PROVIDENCE, R.I. – When Bruce Cassidy arrives at work each day, he knows his most vital task is preparing his players for the National Hockey League.
The head coach of the Providence Bruins is in the business of developing youngsters so they succeed when Boston requires their services. But at this time of the year, his focus shifts a bit.
When the playoffs roll around, winning becomes his top priority.
“It’s the best time of the year. You work all year to qualify for this,” said Cassidy, whose team is in the midst of a best-of-five opening-round series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
“[The AHL is] a developmental league. [Winning is] not always the most important thing. But this time of the year, it is the most important thing because you’ve put the time in and now you get your opportunity to win a championship.
“There’s a lot of development hours put in during the year and it’s for this moment now, for them to help Boston…It’s more now seeing if we can win a championship.”
Providence trails in the series, 2-0, after two overtime victories for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The balancing act between development and winning is not the only juggling Cassidy faces when winter turns to spring. As the NCAA and junior seasons come to a close, a number of the team’s prospects can be assigned to Providence through entry-level contracts or amateur tryout agreements.
Over the last month, Brandon Carlo and Jesse Gabrielle – both 2015 draft picks – joined Providence from the WHL, while Rob O’Gara and Danton Heinen arrived from the college ranks.
In addition, Noel Acciari, Max Talbot, Colin Miller, and Frank Vatrano were assigned to Providence from Boston following the end of the Bruins’ season.
With a roster in flux, Cassidy must find a way to incorporate the younger players onto the team, while also trying to maintain the lineup that has delivered so much success.
“You don’t want to all of a sudden forget about [the players that have been here] as some new blood comes in…the latest prospect or the next great Bruin,” said Cassidy, who in his eight seasons with Providence (five as head coach) has helped develop the likes of Adam McQuaid, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, and Brad Marchand.
“Most of them are highly touted when they walk through the door. Some of them are able to get to the next level and some just aren’t. You have to make sure that players understand that you believe in them, but you may have to work in the younger guys because that’s also how it works down here.
“The young guys need to play, they need to have their opportunity. This time of the year it’s a delicate balance. That’s one of the more difficult parts of the job, making sure you don’t lose the guys that have been here all year that have put you in this position, but still get the necessary minutes for these younger guys to understand what it’s like to grow.”
Despite a number of moving parts throughout the season, the P-Bruins were able to overcome a rough start – in which they won just four of their first 18 games – to finish 41-22-9-4 and grab the second seed in the Atlantic Division.
For two extended periods, Providence was without Vatrano, the AHL’s leading goal-scorer, following promotions to Boston. In addition, Acciari and Miller spent extended time with the big club, while top scorers Seth Griffith and Alexander Khokhlachev also had stints with Boston.
“We have a good team down there,” said Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “They’ve climbed. If you look at their situation in November to where they are now, they had nine guys out of their lineup early in the year – we stole Frankie at that particular time.
“It’s pretty remarkable where they’re going. That team is excited – they’re young – but they’re excited.”
It has not, however, been the best start for the P-Bruins in the Atlantic Division semifinals. Providence faces elimination Saturday when it returns home to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center for Game 3 down 2-0 in the series.
Perhaps a bit of advice Cassidy learned early on in his career can help Providence bounce back.
“I played for Darryl Sutter in Chicago’s minor league system a number of years ago,” said Cassidy. “It can be a long year in hockey – in any job. Darryl would sometimes come in and recognize when players were sort of on the edge, they’re not as focused as they should be.
“One of the things he always said is, ‘You either talk yourself into it or talk yourself out of it.’ I always took that with me. The days that get tough, when you’ve got to continue to teach and continue to work with the young kids, it’s been a long year and you’re tired and it’s not going your way, I always try to remember those words and try to talk yourself into it.”