Atlantic Division

Joe Sacco: The lowdown on the Bruins’ new assistant coach

Joe Sacco: The lowdown on the Bruins’ new assistant coach
Sacco Avalanche

Joe Sacco was head coach of the Avalanche for four seasons.

A little more than a month after the resignation of Geoff Ward, the Bruins have filled their void behind the bench, hiring Joe Sacco as an assistant coach.

Let’s start with the positive aspects of this:

Sacco, 45, is a Medford, Mass., native. His homecoming story is sweetened by the fact that he played under Jack Parker for three seasons (1987-90) at Boston University. Drafted 71st overall by the Maple Leafs in 1987, Sacco was an effective NHL forward for 13 seasons — especially during his time in Anaheim in the mid ’90s, when he had a career-high 19 goals for the then-Mighty Ducks in 1993-94. He was teammates with Zdeno Chara on Long Island for two seasons, and played alongside then-rookie Dennis Seidenberg in Philly in 2002-03. He coached Johnny Boychuk in the AHL for two seasons.

Sacco brings with him nine seasons of pro coaching experience. That phase of his career began in 2005 at the AHL level in Lowell and continued in Albany the following season, with Sacco remaining an assistant. He earned head-coaching duties in Lake Erie and, despite missing the playoffs in each of his two seasons at the helm, was named the head coach of the parent club, the Avalanche, in 2009.

And now that positivity starts to dissipate. Let’s begin with a couple amusing tweets, one of which is from Along the Boards’ Aaron Musick:

In Colorado, Sacco amassed a record of 130-134-30. The Avs qualified for the playoffs just once during his tenure, which came during his first campaign behind the bench. San Jose defeated Colorado in six games, outscoring the Avs 19-11.

During  a conference call to introduce Sacco, Claude Julien said that Ward’s responsibilities — which included being the team’s power-play guru — could be divided up among the staff. He did, however, praise Sacco’s offensive smarts, pointing out that the former forward joins a staff that predominantly patrolled the blue line during their playing days.

Colorado’s offensive numbers during Sacco’s tenure, however, won’t exactly wow you. The Avs weren’t a great team by any stretch, and Sacco had the misfortune of some of his top players — Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog — missing big chunks of time due to injury. Nevertheless, here’s a look at those numbers:

2009-10: 2.89 goals/game (6th) | 18.1% PP (15th)

2010-11: 2.70 goals/game (18th) | 18.5% PP (11th)

2011-12: 2.43 goals/game (25th) | 18.4% PP (9th)

2012-13: 2.38 goals/game (26th) | 15.0% PP (24th)

The real sticking point, for me at least, is that final 2012-13 season. Yes, it was a wacky year with the lockout and all, but the Avalanche were poised to take a step forward. Instead, they went in the opposite direction, bottoming out and earning the No. 1 overall pick in the draft in the process.

Just one year later, Patrick Roy guided an awfully similar roster to the playoffs as division champs. Sure, top pick Nathan MacKinnon played a sizable role in that with 63 points as a rookie, but a worst-to-first transformation — when there’s hardly any roster turnover — reflects just as much on the new coach that pulled them out of the basement as it does on the one that led them there initially.

Oh, and here’s how the Roy-led Avs finished the campaign:

2013-14: 2.99 goals/game (4th) | 19.8% PP (5th)

 Sacco, who had accepted a position as a scout for the Sabres after serving as an assistant coach for the club in 2013-14, had this to say in an interview with the Utica Observer-Dispatch when asked about what he might’ve done differently in Denver. 

“There could have been more patience with the younger players; 18, 19, and 20-year-olds,” said Sacco. “Young players are hard to teach. They have to understand that they are going to make mistakes. As long as you see progress, that’s important.”

Musick offered this assessment of Sacco’s time in Colorado: 

“Joe Sacco would bench his young stars for small mistakes without explaining why they were mistakes,” he said. “For his stars like Duchene, it was hard for him to learn how to play the game properly. If your players are struggling to figure out what you expect of them, they won’t know how to play for you.”

In Sacco’s defense, we’ve seen plenty of coaches — not just in hockey — that are more effective as assistants than they are being at the helm of the team. And we certainly know that Julien, Sacco and fellow assistants Doug Houda and Doug Jarvis all have to be on the same page, and that it’s not simply about plugging in someone with the best win-loss record or most impressive numbers from their previous stops.

Nevertheless, it’s still fair to wonder if — no matter how good a fit Sacco’s personality or style may be — there were other viable options out there with better track records that the B’s may have passed on. However, just like players, coaches evolve over time. Sacco could easily draw from his experience of working his way up the ranks in the AHL, guiding a young team in Colorado and enduring the garbage fire that was the 2013-14 season in Buffalo, and channel that all into making the most of his new gig back home in Boston with the Black and Gold.

Atlantic Division

A Massachusetts native that's been covering the Boston Bruins since the 2007-08 season, Jesse is the founder and editor of Along the Boards.

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