Thursday, May 11, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Note: This story was written before games 3 and 4 of the Edmonton series to run in the current edition of Las Vegas Weekly.
Asked about a skirmish between Vegas’ Keegan Kolesar and Edmonton’s Evander Kane—with the Golden Knights down five goals late in the second period—Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy neither blinked nor flinched.
The 57-year-old, first-year Knights coach rubbed his fingers together along the back of his microphone stand, stared straight ahead and delivered a stern message to conclude his postgame news conference after the 5-1 Game 2 defeat on May 6.
“Most disappointing part of the game for me as a head coach,” Cassidy said. “You’re going to have nights you’re going to get out-executed, certainly by this team. They were more competitive. But we got sort of out-teammated, for a lack of a better word. That should never happen to the Vegas Golden Knights under any circumstance.”
To those who haven’t followed the Golden Knights closely under Cassidy, the rebuke might seem harsh, or at least unusual. It’s rare for modern-day NHL coaches to call out or challenge their players publicly. But unwavering honesty is a pillar of Cassidy’s coaching style, and something his players have responded to all season.
His ability to get the most out of his roster, both emotionally and tactically, will ultimately play a key role in determining how far Vegas’ current playoff run goes. The Golden Knights are currently tied with the Oilers at two wins apiece heading into their Game 5 showdown at 7 p.m. Friday at T-Mobile Arena.
There’s no reason to doubt Cassidy is capable of leading the Golden Knights to hit the top end of their potential, because he’s done so all year.
Cassidy didn’t get a smooth ride in his first season after changing benches from Boston to Vegas, and he still managed to lead his new team to the franchise’s third-ever Pacific Division title and the best regular-season record in the Western Conference. Injuries might not have ravaged the Golden Knights as badly as they did a year ago, but they still struck in an above-average and near-constant manner.
Vegas’ four best players—forwards Jack Eichel and Mark Stone and defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore—all missed extended time. Five different goalies also picked up at least two victories, not including planned franchise cornerstone Robin Lehner, out for the year after offseason hip surgery.
Cassidy deftly maneuvered through it all and validated his reputation as a game-planning, whiteboard wiz by always seeming to come up with the right adjustments. Such skills take on even more importance in the playoffs, and Cassidy has already shown a talent for harnessing them with the Golden Knights, in case his six previous series wins in six years with the Bruins weren’t proof enough.
Game 1 in Vegas’ first-round series against Winnipeg was a cousin to the Game 2 blowout against Edmonton—both 5-1 defeats. Cassidy shared two main gripes after the series-opening loss to the Jets: that the Golden Knights lacked energy after they fell behind and that they weren’t disciplined or strong enough in front of the net.
Both issues turned around the rest of the way, as Vegas reeled off four straight wins to reach this second-round series with Edmonton. Cassidy also didn’t hesitate to describe Stone as “rusty” after Game 1 against Winnipeg in the captain’s first game following back surgery.
Stone went on to look much better the rest of that series, then chipped in a point and an assist as part of a 6-4 Game 1 victory over Edmonton.
“I think we were a little nervous in that first game of the series against Winnipeg,” Stone said. “We had a lot of guys that hadn’t played playoff hockey. Speaking for myself, I hadn’t played in three months. So there were some nerves, and I think we just got better. I’m sure we’ll make some adjustments, watching the film from Game 1 to Game 2 [in the Edmonton series].”
Of the nine goals Vegas gave up in the first two games against Edmonton, the first might have bothered Cassidy the most. It featured the Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl rocketing a pass from fellow superstar Connor McDavid threaded to one of his favorite scoring spots, the middle of the faceoff circle, on a power play. Cassidy alluded to a missed assignment in giving up a seam, and Stone stepped up the next day to take responsibility for what he called “a mistake by me.”
Accountability might be the foremost tenant of Cassidy’s coaching philosophy, and it’s no small victory that the players have been so accepting of his style. It certainly wasn’t guaranteed.
Cassidy’s outspoken nature marks a significant break from previous coach Pete DeBoer’s style, and certainly that of original Golden Knights’ boss Gerard Gallant. Both Gallant and DeBoer were highly successful overall with Vegas, and there’s a strong case to be made that they deserved better than their eventual dismissals.
The Golden Knights have therefore arguably never made a good coach firing in franchise history, but more importantly, Cassidy has shown that they’ve also never made a bad coach hiring. Cassidy has done a commendable job in taking this year’s team this far, win or lose in the series against the Oilers.
The opportunity to reach a Western Conference or Stanley Cup Final should never be taken for granted, but this year’s run is in all likelihood not a final chance for the Golden Knights. As long as Cassidy is around and his advice is being heeded, the Golden Knights are poised for more success.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.