Ben Bishop is in line to be the hottest free agent goalie, Kevin Shattenkirk the most sought after blueliner and the list of intriguing talent up front come July 1 will potentially include the likes of Martin Hanzal, T.J. Oshie and Patrick Sharp. But the most impactful free agent of all won’t have to wait until Canada Day to find a home if he doesn’t want to.
With the Bruins firing coach Claude Julien on Tuesday morning, he will almost certainly shoot to the top of the list of in-demand coaches, joining the likes of Jack Capuano, Gerard Gallant and Ken Hitchcock, if he’s interested in coming back for another shot behind the bench.
Julien’s record with the Bruins was an immaculate 419-246-94, good for a .614 points percentage, and he captured a Stanley Cup and two Eastern Conference titles along the way. Better yet, Julien is three games shy of coaching the 1,000th of his career and still he has a points percentage slightly above .600, and his 61-47 record in the post-season has given him one of the best winning percentages of all-time for any coach to see 100 games in the playoffs. Only Glen Sather, Toe Blake, Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Fred Shero and Mike Babcock have been better.
It’s safe to say that Julien will be back coaching a big league team at some point. The only question now is when and where. We can’t answer the former, but here are five places he could find his next fit:
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights’ coaching search has been ongoing, and the team hasn’t yet come to a decision on who will be their first coaching hire in franchise history. The hints we’ve had thus far are that GM George McPhee wants someone with experience and a coach who can immediately command respect. Hard to think of anyone currently available who fits that bill better than Julien.
Pros: One of Julien’s comments shortly before he left the Bruins was that the team didn’t have enough talent to play poorly. We won’t go so far as to call it a “shot” at Boston GM Don Sweeney, but it was certainly a sign that Julien wasn’t all that excited about the level of game-breaking skill the club had. If he goes to Vegas, he’s going to have at least a partial hand in helping to build the team. He’s not taking over a failing roster, but instead stepping into the unknown. Plus, the expansion draft format promises to give Vegas a chance at being competitive as early as next season.
Cons: A chance at being competitive isn’t quite the same as actually being competitive. There are certain to be growing pains in Vegas and while the Bruins may not have the best depth around, the Golden Knights are going to be hard up to have any standout skill players. There won’t be a Brad Marchand, there’s not going to be a reliable two-way player quite like Patrice Bergeron and good luck finding a goaltender like Tuukka Rask in the expansion draft. If Julien wants a roster that can challenge for the playoffs, it’s going to take a few seasons in Vegas to make that a reality.
The Panthers had high hopes coming into the season and when they faltered, they sent Gerard Gallant packing. Tom Rowe is only coaching the club on an interim basis, and it’s likely he’s back overseeing the team in his original role as GM by the time the 2017-18 campaign rolls around. Florida isn’t in a win-now mode, but inserting Julien behind the bench could throw the championship window open.
Pros: The chance to work with Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Aaron Ekblad would be enough for most coaches to be intrigued by the Panthers job. Florida’s core group is young and talented, and there’s more in the pipeline. Julien could get in on the ground floor of an organization that has seemingly set itself up for a good future, and it’s clear management wants to win. The Panthers spent some serious coin in the off-season to build up their blueline. Getting to play with that kind of depth on the back end would be a nice change for Julien.
Cons: The workings of the front office have been puzzling at times and the bizarre exit of Gallant has to have other coaching candidates wary of how secure their job will be if there’s any stumbles down the line. The depth up front is also worth questioning, and it could be what stops the Panthers from competing over the next few seasons.
New York Islanders
With Jack Capuano out, interim coach Doug Weight has done a fine job of getting the Islanders back into contention for a wild-card spot, but it’s likely he hands the reins over to a new bench boss by the time the summer rolls around. The Islanders are a storied franchise that had one of the greatest dynasties in hockey history, and New York wants to get back to those glory days. Julien has the chops to make that a reality.
Pros: Remember that whole thing about talent? Well, Julien would probably be enticed by the chance to work with one of the game’s best offensive talents in John Tavares. Julien has had stars before, but Tavares is only a few pieces of hardware away from being able to leap into the superstar category. None of this is to mention Julien could reunite with Johnny Boychuk, get to use Nick Leddy on the back end and see what he can get out of Travis Hamonic as he continues to develop. That’s the kind of blueline depth that will be hard to find anywhere else.
Cons: The Islanders’ arena situation is uncertain, as is Tavares’ stay. If New York loses their captain, there’s a good chance the franchise takes a step backwards as it tries to recover. There’s also the matter of a supporting cast. Islanders GM Garth Snow let Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo walk in the off-season, replacing them with Andrew Ladd. That hasn’t worked out, and there’s no way New York is getting out of that contract any time soon. None of this is to mention the goaltending situation. While Thomas Greiss has been solid this year, he’s far from a proven go-to No. 1 guy.
Dallas doesn’t have a coaching vacancy, so they may seem an odd choice for this list, but consider that Lindy Ruff’s contract comes up at the end of the season, the Stars are five points out of a playoff spot and they could be sellers at the deadline. This after making it to the second round of the post-season in 2015-16. The Stars difficulties hardly fall on Ruff, who has had to deal with a litany of injuries and mediocre goaltending, but Julien knows as well as anyone that the coach is the first to go in a harsh results-based business.
Pros: Julien has probably thought about how different things would have been if the Bruins had held on to Tyler Seguin, but he could have the chance to get back together with the young sniper in Dallas. That’s not to mention the opportunity to coach Jamie Benn and a Stars offense that is loaded with firepower. Dallas has a roster that can compete now, the only thing the Stars need is a system that can consistently win them games. Julien has consistently done more with less than any other coach in the past few seasons, so if he’s given a roster with some serious skill, he could make something great happen.
Cons: Goaltending is still a question mark and the blueline isn’t exactly star-studded. John Klingberg’s regression this season has been tough to watch and Dan Hamhuis hasn’t worked out as a free agent signing. Also, Johnny Oduya could walk in the off-season. Pair that with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi remaining on the roster, and Julien stands to walk into a situation where his blueline and goaltending could fail him. Turning an offensive juggernaut into a sound defensive team is harder than it might sound.
Willie Desjardins has done everything he could possibly do over the past two seasons in Vancouver, but the fact is the Canucks seem dedicated to staying in the hunt for the playoffs and attempting to fire off a speedy rebuild that doesn’t require shipping out the Daniel and Henrik Sedin. If that’s the case, Julien is the best option available to make that a reality. The Canucks aren’t about to have all that much cap space to play with to improve, so if they want to give the Sedins another chance at playoff glory in Vancouver, the best bet would be getting one of the best coaches in the league.
Pros: Even if they’re declining, getting to work with the Sedins automatically gives Julien a pair of offensive weapons. Julien has also seen firsthand what works for Loui Eriksson, and if Julien could get another 30-goal season out of the veteran winger, he’d have an excellent top line. There’s also the benefit of depth down the middle, with Henrik Sedin, Bo Horvat and Brandon Sutter as a sound group of top three centers. There’s some young skill on the way, too, in Brock Boeser, Thatcher Demko, Olli Juolevi and the continued emergence of Troy Stecher.
Cons: No one is going to confuse the Canucks for the deepest team in the league. There’s some serious work that needs to be done on that front. Much of the bottom six can be gutted and altered, and the blueline needs work. Alexander Edler looks at times as though his best days are behind him and the most promising parts of the back end are all under 25. There’s no real veteran presence. None of this is to mention the goaltending situation. If (when?) Ryan Miller leaves in the off-season, Jacob Markstrom will take over. He’s not a sure thing when it comes to being an every game, No. 1 guy.
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