You just have to learn to still believe in yourself.”
Despite an ugly postseason exit as normal as cherry blossoms each spring in Washington, the Caps believe in their coach much more than they did a year ago, when he had yet to coach a day in the league, even as an assistant, and had played in only 36 NHL games largely because of knee injuries that wrecked his career.
“What I like best about Butch is that he wasn’t so close-minded that he didn’t pick things up throughout the year,” co-captain Steve Konowalchuk said.
Goalie Olie Kolzig praised Cassidy for adjusting after the rugged beginning and “not letting us go south.”
That is until the playoffs. Washington came home from Tampa Bay in control of the first-round series with a 2-0 lead. Four games later, the Caps had produced yet another postseason pratfall.
“When I was watching Tampa Bay playing New Jersey [in the second round], I thought about what happened every day,” Cassidy said. “And then you see [semifinalist] Minnesota and [finalist] Anaheim, which aren’t the strongest clubs on paper. That just goes to show you that it can happen to a lot of different teams. You don’t have to be Detroit, with all the Hall of Famers. But once the Stanley Cup was over, you start thinking about next year.”
With Cassidy, his three assistants and all but three of the players who skated in the playoffs in camp — Calle Johansson retired and fellow defenseman Ken Klee and left wing Sergei Berezin weren’t re-signed — there’s no need for last fall’s feeling-out process. McPhee predicted the Caps would have their second 100-point season in 18 years if they can stay healthy.
“The big difference from last year to this year is that we know the coach and he knows us,” right wing Peter Bondra said. “He knows what buttons to push to get us going.”
Cassidy is toying with moving the high-scoring Bondra to the checking line, not as a demotion but to help revive the offense of Konowalchuk and Jeff Halpern. And burly Mike Grier could wind up on the top line as a mucker/bodyguard for Jaromir Jagr.
“Everyone’s under the gun a little bit after last year, but we won’t put as much emphasis on winning in preseason,” Cassidy said. “We want to get our system down, find some chemistry and find who are going to be the two or three guys on the blue line that emerge.”
Meanwhile, McPhee is very pleased with the players’ conditioning. He singled out Jagr for slimming down from 234 to 224 pounds and defenseman Brendan Witt for dropping from 231 to 218.