Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A Lotta Options

If there was ever a time that an NHL team wanted to make a coaching change, now might be the best time. The announcement that the Boston Bruins relieved head coach Claude Julien from his position today only makes the available coaches on the market that much deeper. Gerard Gallant and Ken Hitchcock are already out there, so adding Julien to those names makes for an impressive list of unemployed, high-level coaches. You have to wonder if a number of NHL teams aren't biding their times to figure out when to make a move when it comes to the talent not on a bench right now.

Julien was Boston's all-time leader with 419 career victories, amassing a 419-246-94 record in 759 games with the club. In seven of nine seasons behind the bench, Julien guided the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a Stanley Cup parade being organized in 2011 after the Bruins downed the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Final. His 57 postseason wins was also a club record with the Bruins, captured a Jack Adams Award in 2008-09, and led the Bruins to the Presidents' Trophy in 2014. If there is any "blemish" on his record, it's a loss in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Needless to say, Boston has never had a better man behind the Bruins' bench in their illustrious history.

And now he's gone.

The term "philosophical differences" came out as one of the reasons for Julien's dismissal today, but his record alone speaks for itself. I'm not sure what philosophy the Bruins want to take under Don Sweeney and Cam Neely, but it's hard to argue with the success Julien had while behind the Bruins' bench.

"In moving this group forward, with an eye towards the plan we had put in place, I wasn't ready to commit on a longer-term basis with Claude," Sweeney told reporters at a news conference. "I thought there was a frustration with wins and losses, and what he was subjected to, on a nightly basis.

"I couldn't get past the fact that I wasn't committed, in my own mind, to go beyond where are right now with Claude. With our organization, I don't know if those two things lined up, as far as the level of success he's had with the way we were playing. The roster wasn't a complete and finished product."

So if I read that statement correctly, Don Sweeney delivered a team to Julien that "wasn't a complete and finished product" that led to Julien having frustrations when it came to the Bruins' record this season, so the right move was to replace the coach who got more out of a number of pieces than most coaches would.

If you're the Vegas Golden Knights, you're literally sitting on a wealth of coaching talent if any of them want the job. If you're an NHL GM who is thinking about making changes, now might be the time. Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock might have said it best today when he told reporters, "I mean, you ain't getting better. When you make these decisions, you better have a guy in mind that's better than that guy. Not many, I can tell you that."

Boston moves forward with Bruce Cassidy who isn't a slouch by any means. He'll help this Bruins team, but I'm not sure he has the chops like Julien did when it came to dealing with some of the personalities in the room and in the media. The shoes he's filling can't be filled very easily, so the best thing for Cassidy to do is to approach this like Julien had never been there. The players and media won't forget Julien, but Cassidy needs to start making this team his own as soon as he can.

If Boston misses the playoff this season, Sweeney and Neely can say that firing Julien was justified based on results. If they make the playoffs, they can spin the firing into getting a new voice in the room in Cassidy and how important that was for the organization. Regardless of where the Bruins finish, there's a good chance they aren't making a deep run in the playoffs unless something dramatic changes on the ice where the Bruins look like a middling team.

The reason they're a middling team isn't Claude Julien's fault. It falls on the shoulders of GM Don Sweeney and President Cam Neely who decided to move in a different direction when the Bruins discarded Milan Lucic, Dougie Hamilton, Carl Soderberg, and Reilly Smith for draft picks or allowed them to walk in free agency. They lost organizational depth in making deals for the 13th-, 14th-, and 15th-overall picks to draft Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk, and Zachary Senyshyn at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. While the jury is still out on all three players, the loss of NHL depth seriously hurt the Bruins. The guys Sweeney brought in to replace that depth - David Backes, Matt Beleskey, and Jimmy Hayes - have woefully underperformed compared to the players that left. Put it all together, and you get a team that may miss the playoffs this season.

Perhaps fielding a team that "wasn't a complete and finished product" is the main problem, but Sweeney handed this Bruins team over to Julien and expected to see the playoffs once again. While those expectations probably were lofty based on the roster, dismissing the man who has brought the most success for the franchise since Pat Burns stood behind the bench seems dumb.

"Sometimes, to be honest with you, it's time to move on," Babcock told reporters. "Julie was a helluva coach, though."

He'll be back if and when he wants it. At least 20 of the 31 NHL teams should have a vested interest in Claude Julien's services when it comes to coaching an NHL team. He's too damn good at what he does to be unemployed for any period of time.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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