BOSTON – So, what happens if and when the Bruins go out next season, put themselves into solid playoff position and then summarily fall apart in the last six weeks of the season?
It’s unfortunately a legitimate question now after Bruins general manager Don Sweeney decided to keep Claude Julien for an upcoming 10th season. It's not unfortunate that a classy, accomplished coach like Julien stays in Boston, but it is eyebrow-raising after back-to-back seasons missing the playoffs amid successive late-season nosedives.
Clearly, Julien is a very good hockey coach who s deserving of everybody’s respect, In fact, the easiest call in the world for Sweeney and the Bruins was to simply keep as much of the status quo as possible on Causeway Street.
In that respect, perhaps nobody should be surprised that Julien is coming back after last season becoming the all-time winningest coach in the nearly 100-year history of the Bruins.
“I believe in Claude as a coach, not that I didn’t believe in his philosophies last year. I think our core principles align very well from the defensive structure of the team as well as what we see in players and individual players. Last year, being new to the position, Claude was also in a position where he was with a new general manager,” said Sweeney. “It took some time for us to make sure that we were working together. I mean in all honesty here, that’s in fairness to Claude and the success he’s had. Had Claude come to me and said, ‘Maybe there’s a better spot for me and you can carve out your own thing,’ but to this day and all throughout this process [he hasn’t] and that speaks a lot about him as a person and as a coach.
“Because he’s never ever wavered in the fact that this is the place he wants to be and he’s ridden us up to the good time, and now we’re at a lower point and we want to go back to the point where he knows he can get us. I think that speaks volumes about him as a person, first of all, and my confidence in him as a coach.”
Those are some truly nice words and they speak to Julien eschewing a very real opportunity to jump ship in Boston and take the head coaching gig in Ottawa if he was looking for a fresh start. In doing so, the B's bench boss perhaps skipped over a team that’s a little closer to contending with some the defensive structure Julien can bring to the table. That kind of loyalty is admirable even if some of the draw to staying in Boston is the $2.75 million that Julien will be getting paid.
But it also opens up a couple of really important questions concerning Julien and the Bruins and the decision to have him persevere for another season.
If Sweeney and team president Cam Neely want the team to continue opening things up offensively and introducing youth into the lineup, it's questionable whether Julien is the right man for the gig. The Bruins couldn’t find a way to play good two-way hockey on most nights in a fatal flaw: the good offensive nights were loose defensively and the Bruins scrounged for goals at the end of the season while trying to tighten up defensively.
Julien didn't exactly prove he could both open things up offensively and also win enough to be successful with a team he openly admitted should have been in the playoffs.
The Bruins also saw Julien’s erratic usage of young players such as Frank Vatrano and Colin Miller impact their development in their rookie seasons while David Pastrnak failed to make a major leap forward in his second season. Clearly, some of this is on the individual players themselves and Julien has shown some ability to develop young players throughout his 10 years in Boston. Still, it just doesn’t feel like the longtime B's coach is as patient with a youth movement as he once might have been as a younger, hungrier coach.
Again, Sweeney begs to differ, and pointed to the fits and starts in the 19-year-old Pastrnak’s development as Julien showing a steady hand with a young player not exactly on a linear path of development.
“I don’t believe we need a major overhaul. I believe we need to continue to forge depth in the organization. When you go through these times when you have injuries and you have players that haven’t been able to step in, you have to have a plan that allows players to develop at the right time that they’re supposed to, rather than force a player,” said Sweeney. “At times when you don’t have the depth overall, you do; you can expose a younger player and we’d like to have the patience in that regard.
“You know people talk about young player integration and David Pastrnak is a great example of a player that we’re going to have a tremendous amount of patience with, and Claude has that patience with. Very exciting players, big part of our organization going forward and you know we need to make sure we’re developing in the right manner: [Brad] Marchand, [Patrice] Bergeron, [David] Krejci, Kevan Miller, [Adam] McQuaid- like we’ve done a good job. When the players have been on board with that and been patient with their own personal development, then it really works and your team is successful as a result of that. We’re going to maintain that patience. We have a very, very bright future with a number of young players that we have and recently added to our organization. It’s rightfully so to be excited about that, but it’s also imperative to be patient to allow them to be the types of players and hit their ceilings.”
It’s worth pointing out that none of those younger players on last season’s roster hit their ceilings for a Bruins team that flamed out in the end.
Beyond all the sentiment and solid history with Julien in Boston, one gets the feeling him sticking around in Boston is a fear-based decision. It’s fear of the esteemed NHL coach moving to a divisional rival such as Montreal or Ottawa and immediately turning that team around, or fear that a young college coach like Providence College’s Nate Leaman, or Providence Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, could be a bigger failure than the safe, predictable job Julien will accomplish in Boston next season.
It’s also feels perhaps like the fear of an inexperienced GM in Sweeney, who has made a lot of mistakes in his first season, being coupled with a young coach could really take the train off the rails. Think about: which of Neely, Sweeney and Julien is the most qualified and experienced to do their particular job within the B's organization?
“That was my decision,” said Sweeney of keeping Julien for a 10th season. “As I said, the ownership and Cam, they went through a long process to allow me to have an opportunity, provide me with an opportunity to be in the position. We have great organizational conversations about the direction, about sticking to the plan and the process. But the decision with Claude rested with me.”
So it goes that Julien will return and the Bruins aren’t planning any major overhaul of the roster after missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for two years in a row. Instead, the Bruins threw their defensemen coach under the bus by firing Doug Houda after ranking 19th in goals allowed this season. It looks as if nearly all of Julien’s staff (Doug Jarvis and Joe Sacco) could be out the door as well.
That’s an alarming lack of change or urgency from the top of the Original Six organization after a second straight implosion in the final month that cost the Bruins millions in lost home playoff dates. So, perhaps nobody should be surprised if we once again see complacency and lack of urgency filtering through the Bruins dressing room next season.
After all, that was the passive lead being taken by upper management on Thursday amid an opportunity for real organizational change after two straight failures by management, coaches and players in the category that matters most in pro sports, winning.