Cassidy was the right choice

The decision to hire Bruce Cassidy as head coach has turned out to be a huge success as the Golden Knights return to the postseason.

LAS VEGAS — He probably won’t win the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year. That will likely go to Jim Montgomery, his successor in Boston. But Bruce Cassidy did a hell of a job in his first year coaching the Vegas Golden Knights. 

Now Cassidy will be the first to tell you for all the good he and his players accomplished this season — a Pacific Division title, a top seed in the Western Conference,  a franchise-tying 51 wins, a team-record 111 points — the job is far from done. Remember, this is an organization whose owner boldly predicted “Cup in Six” and as the Knights begin their chase of the Stanley Cup in this, their sixth season in the NHL, Cassidy has to figure out how to navigate the choppy waters that are the Chase to 16 Wins.

As the Knights prepare to face Winnipeg beginning Tuesday at T-Mobile Arena, the team’s road map to success appears to have gained some clarity in the last week or so. Key pieces are returning to the lineup. The goaltending, which was a big question mark a few weeks ago, appears to have sorted itself out. Having home-ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs is huge.

It will allow Cassidy to have the all-important last change when it comes to matchups on the ice when at home. And that becomes even more critical should Vegas be involved in a Game 7.

The players have bought in 100 percent to Cassidy’s coaching and his system. There was no better evidence of this than earlier this week in the home-and-home series with Seattle. The Kraken are a fast, explosive offensive team. It’s team that knows how to put the puck in the net. Yet in 120 minutes, Seattle managed just two goals on 52 shots against Vegas. The high-danger chances were limited. The Kraken’s power play was rendered impotent. Matty Berniers, Seattle’s sensational rookie center, was a non-factor.

The Knights were clogging the middle, blocking shots, transitioning out of their own end as a five-man unit thanks to the forwards getting back and supporting the defensemen and having trust in their goaltender, in this case, Laurent Brossoit, to do his job, which he did.

That’s a formula for playoff success. At a time of the year where every play is critical, where every mistake becomes magnified and if you screw up enough you go home, Cassidy has his team already in postseason mode. They are playing the game the way you need to and regardless of who draws into the lineup, that person understands the responsibilities that come with playing in this system and doesn’t deviate from it.

Every coach preaches playing for 60 minutes. It doesn’t always happen. Even the best teams sometimes struggle. But Cassidy should take heart in the fact that his guys accepted he and his staff’s coaching, trusted each other and were rewarded for it.

“I think the playoffs tell you a lot about your players,” Cassidy said earlier in the week. “We’re still going to be learning. Now that the temperature goes up and there’s more on the line, how do we react to that? How do we get to our ceiling? So there’s still another level of learning that’s going to happen in the next week that I’m excited about.

“I think we’ve done a good job. We never wound up in those tailspins that can snowball. We never used injuries as an excuse. Whatever the case was, it was ‘Next man up.’”   

And let’s give credit to management for making the change on the bench. I didn’t think Pete DeBoer deserved to be let go after last season given the insane amount of injuries. But look what Cassidy had to deal with. He lost his captain, Mark Stone in late January. Shea Theodore, one of his best defensemen, for significant amounts of time. He was forced to play five different goaltenders. 

Most teams would not have survived such a scenario. Instead, Vegas was one of the NHL’s best teams after the All-Star/Winter break. Brossoit looks like he’ll be the starter in goal in Game 1 of the first round Tuesday against Winnipeg and he said he has never felt better physically. Remember, this is a guy who had off-season hip surgery, was in Henderson of the AHL for a good portion of the first half of the season and had to work hard just to see the crease in Vegas.

And if Brossoit, he of all of one game’s postseason experience, should falter, Jonathan Quick is ready to step in. General Manager Kelly McCrimmon wisely dealt for the veteran who has two Stanley Cup rings, at the trade deadline to shore up the goaltending. And with Logan Thompson apparently not ready to return to the ice and Adin Hill probably not an option, Quick will be a valuable resource to Brossoit if and when he needs to lean on him for how to handle playoff pressure.

McCrimmon gets more than his fair share of criticism. Some of the moves the last few years have been head-scratchers. But you can’t fault him for the way he handled things this year. He got a quality forward in Ivan Barbashev. He picked up a defensive-minded center in Teddy Blueger. Michael Amadio, who the Knights acquired last year, blossomed this season with a career-high 16 goals as a utility forward who could play up and down the lineup. And ironman Phil Kessel, who started slowly offensively after being acquired on a one-year deal, had 14 goals and 36 points and will be a factor along with Barbashev and Chandler Stephenson on what has emerged as a strong and experienced third line. He has managed the salary cap as expertly as you can.

But of all the moves GMKM made, his most important decision was bringing Cassidy on board to coach this team. The Knights have been blessed to have had quality coaching from the beginning when Gerard Gallant took them to the Cup Final in 2018. DeBoer got them to the Final Four in back-to-back seasons in 2020 and 2021. Now, Cassidy has guided Vegas to the most points in franchise history and has his team poised to make a run at the Cup.

I wasn’t sure the goaltending was good enough to go all the way. But the way he has this team playing, with the players buying into the system, blocking shots, getting to the front of the opposition’s net, I’ve become sold. Brossoit and/or Quick are a solid tandem and nobody they’ll face in the other net, save for Dallas’ Jake Oettinger, scares me. 

The Race to 16 Wins begins Tuesday. Let’s see if this team can count that high.

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