The Penguins and the Bruins were eerily similar for quite a bit of the last two seasons.
In 2014-15, both underachieving teams had their playoff fates decided on the last day of the regular season. The Bruins missed out by a point and the Penguins barely squeezed in before getting dispatched quickly by the top-seeded Rangers.
In 2015-16 they started the same way. Both were in and out of the top eight, with neither looking like a bona-fide contender. There were talented, Cup-worthy holdovers on both rosters -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury and others in Pittsburgh; Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask et al in Boston -- but, even though they each seemed to have enough talent to at least make the playoffs, it felt like something wasn't right on either team.
Then a funny thing happened: The Penguins made a coaching change. They fired Gary Hart lookalike Mike Johnston on Dec. 12 and replaced him with former Bruins boss Mike Sullivan, who had waited 10 years for his next chance at a head NHL coaching job after being terminated in Boston.
The transition was rocky, as the Penguins lost their first four games under Sullivan . . . including a home-and-home series to the B's, who looked more than postseason-worthy at that point, on Dec. 16 and 18.
But then they caught fire. They finished 32-12-5 in their last 47 regular-season games under Sullivan, easily making the playoffs, and -- after their stunning six-game dispatch of the powerful Capitals, favored by many to win it all this year -- are now 40-15-5 since Dec. 21. They're getting ready to face the Steven Stamkos-less Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals and have a good chance of getting to the Stanley Cup Finals.
So what does this have to do with the Bruins?
Pittsburgh’s rise is proof positive that simply changing the voice behind the bench can sometimes lead to a fundamental change with an underachieving core group of players.
Clearly, Johnston wasn’t as established as Claude Julien. And there’s no way of knowing for sure what will happen with a new coach.
But this much feels true: The decision of Bruins upper management to rely largely on player feedback to determine whether Julien’s message had gone stale seems to be a fundamental mistake.
First-year general manager Don Sweeney recommended retaining Julien, and president Cam Neely agreed.
“I thought [Julien] did a great job coaching this year," Neely said at his end-of-the-year press conference. "It was a big transition year for him, different player personnel than he’s accustomed to. He tried to integrate a lot of younger players and I think he did a good job with the roster . . . [So] when Don said he wanted to keep Claude, I had no problem with that at all . . .
“[Ultimately] that’s Don’s decision. If he comes to me and says, ‘Listen I think we need to make a change here,’ I have to go on his recommendation. He’s the one that deals with the coach on a daily basis.”
This is by no means an indictment of Julien. He's the franchise's all-time leader in coaching victories and would have had another job -- in Ottawa, Minnesota, virtually anywhere with an opening that he wanted to go -- within days had the Bruins let him go.
But isn’t the player endorsement of Julien part of the team's problem over the last two years? The B's have looked, felt and played like a group that's entirely too comfortable despite missing the playoffs. Julien's an elite coach, but that doesn’t mean he’s the best fit for Boston’s roster, and changing organizational philosophy, at this moment in time.
Isn’t the impressive success of Sullivan -- who wasn’t on anybody’s radar as a hot coaching prospect -- proof that there are many brilliant hockey minds out there looking for a shot? Maybe even one or two who could do something greater with a young, offensively-skilled group of players in Boston who don't exactly mesh perfectly with Julien’s defense-first, veteran-heavy strengths.
Wouldn’t a shock to the system, and a fresh approach, be exactly what’s needed for the Bruins, rather than keeping just about everything the same after failing two seasons in a row? Didn’t this feel like a team begging for change when it was getting slapped around by the Senators in the last game of the season with the playoffs on the line?
There’s a reason, beyond bad goaltending, why Bruce Boudreau keeps losing Game Sevens and consistently underachieves in the playoffs despite rosters loaded with talent. There may also be a reason beyond blind, dumb luck and coincidence that the Bruins have collapsed, imploded and choked over the final six weeks in each of the last two regular seasons.
It’s clearly not all on the coaching; the players are the ones actually wilting under pressure on the ice. But one thing about it all has been astounding: The sheer unwillingness of many around the Bruins, in the media and elsewhere, to ask if change could be just as beneficial in Boston as it's been in Pittsburgh.