What Hiring Assistant Coach Joe Sacco Means for Boston Bruins

Al DanielCorrespondent IIJuly 27, 2014

BOSTON - OCTOBER 12: Head Coach Joe Sacco of the Colorado Avalanche watches the play against the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden on October 12, 2009 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Steve Babineau/Getty Images

Has anybody noticed a pattern in the Boston Bruins’ offseason front-office moves, which continued this past Thursday when they tabbed Joe Sacco as their new assistant coach?

Beyond inherent New England roots, there is one common thread between Sacco and John Ferguson Jr., who joined the organization last month: Both men are discards from other organizations who will now play a smaller role compared to their past jobs.

Ferguson fills a void as director of player personnel after Scott Bradley’s promotion to succeed assistant general manager Jim Benning. He does this after serving as a San Jose scout and kicking a few ice chips (or not) on a not-so-successful five-year reign as Toronto’s GM.

The Bruins have now found Geoff Ward’s successor in Sacco, who is barely a year removed from his last head coaching stint. The Colorado Avalanche let him go last summer after three straight playoff no-shows.

Before that stretch of futility, he spent two playoff-free seasons behind the Avs’ AHL bench. In between, he led the parent club to a one-round ride in 2009-10, his first NHL coaching campaign in any capacity.

As far as their impact on the Bruins goes, whether in the short term or long term, the best-case scenario for both hires entails validating Aerosmith’s proclamation, “You got to lose to know how to win.”

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There is also the fact that this is a homecoming for Sacco, a Medford, Massachusetts, native and Boston University alum. That, too, is a hit-or-miss factor, and one of Sacco’s former Colorado staffers is a prime cautionary example.

Tim Army joined the Avalanche as an assistant coach in 2011 on the heels of an exit from Providence College. He had taken PC’s men’s hockey head coaching job with a storybook background as a local boy and former captain of the team. Yet after barely finishing above .500 in his first campaign, he and the Friars combined for five straight losing years.

This is not to anoint Sacco a disappointment two-plus months ahead of his first game in Boston. It is merely to recommend some caution in assuming that a hometown hero will immediately help the team improve its play.

Sacco may have all the motivation he needs, but he will have to show the aptitude for the job.

As Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo Sports noted, the Bruins need to determine the best means of tapping into that aptitude. Wyshynski’s Thursday write-up underscored the fact that Buffalo head coach Ted Nolan shed Sacco from his staff earlier this year. He goes on to sum up the specialization possibilities in Boston as follows:

Ward was the architect of the Bruins’ power play, which was third in the NHL last season at 21.7-percent. Sacco coached the penalty kill in Buffalo, which was 20th overall at an 81.4-percent success rate, and turned the Avs’ kill into an aggressive one while he was their head coach. Doug Houda coaches the Bruins’ PK, which was ninth last season. Does he remain on that unit?

That is one logical proposition for Claude Julien’s 2014-15 staff. Sacco is a former winger and, as a former head coach, has experience overseeing a broader range of players. His penalty-killing specialization with the Sabres need not restrict him to the same role in Boston.

Shelving the debate as to the mere merit of the hire, the Bruins might as well change as little as they can as to each returning coach’s duties. That means keeping Houda on his proven side of the special teams spectrum.

Under that arrangement, Sacco could replace Ward outright and, in turn, stay in his familiar vicinity behind the bench. But there also is the chance that Doug Jarvis could move down to ice level, giving way to Sacco upstairs.

The Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa hinted at the latter possibility when he wrote the following:

Julien has yet to determine whether Sacco will manage the power play. It’s possible Julien could change assignments for his assistants. Houda has been responsible for the defense and the penalty kill. Doug Jarvis has monitored games from the press box, keeping in touch with Ward via radio.

If relocating Jarvis, a veteran of four seasons with Julien’s Bruins, is tantamount to a promotion, then that projects to be the most sensible choice. It is not much different than the aforementioned elevation of Bradley that coincided with Ferguson’s appointment.

But the best configuration of the coaching staff is ultimately for the head coach to determine. Julien, who no longer has any holdover assistants from his first year in Boston, has earned that authority through his seven-season track record.

With their established status as contenders, the Bruins’ core incumbents must ensure that Sacco assimilates to support and benefit from their system. It is a task that bears a fraternal resemblance to making a mystery masked man work as a backup goaltender.

Julien, his colleagues and his pupils answered that precise call last season with one-year free-agent rental Chad Johnson. Johnson entered with an unspectacular transcript as an AHL journeyman and unproven NHL backup with a 10-game sample size.

All Johnson and his 2013-14 employer did together was collaborate on a 17-4-3 record. He coupled that with a 2.10 goals-against average and .925 save percentage, annihilating any prior liability concerns.

Can the Bruins pull the equivalent feat with an assistant coach who went 130-134-30 in his only stint as the centerpiece of an NHL staff? With one who another losing team deemed unfit for its future drive toward resurgence?

Those are the follow-up questions that Boston will need to answer in the wake of Sacco's hiring. That will be its way of ensuring that Sacco’s expressed enthusiasm for his hometown franchise translates to results.

Unless otherwise indicated all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com

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