Sports

NHL 2014 preview

Good defense is Claude Julien’s primary objective

Claude Julien was a defenseman during his playing days, but only appeared in 14 NHL games.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Claude Julien was a defenseman during his playing days, but only appeared in 14 NHL games.

He was a smart, tough, right-shot defenseman. He could score and defend, which granted him 12 years of professional hockey.

But if there was one thing that kept Claude Julien from progressing from the IHL, CHL, and AHL, it was his skating.

“That was the biggest, biggest part,” Julien said. “Not that I was a bad skater. I just wasn’t a strong enough skater in the minds of many to be a full-time NHLer. To be honest, the game was easy for me — vision, hockey sense. The thinking part was really, really good. I had success in the minors with being on All-Star teams. I was just missing that little notch.”

Advertisement

His wheels almost kept him from fulfilling a goal. As a young man growing up in Ottawa, Julien was two hours away from the Montreal Forum. He could have watched the Canadiens in person. But he promised he would not step into the rink unless he made it as a player.

Get Sports Headlines in your inbox:
The Globe's most recent sports headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Julien’s persistence paid off. In the preseason of 1984-85, as a member of the Quebec Nordiques, Julien made it to the Forum. Julien only played in 14 NHL games, all with the Nordiques.

Thirty years later, Julien has free passage to the rinks of his choice. Julien is entering his eighth season behind the Bruins bench. Detroit’s Mike Babcock is the only current coach with a longer tenure with the same club. Julien has 310 wins with the Bruins. He should pass Art Ross (387) next year. Julien has 57 playoff wins, most of any Bruins coach. General manager Peter Chiarelli terms hiring Julien the best move he’s made.

Today’s game is unrecognizable from the version Julien played. But being smart and determined, two traits that served Julien well when he was on the ice, have not changed as he stands behind the bench.

The Bruins have made the playoffs every season since he’s been hired. They operate in the mold of their coach. They play the game wisely. And they play the game their way, not anyone else’s.

Defense never rests

Advertisement

The Bruins have been among the NHL’s top-five stingiest teams in five of Julien’s seven seasons. It’s the most of any team since 2007-08, Julien’s first year in Boston.

Julien’s had superstar personnel in Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara, and Patrice Bergeron. But his players also have embraced their instructions.

Defensemen stay within the dots in the defensive zone. If one defenseman attacks the puck in the corner, he awaits support from a forward while his partner covers the front of the net and anticipates a weak-side clear. Forwards backcheck hard, collapse in the slot, and support the defensemen.

The forwards serve as ushers. They steer puck carriers into trouble. The defensemen spring the trap by separating pucks from bodies.

“As a player, you always want to go at the guy with the puck,” said defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. “But you let the play come to you. Most of the time, that works best. You’re in position. When they want to get to the net, you’re in between the net and the guy.”

Advertisement

Julien uses the scenario of an opponent carrying the puck over the Bruins’ blue line, then slamming on the brakes. He doesn’t want his defenseman to challenge the puck carrier. That’s the forward’s responsibility. The defenseman should continue retreating to seal off net-front drivers.

“Instead of stopping and jumping him, he keeps skating back, because there’s a guy driving the net,” Julien said. “That guy will come to him. The guy who’s backchecking just takes the guy that stopped. Everybody’s in position. Basically, it’s dead waters.”

This is the Bruin way. They dictate where the puck will go by executing their formation. When they’re clicking, they determine how plays unfold.

Shots do not fly from places they don’t prefer. And the no-no spot is in front.

Protecting the house

Julien doesn’t mind other teams firing pucks from the points or outside the dots. This is why he employs a goalie. But he demands minimal scoring chances from the net-front area, the real estate where most goals are scored.

It is not good enough to protect with a single fortifying layer. If a defenseman closes on a puck carrier, a forward has to cover for him instead of anticipating a turnover and blowing the zone.

The results are in the trophies, namely three Vezinas. Julien’s system has made Rask and Thomas very rich men. It’s also launched Chad Johnson and Anton Khudobin into their next stops.

