WILMINGTON — Claude Julien is used to being in control. For eight seasons, his word was final on the Bruins bench and in the dressing room.
But for nearly two months after the dismissal of general manager Peter Chiarelli, Julien wasn’t in control. His fate was in the hands of new Bruins GM Don Sweeney, CEO Charlie Jacobs, and president Cam Neely. It was not a comfortable feeling, even with the security of a multiyear extension that activates in 2015-16.
“I understand the business,” Julien said during a news conference Wednesday at Ristuccia Arena. “You have to give the GM time to assess and make decisions. He’s got to feel comfortable, too.
“As much as it wasn’t a lot of fun or easy, it wasn’t frustration. It was more about understanding the situation. I understood it.”
Last Friday in Buffalo, Sweeney announced Julien and his staff would return. Sweeney’s decision came after multiple conversations with Julien and his assistants. Based on Julien’s résumé and the nature of their talks, the coach believed he would be back before Sweeney gave the official word.
“My feeling was pretty positive,” Julien said. “I really felt we could certainly work together. Even in our conversations, it felt that way. Maybe if it hadn’t been that way, it would have been different. But it wasn’t.
“Those are tough situations. It’s part of the business. You have to understand that. It’s not always a comfortable situation. But it happens to everybody at some point in this type of business.”
Even before Sweeney’s confirmation, Julien and his assistants were busy breaking down what went wrong in 2014-15 and how to make things right.
It starts in the defensive zone.
“There’s things we feel we can do, with the way the game’s changed a little bit, to help our transition game a little bit better,” Julien said. “There was a time when our transition game was good with the way teams were forechecking.
“Teams’ forechecks have changed a lot. We’ve got a lot of things we feel can help our transition game, coming out of our own end better, and create some speed.”
Johnny Boychuk was traded before the start of the season. Dennis Seidenberg started the season in recovery mode from major knee surgery. Zdeno Chara injured his knee in October. Dougie Hamilton was just a third-year pro.
Those factors played into the staff’s conclusion to play it safe on defense. They were methodical with their D-to-D breakouts. The defensemen rimmed the puck out behind the net and around the walls. Opponents noticed. They slammed down on the Bruins with aggressive forechecks.
In 2013-14, based on internal metrics, the Bruins had the most efficient breakouts in the league. That went away this season. Because their breakouts weren’t smooth, they didn’t generate enough speed in the neutral zone to get to their rush game. Their scoring plummeted from 3.15 goals per game in 2013-14 (No. 3 in the league) to 2.55 (No. 22).
The dropoff happened even though the number and quality of chances, according to Julien, didn’t decrease between seasons. The difference was the team’s ability to finish.
The adjustments Sweeney and Julien want to make will demand a blend of personnel and strategy. The Bruins would prefer to add a mobile defenseman to retrieve pucks and get them going the other way. Milan Lucic and Loui Eriksson are their primary trading chips.
Once the roster is set, Julien and assistant coach Doug Houda, who is responsible for the defense, will have to loosen their leashes. This will not mean scuttling the system — tight between the circles, thorough in the middle — that has been successful.
“You need good defense and you need good offense — you need both,” Julien said. “We’ve been able to do that for a lot of years. Just because we had a tough year last year doesn’t mean we’re all about defense.”
The Bruins aren’t far off. They have star power in Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, and Chara. Hamilton will continue to grow into the player the Bruins require: a powerful two-way defenseman who can defend efficiently, get the puck going the other way, and support the attack in the offensive zone.
Hamilton will become a restricted free agent July 1. He will not be easy to re-sign considering his pedigree, his projected ceiling, and his future as Chara’s replacement.
“People noticed it even more when he missed the last few weeks of the season, how much we missed the guy,” Julien said. “That’s the kind of impact he has on our team. He’s a great defenseman.
“There’s no doubt we like him. His teammates really appreciate what he brings to the table every night. They realized what they missed when he wasn’t in the lineup.
“I’m going to leave that one to Donny. As coaches, we have our big challenges. That’s Don’s big challenge. We’re all hoping he can get something done.”
Julien will start 2015-16 as the NHL’s longest-tenured coach with one team. Mike Babcock, now in Toronto, previously held the title in Detroit.
“It just means I’m probably the next one to fall off the totem pole, right?” Julien said with a smile. “That’s basically it.
“I’m going to try and make it last as long I can. I love Boston. I love the city. I love the fans.”