The Bruins indecorously announced the firing of coach Claude Julien on Feb. 7, the day the city was distracted by the Patriots’ championship parade. The Bruins better hope that their former coach doesn’t end up parading the Stanley Cup around the streets of Montreal now that he has been given a soft landing in La Belle Province with the archrival Canadiens, a ready-made Cup contender in need of some minor tweaking.
Julien’s hiring by the hated Habs on Tuesday — he was formally introduced for his second tour of duty with the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge on Wednesday — is a potential nightmare scenario for Bruins general manager Don Sweeney and club president Cam Neely. They just used Julien as a hockey human shield to deflect the blame for the Bruins’ plight as a depth-deficient, inconsistent, borderline playoff club. Canning the coach was a public relations countermeasure to obscure the reality that the team they’ve built is a few years and prospects-turned-pros away from serious Cup contention.
Now, if Julien, the winningest coach in Bruins’ history, with a Stanley Cup banner in the rafters with his name on it, wins big with a more talented club it will be obvious the issue on Causeway Street this season was not who was behind the bench. It is who Sweeney and Neely have put on it.
If Claude wins the Cup with Carey Price, Max Pacioretty, Shea Weber and young players who are actually NHL-ready like Alex Galchenyuk and Nathan Beaulieu it will reflect worse on the Bruins than having to bear the Phil Kessel-Joe Thornton Stanley Cup Final last June.
With or without Julien, the Bruins are what their record says they are to paraphrase the great philosopher Duane Charles Parcells — a borderline playoff team. That’s what they’ve been for going on three seasons now. They missed the playoffs each of the last two years after calamitous late-season collapses. They’re holding on to the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division and owner Jeremy Jacobs’s precious playoff revenue by their fingernails as they enjoy their bye week.
They’re a team stuck in a neutral zone trap of their own creation, stuck halfway between competing for the playoffs and prioritizing prospect development. They have one foot in both worlds, trying to change on the fly.
The magnificent Brad Marchand, the indispensable Patrice Bergeron, crafty David Krejci, a franchise goalie in Tuukka Rask, and an aging Zdeno Chara aren’t enough to lift Lord Stanley’s hardware. They might be just enough to sneak into the playoffs. But the days of reaching the Cup Final like in 2011 and 2013 might as well be the Byron Dafoe era at this point. The Spoked-Believers who crave playoff hockey are smart enough to realize this.
It’s undeniable that the switch to Bruce Cassidy has given the Bruins a boost the last three games, all victories, including a 4-0 blanking of the Canadiens that cleared the way for the firing of Michel Therrien and Julien’s return to Montreal.
Cassidy is probably a better fit and provides a better temperament for some of the young players the Bruins have who still have their NHL training wheels on. He spent five seasons teaching and nurturing aspiring NHLers as head coach of the Providence Bruins.
But the Bruins’ borderline delusional one foot in contention, one foot in development stance puts any coach in a bind. Toe Blake couldn’t make the Bruins a team capable of that deep playoff run Jacobs said he expected before the season.
Here’s the revealing line from the astute pucks professor Fluto Shinzawa on why the Bruins decided to get rid of Julien: “Sweeney and Julien did not agree on the quality of the top-heavy roster.”
You don’t say. Julien knew it wasn’t good enough. Sweeney has to pretend it is, so the finger doesn’t get pointed back at him for some questionable moves.
Cam Neely’s hand-picked GM has traded legitimate NHL assets like a young puck-moving defenseman in Dougie Hamilton and a bona fide starting goalie in Martin Jones without getting any NHL-ready talent in return. The jury is out on both of those deals because the draft picks acquired have been used on some very promising prospects, but that doesn’t help the coach meet the playoff mandate this season.
Sweeney has siphoned off a lot of NHL talent in his two seasons at the helm to restore cap flexibility while missing on moves designed to buttress the Black and Gold in the short-term.
He traded Reilly Smith for Jimmy Hayes, signed Matt Beleskey for a top-six forward role, hasn’t improved the blue line corps, and hasn’t been able to provide a reliable backup to Rask. David Backes, the team’s marquee offseason signing, has yet to find his comfort zone in the Spoked-B.
Did Julien’s message and methods grow stale? Possibly, but no staler than the roster.
If the Bruins make the playoffs with Cassidy that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have made it with Julien, and vice-versa. It means they ended up on the right side of the playoff borderline they’ve been toeing. Was it Julien’s fault that Rask came down with what former Red Sox manager Terry Francona used to refer to as “intestinal turmoil” before last season’s must-win finale against the Ottawa Senators?
If you really want to trumpet the coaching change let’s see whether Cassidy is able to squeeze more out of the Maybe-Bs on the roster like Ryan Spooner and Colin Miller, as well as roster reinforcements from Providence.
Julien wasn’t always the most nurturing coach for young players, particularly those with offensive bents. (However, it appeared that David Pastrnak was doing just fine under the tutelage and tough love of Julien.)
This isn’t Drew Bledsoe getting traded to the Buffalo Bills. Julien is regarded by his peers as one of the best coaches in the game. He signed a five-year deal with the Canadiens.
The Bruins are going to have to compete with and deal with comparisons to Julien’s teams for a while.
Julien is in a better place without the Bruins. Only time will tell if the Bruins can say the same.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.