The Boston Bruins will keep Claude Julien as head coach for a 10th season. Was it the right move to retain a bench boss who just missed the playoffs a second straight time?
Sorry, Ottawa Senators. You don’t have a slam-dunk replacement for coach Dave Cameron after all. You won’t get your man this off-season, as the Boston Bruins have decided to retain coach Claude Julien. General manager Don Sweeney announced it at a press conference Thursday.
“I emphatically believe that Claude’s a coach that can take us through what I’ll describe as a bumpy transition period,” Sweeney told reporters.
Sweeney added “I have work to do” and that he “believes in Claude as a coach.”
Can a decision be surprising and unsurprising at once? On one hand, it sure looked like Julien was done in Boston. Plenty of local pundits penned opinion pieces predicting Julien would be pink slipped after (a) his Bruins missed the playoffs a second straight season and (b) things ended with a hideous thud, as Boston was eliminated on the season’s penultimate day losing 6-1 at home to Ottawa and getting booed off the ice.
On the other hand, Julien won a Stanley Cup with Boston in 2011. He became the franchise’s winningest coach of all-time this season, surpassing Art Ross in March. Julien steered Boston to playoff berths in his first seven seasons there. He took them to the final twice. He helmed two 50-plus-victory squads. A resume like that earns you some leash. Coaches rarely survive in today’s NHL when they miss the big dance two straight years, but Julien is among the few who can get away with it. Considering what he’s done for the franchise since taking over as coach in 2007-08, firing him would’ve been a slap in the face in the eyes of some.
So is Sweeney loyal to a fault, or has he made a prudent and sober decision in retaining Julien?
The anti-Julien camp might point out that this Bruins team is supposedly in a rebuild and that Julien isn’t hardwired to nurture a young core. Among Boston’s leaders in minutes per game this season, six of the top seven skaters were 29 or older and five were in their 30s. Promising young winger David Pastrnak averaged just 13:57, the highly productive Ryan Spooner 15:08. On a team starved for defense, youngsters like Colin Miller wound up demoted from January to April, a victim of waning confidence and a lack of patience on Julien’s end. Alex Khokhlachev, seemingly a prospect in Boston’s system for half a decade now, couldn’t stick with the team and make an impact, and his agent blamed Julien, claiming he never gave Khokhlachev a chance.
It may be true that Julien doesn’t favor youngsters as much as he should during an era that rewards the fresh and fleet of foot, sure. But grounds for firing? Hardly. He’s far from the first bench boss to rely on established veterans, and who can fault him for relying on future Hall of Famers Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara for massive minutes? Secondly, Julien arguably had less to work with this season than he ever has in nine seasons with the Bruins, and he still got them to within a hair of a playoff berth.
As my colleague Ryan Kennedy pointed out, Sweeney deserves credit for acknowledging his role in Boston’s struggles. He sent a mixed message to a team with plenty of veteran win-now talent by gutting the blueline on draft day last year, trading Dougie Hamilton for picks that won’t crack the lineup for at least another season. Sweeney traded away Milan Lucic, Reilly Smith and Carl Soderberg’s negotiating rights. A Bruins blueline that gave away Hamilton and Johnny Boychuk in less than a calendar year desperately needed replenishing, and Sweeney’s biggest off-season acquisition was Matt Irwin. Julien started the season with a hand tied behind his back. At THN, we picked Boston to miss the playoffs for the first time in years.
Julien still got the most out of what he had. As Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski points out, Julien squeezed more offense out of this club this season than last despite the loss of personnel. The Bruins remained a good possession team in terms of generating shot attempts, finishing 10th in score-adjusted Corsi For per 60 minutes of play, but they tumbled to 21st in score-adjusted Corsi Against per 60 after finishing ninth last season and third the season prior. This team simply bled opposing scoring chances like it never had before in the Julien era, and it’s obvious why. The Bruins’ blueline has become a liability.
Julien thus deserves another shot. If Sweeney truly wants Bruins fans to believe a rebuild is under way, the playoffs shouldn’t have been the expectation anyway, and Julien shouldn’t be perceived as a failure. And if Sweeney wants his team back in the post-season for 2016-17, it’s up to him to furnish the roster with more talent. If Julien starts 2016-17 with a better roster and still can’t steer it back to contention, however, he’ll finally receive his walking papers.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin