WILMINGTON – It might not be such a long union after all between Bruins coach Claude Julien and general manager Don Sweeney.
Sweeney termed it “an uncomfortable business” last week when asked how much slack the Bruins coaching staff would have entering this season. That kind of talk sends a clear message of accountability should the Bruins once again limp out of the gate like the Hockey Walking Dead.
Julien spent a good portion of his meeting with the B’s media on Wednesday morning at Ristuccia Arena sounding like there isn’t going to be much change from what’s been done behind the Boston bench for the last eight years. It’s not surprising given how strong Julien’s will is as a hockey coach, but a little eyebrow-raising given the current situation with the Bruins.
There will be adjustments to the system, of course, but nothing beyond the new wrinkles Boston’s coaching staff has implemented with each passing year.
“When you talk philosophical approaches, every year so far we have made adjustments in our game,” said Julien. “The game evolves, the rules change and the personnel on your roster changes, so you make adjustments accordingly. Ironically enough two days after the season was done the coaching staff met, and had already made some adjustments to be something that we’d like to see in our game. Don happened to come in and we talked about those things.
“We had already done the work on that, and it goes to show that we were seeing the same things, and on the same page. There are things that we feel like we can do as a team with the way the game has changed to help our transition game a little bit better.”
Sweeney spoke animatedly at his introductory press conference about aiming for an aggressive, up-tempo attack that will “create anxiety in the opposition.” The overachieving GM then spent weeks meeting with Julien and his coaches to make sure everybody was of the same mind, and only then made the announcement Julien and his staff were returning for this season. Julien said he feels like he’s got the support of both Cam Neely and Sweeney, and that’s clearly important if the new partnership has any chance of succeeding for any length of time.
But when asked if Julien and his coaching staff were looking at subtle tweaks or big philosophical changes to the current system, the message sounded alarmingly familiar to the one note tones from last season.
“That’s why I said it’s adjustments. It’s not changes. For people that think we’re going to play a run and gun game, that is not going to be happening,” said Julien. “We can talk about all kinds of things. One of the teams (Chicago) that’s in the Final right now had an even better goals against average [number] than we did. This game hasn’t changed. You need good defense, and you need good offense. You need both.
“We’ve been able to do that for a lot of years. Just because we had a tough year last year doesn’t mean we’re all about defense. We gave up more goals last year than we did the year before. That should be criticized as much as the goals for. We just had a tough year.”
That sounds very similar to the refrain that 96 points earned last season is proof that the hockey club wasn’t that bad last season. That’s not very reassuring, and misses the point that something was very wrong with the Black and Gold. It simply perpetuates a dangerous school of thought that the Bruins’ problems require minor fixes rather than major repair work.
Maybe the B’s head coach is 100 percent correct, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way.
For Julien and the Bruins, the defense and goaltending have never really been the problem areas.
The Bruins will continue to employ a zone defense that focuses on crashing inward toward “the house”, and forcing puck carriers to the outside in the offensive zone. You may also continue to see the D-to-D breakout passes followed by the wild banked attempts off the side boards to clear the puck out of the defensive zone.
It’s unreasonable to expect a coach like Julien to completely change his methods after piling up 351 wins over the last eight years with the Bruins.
But it’s on offense where the Bruins need to find answers after finishing 22nd in the NHL in goals scored last season. They didn’t power enough offense to allow their team breathing room in some games, and experienced some major troubles finishing off chances in the offensive zone. They need to improve transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone, and moving the puck up the ice with speed and precision for easy zone entry past the blue line.
They need more pinpoint stretch passes, and less laborious shifts spent simply getting the puck into the attack zone.
Some of that certainly falls on a dysfunctional roster missing a top line right wing and a top four D-man last season, and Boston’s salary cap mess won’t make that any easier. But some of it also comes down to a Bruins coaching staff slow to make adjustments last season, and frustrated with young players that couldn’t bring consistency to the table.
Julien indicated tweaks will be made this season, and he expected to see a different, better result from his players. There will be a number of young players introduced into the lineup that will play pivotal roles, and their playoff hopes will rest on unproven players in many roster spots. There will be a requirement for the B’s to keep up with an Eastern Conference that’s getting faster and more skilled with each passing season.
Once again, however, Julien sounded like he was falling back on the familiar hockey truths uttered, learned and reinforced on Causeway Street over the last eight years.
“When we’ve compared our scoring chances last year to the year before where we scored a lot, surprisingly enough the scoring chances were identical. The biggest difference last year was the finish,” said Julien. “That’s something you’ve got to work on as individuals, and as a coaching staff. You’ve got to ask yourselves ‘how can you get your players to have better finish?’
“But the chances were created. It didn’t look that way because when you don’t score your offense doesn’t look as good. We think we definitely can be better, but at the same time we need to work on certain things. That’s what I mean about making adjustments. There will be subtle adjustments along the way, but nothing major. You look at the teams right now, and there are a lot of veteran players on that Chicago team. That’s why they’ve been [to the Cup Final] three times. We have to be patient with our young players, and I know Don alluded to that. I came up coaching junior hockey, and I know how those young players are. I’ve had a lot of patience with those guys. Sometimes you have to take a hard stance, but that doesn’t mean you’re not patient with them. But at the same time we have to be realistic. There are certain parts of the game where those guys have to evolve, and you can teach but they also need to improve in those areas.”
The Bruins can realistically expect bounce-back from some players that struggled last season, and the maturation of other young players could bring more offense. Zdeno Chara and David Krejci will be healthy, and that should be a boost to last year’s sputtering offense as well. Ryan Spooner will come to training camp with an evolved game, and should have the inside track on the third line center spot behind Krejci and Patrice Bergeron.
But it sure didn’t sound like the Bruins are going to look all that much different based on Julien’s words on Wednesday morning. That’s quite a contrast from Sweeney’s call for a shift in philosophy during his introductory press conference, and should be an interesting storyline to watch play out during training camp and the early portion of the season.
Perhaps Julien is simply being stubborn with the media, and refusing to admit that there will be major revisions to the style of play he preaches.
If not then it’s difficult to see this marriage between Julien and Sweeney lasting very long should the Bruins flash the same flaws in their game this season as they did in last year’s 82 game of puck drudgery. The hope is that Julien can make it work with a message that hasn’t gone stale, but something a coaching isn’t the worst thing in a world for an NHL team.
Just ask the folks in Ottawa if you don’t believe me. Things seemed to have worked out pretty well for them last season after making a change behind the bench.