For the sixth time in as many games in the Boston Bruins-Ottawa Senators 2017 NHL playoff series, the contest was decided by just one goal, and went to overtime for the fourth occasion. Unfortunately for the B’s and their faithful, an untimely David Pastrnak penalty (and it was a penalty, even though the men in stripes once again open themselves up to criticism by not calling other similar infractions in OT) opened the door for the Senators to send them home.
Given the tumultuous season that ultimately ended in what we feel is positive fashion despite the disappointing outcome (the B’s lost all three of its home games), there are reasons for fans to be optimistic about the organization going forward. Here are a few story lines to keep an eye on as the B’s made the postseason for the first time in Don Sweeney’s tenure as GM, and gave the Senators all they could handle. Some bounces here and there, and perhaps a little more consistency in the officiating, and who knows? Maybe the team could’ve pulled off an upset, but we see more reasons to be positive than negative given where things stood in early February when Claude Julien was fired.
This post will focus on Bruce Cassidy and Charlie McAvoy as the team clears out lockers and begins the offseason. Other parts will look at different topics rather than generate one gigantic 4,000-word (or more) post. Yes, the posts have been more and more infrequent- what can we tell you- professional and personal life has intervened and this is a side project. As always- appreciate the support of this blog.
Now, for the first in a series of “calling it like we see it” posts about the Bruins and where they go from here:
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids
The B’s were in disarray at a time when Boston and the New England region was euphoric over the New England Patriots’ record-setting comeback against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI to secure a fifth NFL championship since 2001, and the second in three years.
The Julien release watch had been in full effect since before the calendar flipped over to 2017, but when the team announced his dismissal on the day of the Pats’ victory parade in Boston, there was much criticism in media and fan circles about the timing. In his place, assistant coach Bruce Cassidy was given the title of “interim head coach” and handed the unenviable task of righting the ship of a team that had struggled with consistency all season long. Interestingly enough, the predictions of the defense being the club’s Achilles heel proved to be off, as a lack of balanced scoring, more than problems on the blue line, threatened a third consecutive spring out of the postseason.
Cassidy came in and was able to see immediate success by having the defense play a more aggressive, uptempo style than what fans were used to under the more measured Julien-coached teams. Ultimately, there wasn’t a huge difference in the systems the B’s employed under Cassidy vs. his predecessor, but the results were more effective. The team went .720 down the stretch and made it into the postseason (a Toronto loss on the final night of the regular season spared Boston from the eighth seed and having to run the gauntlet against the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals) for the first time since 2014 and a first-place campaign.
On paper, Cassidy has earned the chance to shed the interim tag and be the B’s head coach. However, it is curious to note that even with the strong performance down the stretch and a plucky, if ultimately unsuccessful first round, that the team has not yet made the announcement that Butch is the guy. It could mean that they were just waiting for the season to end/keep the focus on the playoff effort, or one can only wonder if there is another coaching candidate they have in mind…either way, we should find out soon enough whether Cassidy will be rewarded for his 20-12-1 record in both the regular and postseasons (hat tip to Kevin Paul Dupont for doing the work to post that final stat line), or if the team opts to go in a different direction.
Conventional thought says it should be Cassidy, but if we’ve learned one thing under the current B’s regime, they aren’t big on conventions.
Charlie McAvoy is the Real McCoy
It’s ever present on social and in traditional media, and there’s not much we can do about it.
For the precocious defenseman, it began the day the Bruins drafted Charlie McAvoy at 14th overall after the collective D had been a major factor in the team’s stretch run flameout in 2016. It didn’t take long (you could measure it in minutes after Charles Jacobs announced McAvoy’s selection in Buffalo) for talk to immediately begin that as soon as the spring of 2017, the Long Island native and Boston University sophomore could be skating around on NHL ice with the Bruins.
Fast forward to the end of April, and after it appeared that the team would slow his development a bit by keeping him in the AHL to close out the 2016-17 campaign after he turned pro by signing a minor league deal, a massive blow to Boston’s depth on the blue line necessitated his signing to an entry-level contract and being thrown into the fire right away- his first NHL action coming in Game 1 of the B’s-Sens series.
Well, we’re happy to report that the hype is real!
McAvoy stepped in and looked like a seasoned veteran, playing close to 25 minutes a game and adding three assists in six playoff games (his 1st NHL goal was wiped out due to a successful coach’s challenge in Game 4).
