Thursday, 5 April 2007

I Got "Julien'd"

I apologize for my lack of posts in recent days. I've spent more time in the new vehicle I purchased rather than in front of a computer. However, I am back to discuss my findings on the Claude Julien firing.

It's a safe bet to say that no matter what you think of the New Jersey Devils, they have been one of the best NHL teams over the last decade. Lou Lamoriello has made smart draft choices, signed key free agents, and swung many trades to bring in quality players. However, his coaches have not had the same luck at finding permanent employment. Robbie Ftorek, Larry Robinson, and Claude Julien have all been given their walking papers weeks or days before the end of the season. Why? Why does the man running the ship fire his first mate as the hurricane approaches? A ship that has sailed so well all season suddenly is launched into internal turmoil before the Stanley Cup playoffs. Why does this happen?

Make no mistake that the New Jersey Devils are Lou Lamoriello's team. His fingerprints are on everything. He has rebuilt the Devils into a Stanley Cup-calibre team each season despite facing salary cap limitations and holdouts. But his control on the Devils runs much deeper than that. As Alan Adams of Rogers' writes, "[t]he thing about Lamoriello is that he is a control freak. The assistant coaches are prohibited from talking to the media. His PR staff is required to wear a shirt and jacket at all times on the road, even when they are visiting close friends in their homes for dinner. In the days before voice-mail, Lamoriello would read copies of the call messages his PR staff received from reporters asking them to call back."

How can anyone be comfortable having a dictator overhead? I'll be honest: Lou is a smart hockey man who understands the game better than anyone in hockey. Claude Julien had led the Devils to the second seed in the Eastern Conference despite the team being hampered with injuries and salary cap problems. He was tough with players, and demanded a better defensive performance from everyone night after night. Isn't this the kind of win-or-else attitude that Lamoriello would want behind his bench? It's hard to say why Claude Julien was fired as neither side is talking, but here are my three scenarios:

1) Lou Lamoriello wasn't happy with the mini-slump his team was in with ten games to go before the playoffs, and Lou took action in resolving it. As the popular saying reads "you can't fire your entire team", so Lou resolved it in the only way he could - fire the man leading the team. In firing Julien, he stepped in behind the bench as a reminder to the players that Big Brother Lou was watching, and will not stand for lacklustre efforts.

2) There were complaints regarding Julien's coaching tactics from the players, and Lamoriello made the change in order to get his star players back on track. Biran Gionta, John Madden and Scott Gomez have, of late, been in small scoring slumps, possibly adding to the Devils' mini-slump last week. There has been talk of Brian Rafalski asking for more offensive freedom which would go directly against Julien's defence-first approach. Patrik Elias leads the team with a paltry 67 points in 73 games. Rafalski is their highest-scoring defenseman this season with 54 points in 80 games. I understand that defence tightens up in the playoffs, but if can't score already, you better find a way to open it up a bit. This was the Devils' downfall last season, and Lamoriello made the change so that it wasn't a repeat of last season's playoffs. Clashing with the GM and players always will shorten a coach's career.

Don't forget that Julien had a similar problem in Montreal with general manager Bob Gainey in regards to his goaltenders and who was the starter. The tension was serious enough that it cost Julien his job in Montreal. If history repeats itself in terms of personnel and their playing time, Lamoriello took action before the big dance instead of after it. You either do what Lamoriello tells you when he tells you how to do it or you're watching games on television, contract or not.

3) There was a thought that the players inside the locker room had stopped listening to Julien as to their direction, and that Lamoriello was calling the shots through Julien. In that case, removing Julien as the middle man makes financial sense, but little else. Sending Julien off to the unemployment line, however, sends a message to the team that this is Lou's team, and you do what he says. Now that Lou's standing in the locker room, you better give 110% every night, or you may find yourself standing in the same line as Julien. What have you done for me lately plays no part in Lou's decisions, nor does winning a popularity contest.

The reality is that we may never know, and Lamoriello might be satisfied with that. However, the notes in the history books say that Lamoriello took over from Larry Robinson before Christmas in 2005 and profited from the return of a healthy Patrik Elias, but the Devils were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. Taking over with three games left in the regular season is hardly enough time to change a system, so I assume that it wasn't the winning that was the problem.

My opinion is that it is a combination of the three scenarios. Is there a problem with that? Not really, but if it took 79 games to come to light, why not ride Julien's success into the playoffs where the Devils have an excellent chance at winning the Stanley Cup? The problem, as I see it, isn't with the fact that Julien was producing successful results. The problem seems to be that the firing had more to do with Lamoriello's controlling nature than Julien doing anything wrong. Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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