A Young Hire, Plagued by Inexperience From the Start
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2003; Page D01
After being named coach of the Washington Capitals in 2002, Bruce Cassidy walked into the team's Piney Orchard training facility for his first official address to his new players. Standing in front of the team, he reached into his pocket and, as one player on the squad at the time recounted, pulled out a paper napkin.
On it were some hand-written notes Cassidy had jotted down before the session.
"It was bad right from the start," this former Capital said. "He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and started writing stuff on the blackboard. Everyone was just kind of looking at each other. We didn't know what was going on. It looked like he was winging it. He had all summer to prepare for this day and it looked like he didn't know what he was doing. Guys started to worry right away."
The meeting proved prophetic. The chasm between Cassidy and his team visible that day grew over the 15 months that followed until the club fired him yesterday, 28 games into his second season. The team named assistant coach Glen Hanlon as Cassidy's replacement.
The firing came less than a week after Cassidy felt moved to apologize to the team's veterans, irate over remarks he had made questioning whether their family lives were affecting their play.
Capitals officials yesterday defended their decision to hire Cassidy, the second-youngest coach in the league who was 37 at the time of his appointment, had no prior NHL experience as a head or assistant coach and had played only 37 games in the league as a defenseman with Chicago. Even so, the choice of Cassidy stands out as another in a series of personnel moves by the club over the past several years that have backfired and led to this woeful season in which the team is tied for the fewest points in the league.
The hiring of Cassidy, which surprised many in the hockey world, was based on his success in the minor leagues. General Manager George McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis praised Cassidy's bright young hockey mind, his ability to relate to players and his instincts for adapting his style of play to his personnel.
"I saw a young guy who came highly recommended by some people I admired," McPhee said, adding that the firing was based only on the team's record and performance. "I talked to a lot of people in the business about him and he had done a nice job at every level and was climbing the ladder and was successful at every level he coached in and he came in here and did a nice job" getting Washington to the playoffs last season.
Cassidy declined to comment on player relations or any other specifics of his coaching tenure last night other than to say, "As a head coach, you're paid to win. And I didn't win enough this year."
Cassidy ended up struggling to communicate with players or get them to embrace his tactics. He was brought in because the players needed a new message after having tuned out Ron Wilson after five years. But a squad filled with multi-millionaires -- including some of the league's biggest stars -- never seemed to tune Cassidy in.
"I don't think the players responded quite as good as we should have with Butch for whatever reason that is," goalie Olaf Kolzig said, using the team's nickname for Cassidy. "Some coaches seem to fit better for a team than others, and there's never a perfect coach out there -- every coach has some fault -- and every player has faults. Nobody is perfect, but for whatever reason he just didn't mesh with our team. . . .
"I think coming from where he came from, it's a big adjustment. It's one thing in the minors and another thing at the [NHL] level. At the minor league level you can joke around with the players a little more and kind of be chummy with them, but at this level players have so much pressure to play hockey and live up to their expectations and play as hard as they can every night, that they just want to stay away from the coach and just want to play hockey and when the coach talks listen and do what he says."
Cassidy watched tapes of only the final 12 games of the 2001-2002 season before taking over at training camp and was up front about his limited knowledge of the Capitals and the rest of the league. Washington was accustomed to a structured defensive system under Wilson, and looked for that kind of direction. But the team went into December last season with Cassidy implementing a loose plan in which players made many of the on-ice decisions. It resulted in a directionless performance in many games, and improvement did not come until the coaches settled on a traditional trapping, defense-oriented system after meeting with McPhee.
Cassidy experimented repeatedly with the makeup of his lines, which stars like Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang opposed. The practice led to some regular clashes between the coach and his star players.
"It is hard for the forwards to have new linemates all the time," Lang said. "It's just one of those things where we like to get used to each other."
Twice early last season Cassidy was late for the team bus on the road, sources said, causing the team to wait 10 to 15 minutes for him. He often arrived for games later than many players, which gave them the impression he was not as prepared and thorough as he should be. Players also said he seemed uncomfortable around them, leading some to call him "aloof."
"I just don't think he ever understood the level of professionalism it takes to coach in this league," one player said. "All of the little things matter."
Last December, Cassidy unloaded on rookie backup goalie Sebastien Charpentier after a tough loss, cursing the player and embarrassing him in front of the team. Cassidy apologized at the following practice, but the incident further impugned him in the dressing room, several players said.
Practices often ran well over 90 minutes -- quite lengthy given the grueling nature of the NHL season -- and players said they were confused by many drills. On more than one occasion Cassidy changed the team's system of play during a morning skate, giving players only a half-hour or so to adapt to the changes on the ice. He shocked many players by spending one morning skate in Pittsburgh last season working extensively on the power play as the Penguins coaching staff sat in the arena taking notes.
"That's one thing about having Glen as the coach now; he's seen all that and knows how our team responds to certain things," Kolzig said. "He saw us change our forecheck up and system up at the morning skate and he knows not to do that now, and it was weird obviously last year. Butch didn't think we needed to be that structured and he's never experienced coaching at the NHL level before and he didn't realize that as players we need direction and need a certain way to play."
Despite the growing pains, Cassidy settled on a checking line and defensive pairs in the second half of last season, intensified his study of opposing teams and players and got the Capitals into the playoffs. But after winning the first two games against Tampa Bay, Washington lost the next four. Many of the team's top players fell into crippling slumps during the series and the coaches failed to counter the adjustments made by Tampa Bay's staff.
The season ended on a sour note personally as well, as Cassidy benched stalwart defenseman Calle Johansson for most of the final playoff game, playing instead inexperienced defenders Joel Kwiatkowski and Jason Doig. Both had played for Cassidy in the minors, and many on the club said the decision smacked of favoritism. Tampa Bay scored the series-clinching goal on the power play in overtime after a mistake by Doig led to a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty.
Johansson is among the most beloved and respected figures ever to play in Washington, and the benching took Cassidy's in-team approval rating to new lows. Johansson vowed after that game that he would never play for Washington again and ultimately retired; he was set to sign a contract extension prior to the incident and the Capitals have had the NHL's second-worst defense this season in his absence.
As this season began, players vowed publicly and privately to give Cassidy a clean slate, but problems quickly arose. He got into a screaming match with Jagr in Dallas during the fifth game of this season, and in November members of the training staff had to separate Cassidy and defenseman Brendan Witt after a loss at home. The team suffered an eight-game winless streak in October and fell quickly to last place.
"If we would have had a good start I think maybe he would have kept his job," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "But obviously, what we were doing was not working."
The frustration of losing and the lingering issues between the players and coach came to a head last Thursday in New Jersey, when Cassidy ripped the team after a 3-0 loss and made references to players not using pregnant wives and sick children as an excuse for poor play.
Many of the players have young children or wives about to give birth, while Kolzig has an autistic child and Witt's wife battled a life-threatening illness all of last season. Those remarks angered many players and, coupled with two more ugly defeats, marked the end of Cassidy's tenure. He apologized in a brief meeting with the team Saturday, but the die was cast.
"That was the final straw," one player said. "That [comment] really hit a lot of guys hard. You can't take that one back. Things had been bad for a long time, but that was the worst."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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