What’s interesting about players like McAvoy is there is always a yin and yang argument when it comes to fans. On one side- you have the people who love their shiny new toys and seemingly want any and every player who agrees to terms to go right into the lineup so they themselves can have the immediate gratification. On the other side, you have the “every player must go to the AHL to develop” mindset, where certain folks seem to coddle these guys and fear that exposing them to the crucible of the NHL will somehow “ruin” them if they haven’t had a chance to acclimate. Both sides are right…and both are wrong. We’re in favor of the more balanced approach, whereby you look at each player on a case-by-case basis, and accept that there are myriad factors that go into whether an individual can make an immediate impact at the NHL level, or whether they will benefit from seasoning and not being rushed into a situation they aren’t ready for. There are no hard, fast rules for this- teams and their player development folks have to sometimes make tough calls, but ultimately, there are times when the decision is taken out of their hands when situations beyond anyone’s control intervene.
Luckily for the Bruins, they got a chance to see their prized prospect in action sooner rather than later, and the payoff could be bigger than we thought when he was first drafted.
The truth with McAvoy is relatively simple- some players are talented and mentally tough enough to handle what comes their way. Developing NHL players is not a cookie-cutter process, so while some players can come right in and be successful at the highest level, others might not have that ability (or the opportunity afforded them to step right in due to injuries to key personnel as was the case with McAvoy). There was much concern initially over losing a year off of McAvoy’s NHL contract, but those fears were allayed quickly when he played such a poised, refined and high tempo game from the get-go. Much like Brandon Carlo at the beginning of the year, the B’s no doubt figured he was good, but how quickly he would establish himself at such a top level was the pleasant surprise. It was a shame that McAvoy and Carlo didn’t have a chance to be in the Boston lineup at the same time, but in the span of just seven months, the team’s defense on the right side, a gaping black hole a year ago, sure looks to be shaping up as a strength going forward.
Side note- had a fan on Twitter bark at yours truly to delete his account yesterday because of the temerity to make an observation after several OT turnovers inside his own end that McAvoy needed to tighten up his decisions. Welcome to the modern world of social media and sports, where any kind of critical observation of a play in real time is conflated with “hate” and greeted with disdain and vitriol. Sigh. This appears to be the new reality similar to the old Tuukka Rask debate, where you can’t say anything negative or attempt to hold said player accountable without being accused of being a “hater.” You actually see certain people in the media engaging in this same kind of inflammatory narrative, and it needs to stop. With McAvoy, it’s almost as if there is this idea out there that just because someone is a 19-year-old rookie, no one is allowed to point out bad plays/errors that could result in goals against if he keeps making them. This is the sports version of special snowflakes- whereby aggressive fans adopt this see/speak/hear no evil mentality- and can’t seem to handle an honest debate about what is happening in real time. They’d rather bluster/bow up and take it personally whenever their own sense of fairness is challenged- even when one is making an honest assessment during a fluid situation. Let’s make one thing clear here, folks- McAvoy is going to make mistakes and cost his teams goals. And (gasp) some of them will be indefensible- it happens to every player in the NHL. Talk about it and move on, but this attempt to shut down an honest conversation/analysis in-game is what is at issue. The net benefit of McAvoy and the positive plays he’ll make will likely far outweigh those negative plays. But, if your reaction is to shoot the messenger every time someone points out an error your favorite player made or discusses an emerging negative trend line and comments on it, then you’re part of the problem. This is why we can’t have nice things, and why insiders are spending less and less time interacting with fans who can’t seem to be civil in their disagreement. Right, wrong, indifferent- we can and should all do better (present company included).
Now, back to McAvoy. Had he stayed in the AHL and not gotten his shot in Boston, we’d be talking all summer in hypotheticals about whether he could win a job out of training camp in October and wondering if he is ready to handle the rigors of the NHL. Case closed. Check the box. He can play. What we get to find out next is just how good a player he’ll become. And that’s the fun part.
Now, what we don’t know is whether he’ll come in and be able to play at the same high level he did once teams have a chance to study him on film and put more pressure on him over the course of the next full regular season. The prediction here is that he’ll continue to thrive and develop in a positive way, but if we’re honest with ourselves- we have to allow that six games is a pretty limited sample size and you can’t rule out a regression in play. That said, we saw enough to think that with the talent and swagger McAvoy has, a young super star is ascending in Boston. Give Sweeney and his staff credit for making the right call in the draft last June- we know there are teams kicking themselves for not jumping on McAvoy when they had the chance. Just like Pastrnak was quite the value in 2014, Boston’s newest hope on the blue line is on track to carry the torch for the foreseeable future.
We’ll be back with more Bruins storylines in the coming days…