Life in the National Hockey League has not been exactly as Bruce Cassidy envisioned it. Cassidy, 37, entered his first season coaching the Washington Capitals with an open mind and willingness to bend -- both attributes have been called upon in his three sometimes-turbulent months on the job -- and has come to realize that the players here are not all that much different from what he encountered during six years in the minors.
They crave structure and routine, a lesson that led Cassidy to scrap a more elaborate and creative system of play in favor of a defensive standby.
They need to be taught on a regular basis, even at this highest level of the game. Despite the massive salaries and glory that come with playing in the NHL, there will be nights when the team is not willing to work as hard as it takes to win.
The Capitals (16-16-3) are not where Cassidy hoped they would be at the Christmas break, but they do appear to be coming together as a team during their four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1) and adhering to a singular approach on the ice. Cassidy, the second-youngest coach in the NHL, seems to have a much firmer grasp and understanding on his personnel than he did at the start of the season and, perhaps, some of his biggest hurdles have already been overcome.
"One of the surprises I found is how coachable players, certain ones who have been in the league a long time, are, and how simple they want it," Cassidy said, "You'd think sometimes they would want something intricate, but a lot of guys just want something simple. . . . I guess I was a little inexperienced when it came to that part in trying to do some different things, but someone once told me the team that plays its system the best will probably, all things being equal, be the winner at the end of the day, and I guess that's sort of where we're at.
"I've tried to change [the system] to be simple and I think it has worked better for the team and as a result for our forwards, so maybe that [was a surprise] and how most teams don't do a lot fancy things. . . . I guess I thought there would be more adjusting on the fly."
General Manager George McPhee, who gambled on Cassidy rather than more established candidates, believes the coach has the capacity to be among a core of bright young minds in the game. McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis have expressed faith that Cassidy is the man to right this team after it failed to qualify for the playoffs in Ron Wilson's final year of a five-year tenure in Washington.
"We've settled on a style and a system of play that works for our team and if we continue to play the way we have recently I think we're going to be okay," McPhee said. "I think it's all come down to finding the right chemistry on lines and finding the right parts.
"Whether it's a veteran coach or a rookie coach, there's a lot to learn when you take over a new team and he's had to adjust to new people and a new league and it looks like, with the way we've been playing lately, that Butch has found what we need to win."
Cassidy did not necessarily enter the season believing the first 30 games would be an experimental period, but, in essence, that is what occurred. He juggled the lineup significantly until recently, finally settling on some regular line combinations and defensive pairings. Cassidy had only seen about a dozen of last season's games on video -- he wanted to rely on his own interpretations of the team at training camp and in the preseason.
He now has three relatively set lines, led by the tempo-setting checking unit of Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk and Mike Grier, and two solid defensive pairs. With some of those issues resolved, the coaching staff has spent the past few weeks doing more teaching and explaining on the finer points of play, another aspect of this job Cassidy did not entirely anticipate.
"There's more teaching than maybe I thought," Cassidy said. "Not that we do a whole lot of it, but if [players] come from a certain style of play, it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. If he's done something for five or six years and they're used to that, that's kind of the process we went through a little bit at the start. . . . I'll take the blame for that. It's all part of the learning process."
Cassidy's primary obstacle remains improving his team's special teams. Washington's talented power play is lagging in the bottom third of the NHL and has been slumping for weeks (3 for 55). The Capitals are now competitive from night to night playing at even strength, and a dangerous power play would put the team closer to its goal of winning the division or at least making the playoffs.
"Obviously, we're not where we want to be -- we want to be in first place" in the Southeast Division, Cassidy said. "Yet we're only three points out of it and we haven't played our best hockey yet."