What took you so long?
Capitals' patience with Cassidy may have cost chance at turnaround
Posted: Wednesday December 10, 2003 8:59PM; Updated: Wednesday December 10, 2003 9:34PM
The firing of a head coach often can come as a surprise.
The only thing surprising about Bruce Cassidy getting a pink slip was that it didn't happen six weeks ago.
The Capitals probably should've pulled the plug on the Cassidy era when the team got off to a horribly disappointing 1-7-1 start, but a 2-1 win at home against Atlanta on Halloween night may have given Cassidy second life. The fact that Washington handed Tampa Bay its first loss of the season in a 5-1 rout on Nov. 4 surely bought Cassidy even more time. But the sporadic impressive wins just masked what was the underlying problem: a splintered dressing room.
Jaromir Jagr had communication problems with Cassidy from the start, and it has been suggested that Jagr was hand-picking his linemates and going behind Cassidy's back with strategy suggestions and unsolicited lineup input.
Cassidy's bad rapport with his players came to a head when he lashed out with personal remarks in the locker room after last Thursday's embarrassing 3-0 loss against the Devils, during which the Caps were outshot 41-9. After the game, Cassidy reportedly told his team that there were no excuses for poor play and that he didn't care if the players had their sick children or pregnant wives on their mind.
That was probably a bad move considering that Olaf Kolzig's son is autistic, Jason Doig's wife recently gave birth and Brendan Witt's wife nearly died of sepsis last season after giving birth.
"There was no reason to bring our families into this," an anonymous player told the Washington Post. "That's crossing the line. It really [upset] a lot of the guys. I can't believe he said it."
Cassidy apologized on Saturday after the team's morning skate in Los Angeles -- "I was very frustrated because I thought we had turned the corner after winning a couple of games in a row and I thought New Jersey would be a great test for us and we failed miserably" -- but the damage was done. Losses against the Kings and Avalanche to wrap up the Caps' five-game road trip sealed Cassidy's fate.
The team made sure that Cassidy wouldn't be responsible for any more tension by replacing him on Wednesday with Glen Hanlon, who was a finalist for the position 18 months ago before the team ultimately settled on Cassidy. This move by general manager George McPhee is a chance for him to right his wrong, as many were surprised in 2002 when Washington chose an AHL coach from another organization (Cassidy) over their Portland Pirates bench boss (Hanlon).
"I have respect for Glenn and the enthusiasm that he has," McPhee said. "I like the culture that he had in Portland and I liked what I was hearing in the locker room there. He's right, the process has to come first and if we have that, the wins will come later."
The hope is that Hanlon can rebuild some of the relationships that began fracturing when Cassidy had a falling out with veteran defenseman Calle Johansson last season.
Hanlon appeared in 477 NHL games with four teams over 14 seasons between 1977-91, compiling an 11-15-0 record and a 3.14 goals-against average. With Kolzig struggling amid the big picture of a disappointing team effort, the switch to a former NHL goaltender behind the bench may help motivate Godzilla to his onetime Vezina Trophy form.
"I really want to emphasize that we have good people here and we can never lose sight of that," Hanlon said. "Sometimes people focus on the things that went wrong and forget we have great players. I have told the players that I will be patient. ... I had a role model in my coach Pat Quinn when I was a player. He had a goal that he would never ruin anyone's outlook on the game."
After each subsequent loss, Cassidy emerged from the locker room to face reporters' questions with an exasperated look on his face. His postgame press conferences were becoming rambling, frustrated diatribes by a 37-year-old man who was turning into a testy, short-tempered coach whose demeanor belied his handsome young features.
The Capitals finished just one point out of the Southeast Division race last year, and there was no reason to think that their talented -- albeit overpriced -- roster shouldn't have competed with the Lightning and Thrashers for the division title again this year. But Cassidy's presence and poor communication with his team ended up costing Washington, as did the organization's patience in waiting for the players and the coach to work out their differences.
The Caps made a smart move Wednesday to turn around their rapidly sinking franchise. It just should've been done weeks ago before the season was lost.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.