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Bruce Cassidy earns All-Star honor in 1st season with Knights

Bruce Cassidy walked away from his first NHL All-Star Weekend in 2020 with a lifetime of memories and a special piece of swag: A new driver from TaylorMade.

His son Cole got one, too.

“It’s a great piece of equipment,” Cassidy said.

The Golden Knights coach can only hope for a similar experience when he steps behind the Pacific Division bench Saturday for the All-Star Game in Sunrise, Florida. Cassidy is the third Knights coach to earn the honor after Gerard Gallant in 2018 and Pete DeBoer last season.

It’s well deserved after an impressive start to his tenure. But Cassidy will have real work to do when he returns to Las Vegas.

The Knights slumped so much in the second half last season that it cost DeBoer his job. Cassidy is unlikely to have a similar fate, but he needs to pull the team out of a 1-5-2 skid when play resumes.

“Frustration is a useless emotion,” Cassidy said. “You’ve got to play through it. Find a way to help the team win.”

The Knights seemed to constantly find ways to get results in Cassidy’s first season before their slump.

They went 13-2 to start the season. They were first or tied for first in the Pacific Division by points the first 106 days of the season.

Cassidy’s changes have played a huge role. His switch to a zone scheme on defense has worked wonders. The Knights allow the second-fewest high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes in the NHL, according to the website Natural Stat Trick.

He’s also improved the special teams.

The Knights’ penalty kill is 17th overall after a rocky start, but ranks eighth since the start of December. The power play is 12th after finishing 25th a year ago. The Knights are eight goals on the man advantage away from matching last season’s total.

“Bruce is an excellent power-play coach,” DeBoer said. “(He) seems to have that fixed.”

Cassidy’s communication style has been different, too.

He’s unfailingly honest, behind closed doors and in public. He doesn’t hide how he’s feeling. That even extends to when he’s on the bench. He’s been unafraid to sit players for long stretches if he doesn’t like how they’re playing.

That happened Dec. 19 to right wing Phil Kessel and Jan. 27 to right wing Michael Amadio. It’s a different style than the Knights are used to, but for some it’s worked. Center Nicolas Roy said Cassidy is one of the best communicators he’s been coached by.

“He’s always talking to guys one-on-one,” Roy said. “You know what he’s thinking about your game. You know what he wants from every single guy in that room. He’s been really good for us.”

Those adjustments haven’t been enough for the Knights to avoid a midseason swoon.

It’s something Cassidy’s predecessors can relate to. Gallant was also named to the 2019 All-Star Game, but was fired after a four-game losing streak before he could participate. DeBoer is now in Dallas — where he earned another All-Star berth — because of last season’s slide.

Cassidy’s history at least suggests he’s capable of pulling the Knights out of it.

His Bruins teams were 83-33-10 after the All-Star Game during his time in Boston. Their .687 points percentage down the stretch was better than their overall mark of .672 under Cassidy, which ranked second in the NHL during his time there.

He should have a chance to close strong again.

The Knights entered the break healthier than they have been since the beginning of the season, with only captain Mark Stone and defenseman Zach Whitecloud missing from the opening-night lineup. They are in second in the Pacific Division and well positioned to return to the playoffs.

Their coach’s track record says it would be a shock if the Knights didn’t make it. Cassidy is in his ninth season as an NHL coach. His teams have made the playoffs seven times. The 2003-04 Washington Capitals were the only one to fall short, and they fired Cassidy after 28 games.

That means as long as he stays behind the Knights’ bench, the team should be in good hands.

“(Cassidy) has done it here, in Boston, even in the minors,” center Chandler Stephenson said. “He always has success it seems everywhere he goes.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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