When Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee hired an NHL neophyte to coach his veteran-laden team last summer, he knew there would be a substantial learning period. Bruce Cassidy was only 37, had never coached in the NHL and had played only a handful of games in the league.
There were plenty of bumps and setbacks for Cassidy and his team this season, and the adjustment between players and coach continues to this day, but both entities seem to be peaking for the first-round playoff meeting with Tampa Bay. Cassidy, who coached in the minors for six years before coming here, and his assistants, Glen Hanlon and Randy Carlyle, had their best month on the job in March and hope to continue their progress into postseason play.
The coaches displayed a much-improved understanding of their own personnel and the rest of the league, working hard to get favorable matchups on the ice, juggling players well between units, fostering chemistry and managing crucial moments in games with more dexterity. In doing so they inspired more confidence from their players, who craved structure and direction early this season.
"We've seen a continued improvement from the coaches," McPhee said. "This is a darn good league, and it takes time to not only sort out your own personnel, but to understand how other teams operate in terms of their systems and coaching tendencies and the tendencies of players on other teams. We knew it would take some time for our coaches to get up to speed on that, but they're in that area now where they are as good as other experienced coaches in this league."
Cassidy, who is signed for next season with a team option for 2004-05, has gained a better feel for which of his players perform best together and how to handle their personalities. With that accumulation of knowledge, he has been able to make astute line changes and play hunches that have resulted in big goals. A reliance on players who Cassidy coached in the minors -- Kip Miller, Ivan Ciernik, Jason Doig, Joel Kwiatkowski -- irked some in the dressing room this season, but as the games gained importance, the coaches showed a willingness to bench those players and experiment with new combinations tailored for the playoffs.
"As a coach you get comfortable at some point with what you can and can't do with players and still keep them on board," Cassidy said. "And I think as the year goes on, and as it gets closer and closer to crunch time, as a coach you can justify it and it's a little easier to say, 'Hey, we have to do this because it's best for the team.'
"You always have to do whatever is right for the team, but with me you can tell I've been loyal to the guys who played hard for me in the past, and you have to give guys as much as you can an opportunity to fail or succeed, but as the year gets down to now you have to put the team first and we've seen guys taken out of the lineup."
Cassidy came to his first major revelation in November, when he scrapped an elaborate system of play for a more standard trapping system that the players heartily welcomed. There was a sense of confusion prior to that, and clashes of philosophy between players and coaches occurred on a variety of issues. While the coaches sometimes struggled to get their message across, Cassidy tried to keep lines of communications open.
"I think the best thing that he's done this year is maybe just talking to some of the top players one-on-one," center Jeff Halpern said. "Like calling [Jaromir Jagr] in and asking him about the power play. Obviously, Jags has played a lot on the power play and done lot of good things over the years, and the two of them maybe talking together, that sort of thing can help."
Cassidy's immediate transition was far from smooth, and at several points this season it seemed the team might fray. But a club long questioned for its chemistry -- something that led to the firing of Coach Ron Wilson after five seasons in Washington -- gradually united.
"Our team is not an easy team to coach," team captain Steve Konowalchuk said. "We've got a lot of really skilled players, but then, with skilled players I think you have to handle them a little bit differently than a bunch of grinders or lunch-bucket players. Some teams can go throw four lines out there and they'll do everything you ask and it doesn't matter. Our team, especially when you have a lot of skilled guys, I think chemistry is an issue. Certain guys want the puck and they want to play with certain guys who can get them the puck, and sometimes that's good if you can get the chemistry going.
"But other times it works against you because if you can't find the chemistry then it doesn't work. So it's tough, but I think he's found at times lines that have worked and it's helped us down the stretch and when they've found something that's worked they've kept it together and let it go, whereas maybe early on sometimes the frustration set in quicker and they would switch things around. And as players we became more confident in one another and believed in what the coaches were throwing at us. We had to buy into it a little more than we did early in the year."
Cassidy has granted more responsibility to Konowalchuk's checking line -- the line will be vital in the playoffs -- and worked harder to yank certain lines and defensive pairings off the ice when they have a potentially difficult matchup and replace them with more defense-oriented players, gearing up for the postseason.
"One of the things you are most responsible for is getting the guys out there so that they are at their best," Cassidy said, "knowing who they play best with and who they play best against so you can give them the best opportunity to have success. We have a feel for who plays best with each other now."
The coaches have buckled down in late-period situations as well, ensuring their top face-off performers are on the ice for key draws, no longer willing to allow more mistake-prone players the opportunity to prove they can handle those challenging scenarios. Role players such as Brian Sutherby and Trent Whitfield, who are strong defensively, now take shifts out of position to add their tenacity to top lines when the Capitals are protecting a lead. In addition, non-traditional arrangements -- such as putting high-scoring winger Sergei Berezin on the fourth line or playing minor league recall Josef Boumedienne in overtime of a crucial game -- have produced instant rewards.
That openness to unorthodox tactics and a refusal to pigeonhole players attracted McPhee to Cassidy during the interview process, but striking the proper balance between experimentation and time-proven coaching techniques took time. Now, when the coaches veer from the norm they do so with a honed awareness of their players.
"Coaches can interview well and come off really well, but until the guy has his hands on your team, you don't know if he has the instincts or not," McPhee said. "It's almost like a player on the ice having hockey sense; you either have it or you don't. It's not something you can improve on, it's sort of an immutable characteristic of a player and it's the same thing with coaches. And I've been really pleased to see our coaches play some hunches and trust their instincts, because they're smart guys and that can really work to the benefit of our hockey club."