For the second consecutive season, the Bruins won’t be heading to the post-season, and that’s sure to have everyone in Boston’s front office on edge in the coming weeks. When evaluations are done of the team, staff and the season that was, coach Claude Julien could very well find himself on the unemployment line, but that shouldn’t necessarily be the case.
Julien’s job was on the line before the season began, and of that there's little doubt. After the firing of GM Peter Chiarelli by the Bruins in April 2015, the hiring of Don Sweeney as Chiarelli’s replacement had some wondering what the fate of Julien would be. It took a full 15 days from Sweeney’s hiring for the Bruins to state, for certain, Julien would be back behind the bench. It was never said publicly but it always seemed evident Julien’s fate would be tied in part to Boston’s ability to bounce back and get into the playoffs this season.
With the regular season over, though, the Bruins are on the outside looking in, and now, five years removed from a Stanley Cup victory, Boston has missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. But even though the consecutive post-season misses have come with Julien behind the bench, it would seem unjust were he to take the brunt of the blame for Boston’s woes.
During last off-season, Julien lost a top-six center in Carl Soderberg, a top-six winger in Milan Lucic and a top-pairing defenseman in Dougie Hamilton from his arsenal. That’s not to mention the season prior Julien also watched Johnny Boychuck move on, meaning in consecutive off-seasons the Bruins said farewell to two top-three defensemen. And considering those losses, what Julien did over the course of the 2015-16 campaignhas been commendable even if the end result was a narrow post-season miss, beacuse he was working with a weaker Bruins roster than he has had over the past several seasons.
That’s not to say the jettisoned players weren’t replaced and Julien had to make do with AHL-level replacements, but Lucic’s spot was filled by Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes was brought in via trade and Matt Irwin and Colin Miller were off-season acquisitions to help bolster the back end. Beleskey’s 15 goals and 37 points were a nice contribution and Hayes scored 13 times and added 29 points. Those are good seasons in their own right, but pale in comparison to the 20-goal, 50-point potential Lucic has shown time and again. As for the replacements on defense, Irwin was a non-factor and Miller was a sore spot for many Bruins fans. Of course, none of this is to mention the Tyler Seguin trade, which will seemingly haunt the Bruins for years to come but had its impact lessened this season thanks to a productive campaign from Loui Eriksson.
In large part because of the losses the Bruins faced, it would have been expected that Boston, who were among the 10 lowest-scoring teams in the 2014-15 campaign, would again be one of the league’s worst teams in terms of offensive production considering the losses they faced. Instead, thanks to excellent seasons from Eriksson and Brad Marchand, the Bruins finished with the fifth-most goals of any team in the league. Per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, the Bruins’ production increased by nearly one-third of a goal, and when it came to outscoring the opposition at even-strength, Boston scored 51.1 percent of the total goals. That was also an improvement over the previous season, and a testament to Julien’s ability to play to his offense’s strengths.
Some underlying numbers took a noticeable slip even with the offensive uptick, however, and there’s no doubt those will be noticed by Julien’s detractors. The Bruins’ 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage fell from nearly 52 percent in 2014-15 to slightly below 50 percent this campaign. Their shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 fell by nearly one shot per game and defensively the Bruins allowed nearly four more attempts per game against. That didn’t help anyone, and especially not goaltender Tuukka Rask, who saw his save percentage slip from .931 at 5-on-5 last season to .926 this season. Of the 36 goaltenders who played 1,500 5-on-5 minutes, Rask’s SP ranks 20th. Compare that to last season, when he was a top-10 netminder among goaltenders playing at least 1,500 5-on-5 minutes, and one area of decline for Boston is clear.
The reason for the defensive woes are somewhat obvious, though. Beyond the loss of Hamilton and Boychuk over the past two seasons, the Bruins battled injuries on defense that saw 11 different rearguards put on the spoked ‘B’ this season. Of those, none played a full 82-game schedule and injuries were plentiful. Adam McQuaid missed 18 games this season, Dennis Seidenberg missed 21 contests and injuries also cost Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug a game or two, and you can be sure both played through ailments as the season wore on. Missing top-four blueliners hurt the Bruins and the replacements management brought in weren’t up to snuff. Having a blueline that can’t keep up can cost a team dearly — ask the 2014-15 Dallas Stars — and it was the Bruins’ biggest flaw this season. That can’t fall solely on Julien’s shoulders.
No matter how well Julien coached this bunch of Bruins, though, the fact of the matter is that the team fell short and that could very well cost the 2008-09 Jack Adams Award winner his job. Already rumors are abound of potential replacements, including a since-denied report of Mike Milbury’s interest in the gig and rumblings NCAA coach Nate Leaman could take over. If Julien is shown the door in Boston, though, it won't be a firing that was well-earned. He did well with what he was given, and, sadly, there’s a chance that still wasn’t enough.