“Goaltenders should be good enough to stop shots from outside the dots,” Julien said. “We really try and protect the house. If you look at goaltenders who have been here, they all have good stats.”

Rask is a top-three NHL goalie. But his numbers (.928 career save percentage, better than Dominik Hasek’s .922 standard) reflect his teammates’ attention to detail. Rask’s forwards, especially his centers, dictate how efficient his defensemen can be.

“When centers aren’t back, we can’t be as aggressive,” Seidenberg said. “It means we have to retreat and play more conservative. When everybody’s in position, we can pressure up. We can pinch. We can play the way we’re supposed to.”

Julien brings up Los Angeles. Like the Bruins, the Kings ask a lot of centers Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll, and Mike Richards. Defensively, the centers cover large patches of territory. They roam down low to help their defensemen and seal off passes to the slot. On the rush, they’re taught to hustle back and prevent odd-man situations.

“If you look at their centermen, they were always coming back,” Julien said. “Even in the neutral zone, the two wingers could be forechecking the two D’s if the other team had the puck. If their three forwards on the other team were at the blue line, so was [LA’s] centerman. So it was a three on three. Defensively, if they were forechecking, there was always a guy skating back hard. They had layers. They did a good job of that.”

The degree of the forwards’ back pressure correlates to the Bruins’ offense. If they’re backchecking correctly, the Bruins turn pucks over in the neutral zone. They then go on the attack.

The defensive results manifest offensively. Last year, the Bruins averaged 3.15 goals per game, third most after Anaheim (3.21) and Chicago (3.18). The Bruins have scored at a top-five rate in four of Julien’s seven seasons. Only the go-go Blackhawks (five times) have been more explosive in the same window.

This is no coincidence. Julien describes the Bruins as a checking team that scores.

Offense from defense

The Bruins aren’t a fast team. Aside from Brad Marchand and Daniel Paille, they do not have many high-end burners.

But there’s a way for slow teams to create speed. They use the neutral zone to sling-shot across the offensive blue line in full flight and with good numbers.

This starts with stout defensive play, committed backchecking, and clean breakouts. The Bruins do not encourage cherry-picking in search of breakaways. They want all their players back so that when they cause a turnover, they can pivot and flood the offensive zone with pucks and people.

When they turn up the ice, they advance as a five-man unit. Once they enter the offensive zone, either with a carry-in or a well-placed dump, they go to work. They employ their beef on the boards and in the corners. Their creative forwards sniff for chances. The coaches give defensemen the green light to pinch down the walls and keep the cycle revving.

Once the Bruins are in the offensive zone, they’re in good shape. They have size and skill. In the last two seasons, they added those qualities on the back end, too. Torey Krug is the offensive sparkplug. Dougie Hamilton will be a two-way force who could assume some of Chara’s responsibilities as the captain’s career winds down.

“With time,” Julien said of Hamilton, “he’ll be able to do it all.”

The Bruins need Hamilton to be a bridge to the future. Chara remains the game’s most effective shutdown machine. There is no player with his reach, strength, and positioning. Whenever Julien needs a defensive stop against a top line, Chara is there to do his job. Few coaches have similar luxuries.

But Chara is 37. His window is closing. The Bruins will not be the same team without their giant.

“The day he’s done, it will definitely be a big hole for us,” Julien said. “You don’t replace a 6-foot-9 Norris Trophy candidate every day. You just hope along the way, you’ll have gotten guys like Hamilton. He’s 6-5. He’s a big boy. He’s getting stronger. We’ve got some good young D’s coming up. And we’re talking about quite a few years away. We’re not there yet.”

The current game is built for players like Hamilton: mobile, smart, creative players. It emphasizes quick thinking and even quicker feet as players retrieve pucks and get them going the other way.

It is not a welcome place for Julien the player. He would have had his doors blown off the minute he stepped on the ice.

But it is home for Julien the coach. Smarts and persistence have made him the man of the house.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.