As a player, Cam Neely demanded the puck on his stick.
As an executive, following Tuesday’s dismissal of Claude Julien, Neely couldn’t dish to Don Sweeney quickly enough.
“These decisions are not easy, and Don has my full support,” said the Bruins president in a statement, depositing Julien’s firing in the general manager’s lap. “I believe that we have a better team than our results to date show. I also recognize that there are areas that we as a group need to improve upon.
“This decision does not in any way diminish Claude’s legacy as a Bruins coach. I would like to wish him and his family all the best moving forward.”
Upon the conclusion of practice at Warrior Ice Arena, Sweeney was left to answer for this mess, from the decision to sack the winningest coach in team history, the construction of a mismatched roster, and the timing of a firing that coincided with the Patriots parade.
By firing Julien, Neely and Sweeney did a favor to their customer base. It removes the final buffer from the truth. By year’s end, if the Bruins do not make the playoffs, the masses filling the organization’s wallets will learn that coaching was not the reason. It will be because the best contribution from the two executives atop the hockey operations masthead was signing Dominic Moore, Riley Nash, and Tim Schaller.
The rest has been American carnage.
In 2013-14, the last time the Bruins made the playoffs, Julien coached Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson, Jarome Iginla, Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg, Johnny Boychuk, Dougie Hamilton, and Chad Johnson. They’re all gone. They were wheeled or allowed to walk for replacements that are not in the NHL, don’t deserve to be, or are not worthy of the millions they’re pocketing.
David Backes (11-11—22, one concussion) is not even one season into a five-year, $30 million contract — it includes a no-move clause — that already does not qualify as team-friendly. In Tuesday’s first practice after the firing, Backes skated as the No. 3 right wing.
Anton Khudobin (1-5-1, 3.06 goals-against average, .885 save percentage), signed to a two-year, $2.4 million contract, has been declared unworthy of an NHL roster.
In his second season of a five-year, $19 million deal, Matt Beleskey has two goals in 31 games.
Jimmy Hayes (2-1—3), acquired for Smith, has been a healthy scratch for eight of the last 12 games. This is Hayes’s second season of a three-year, $6.9 million extension he signed before pulling on a Black-and-Gold jersey.
John-Michael Liles (0-5—5, 16:15 ice time per game), acquired in a deadline package last year that cost a third-round pick in 2016 and a 2017 fifth-rounder, was reupped to a one-year, $2 million contract. Liles has been a healthy scratch for five straight games.
“Have we made misidentifications of players that will impact us? That does remain to be seen,” Sweeney said. “That’s the evaluation process I continue to go through.
“On a personal level, players that are not hitting their high-water mark in the league that they did in their previous years, that’s a concern of ours. There’s no question that represents an opportunity for us to explore outside or inside and replace those players and to evaluate.
“Every decision I make is going to be evaluated. But I guarantee you, it will start with me acknowledging that it just wasn’t good enough.”
Julien tried his best with a diminished roster. The Bruins are the best possession team in the league. The first line is the NHL’s top 200-foot threesome. Stay-at-homers such as Zdeno Chara and Adam McQuaid have adapted to close on the puck more quickly than before.
But Julien could not wring as many points from the lineup as Sweeney and Neely believed were possible. The upgrades Julien wanted from his GM were not coming.
So on Tuesday, the bosses who deemed these noted investments as sound flipped to the only page remaining in their playbook. Time will tell whether replacing Julien with Bruce Cassidy will resound more meaningfully than most of their player personnel decisions.
“I felt there was a level of frustration on wins and losses and what he’d be subjected to on a nightly basis,” Sweeney said. “I felt we’d be in a better position moving forward to allow our players to be assessed on an individual level and for me as a general manager to be assessed on a personnel level to be making decisions going forward as to who’s part of our group.”
Coaching changes sometimes jolt players to life. Sweeney said he’s looking for a response in the upcoming segment, a three-in-four stretch against San Jose, Vancouver, and Montreal. It’s an abbreviated window. Such a limited sample size is not a good platform upon which to build a plan for the rest of the season — one that Sweeney believes should not end with Game No. 82.
“Do I think we have an opportunity to make the playoffs? Absolutely,” Sweeney said. “There’s no question this group has a chance to get in. Whether or not I can find a player between now and the deadline that sort of fills one of those gaps, that remains to be seen.”
Sweeney’s most important work will not manifest until next year. Part of the second-year GM’s task has been to rebuild an organization that ran dry of picks and prospects — a crumbling that happened while Sweeney was assistant GM and director of player development.
The future could be better with Charlie McAvoy, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Zach Senyshyn, Jeremy Lauzon, and Jakub Zboril. But it’s just that: a future. If Sweeney can say with certainty how such kids will perform as professionals, he will be the first GM in the history of sports to do so.
Sweeney and Neely need most or all of the prospects to hit. It would offset poor transactions such as acquiring Hayes and signing Khudobin.
But neither Sweeney nor Neely is fretting about job security. Sweeney is not even two years into his stewardship. Neely is tight with CEO Charlie Jacobs, son of owner Jeremy Jacobs. Neither presidents nor sons of owners usually find themselves in the firing line.
Sweeney and Neely will continue to work. Even if most of their decisions have not.