Warning: This may a be a week late and for those who have followed me over the years, a broken record. But after a week of what to say the least, has been unjustified criticism of a local coaching legend, the following still needs to be said …again!
Whether a solid portion of Boston Bruins fans and the Boston media know it now, they likely will eventually regret their unfounded criticism of Bruins head coach Claude Julien. With the Bruins on the verge of another epic end of the season collapse, the path to that potential regret and harsh reality of “be careful what you wish for” may begin within the next two months. Bruins President Cam Neely will play an important role in deciding if that process begins or not, and he owes it to Julien to either get ahead of the story now or shortly after the Bruins season ends to make it clear if it will. Until he does, the unwarranted criticism of the best coach the Bruins ever had, will hang over the team and Julien like the dark cloud that did last spring in the aftermath of the firing of then general manager Peter Chiarelli.
When the Bruins recently honored Julien for breaking Art Ross’ record for most coaching wins in Bruins history, Neely had a perfect chance to assure Julien and his doubters that regardless of if the Bruins miss the playoffs for a second straight year, he won’t be dismissed and scapegoated. After all, Julien has led a team that many had pegged for another early spring tee time, into late season playoff contention, causing many around the NHL to throw him into consideration for his second Jack Adams award winner as the league’s best coach. But in what could best be described as an awkward tribute, Neely passed on giving any hint of endorsement Julien will be safe, while general manager Don Sweeney didn’t even speak. That has once again helped open the floodgates of “Fire Julien” that Neely helped open back in the 2010-11 season as I pointed out last October in this column on BruinsDaily.com.
It was in a weekly interview with WAAF radio in Boston — with the Bruins coming off a difficult loss at Montreal and in the midst of a three-game losing streak — that Neely called out Julien’s coaching philosophy.
“Goals against isn’t an issue — goals for is an issue,” Neely said at the time. “The power play is an issue. …I think the name of the game is that you still have to score one more goal than the other team. It’s not about trying to win 0-0.”
Neely’s comments set off a firestorm of rumors that Julien would be fired and that Neely wanted him out. Despite the fact that Julien went on to help lead the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup in 38 seasons and then two seasons later led them to within two games of another Cup win, rumors of a rift between Neely and Julien persisted. After the Bruins finally decided to keep Julien as coach for this season, Neely did his best to dispel any notion he may still want Julien fired as it’s been rumored he has since that interview over five years ago. The belief here is he was telling the truth.
“I have no idea where that [report] came from, but I never uttered those words [he wants Julien fired],” Neely told CSNNE.com in July. “[Firing Julien] is not something that I thought about at all. Just because I made a quote in 2010 or 2011, I never uttered that to the Jacobs family. I never uttered that to [Peter] Chiarelli. That’s something I really didn’t like when I heard about it and read it, because it wasn’t true.
“If that was the case, then we would have let [Claude] go. He’s a very good coach, he’s had success in this league and he’s done a great job here. I think he’s one of the best coaches in the league. This is an opportunity where we all feel like we can improve upon things and tweak them a little bit, and that’s something [Julien] has talked to Donnie about quite a bit. I think you always have to evolve as a team, and he and his staff are willing to do that.”
Well, that’s exactly what Julien and his staff did this season, at least offensively. Entering NHL play Wednesday night, the Bruins were the fourth highest scoring team in the NHL. Ironically, defense (a Julien trademark) has been the achilles heel of the 2015-16 Boston Bruins as the Bruins were 12th in team defense prior to NHL puck drops Wednesday. So why then, is one of the most respected and successful NHL head coaches of the last decade plus, under fire again in the Boston media, on the Boston sports talk airwaves and on social media? Why do those who refuse to acknowledge his accolades and the fact the Bruins aren’t even sniffing the playoffs if not for Julien, continue to bash the winningest coach in Bruins history?
As colleague DJ Bean of WEEI.com pointed out the day after Julien broke Art Ross’ record for most coaching wins for the Bruins, and as I have numerous times, what’s even worse about these Julien haters, is that they express their venom based on an annoying stereotype that Julien is simply a stubborn, conservative, boring coach that stunts player development and hates offense. Unlike these lazy critics, Bean made his point with facts: “The whole ‘Claude only cares about defense’ thing also is really dumb when you consider that Julien’s methods haven’t exactly neglected offense,” Bean pointed out. “Since the start of the 2010-11 season, the Bruins’ 2.94 goals per game in the regular season ranks third in the NHL.”
Oh, and that thing about Julien preventing young, offensively skilled players from reaching their potential, may we present to you, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Ryan Spooner, David Krejci and Torey Krug. All have developed and eventually produced under Julien’s watch and systems. In fact, one could argue that Julien’s willingness to change and give some youngsters this season, such as Jimmy Hayes and Brett Connolly more slack, has back-fired. But hey go figure, Julien does what he’s asked and his original method’s prove to be more effective. Despite the fact that Bean and myself, as well as national NHL media, NHL management, head coaches and players and former and present Julien-coached players continually prove otherwise, the “conservative, anti-young players” label continues to follow Julien.
“Last year, you know, things with me and him weren’t, I guess the best, but he was hard on me and I think that was the best thing actually,” Bruins forward Ryan Spooner told me earlier this season. “He kind of made me realize that I needed to play better, and the team, when we’re not playing good, he kind of does the same thing there. So if we play well, then he’s happy, but if we’re not, he can be hard on us, which I think is the best thing. Sometimes you don’t really want a coach that points out all the positives when you lose. He needs to, I guess, be a little bit tough on you and I think that definitely helps us out, for sure.”
That first-hand account of Julien’s influence apparently doesn’t count because every time Julien decides to not reward 19-year old prospect (yes he’s still just a prospect) David Pastrnak with more playing time when he coughs up more pucks in the neutral zone than Steven Ridley does in the red zone, the coach is destroyed and accused of preventing Pastrnak from being the player he can be. Funny how just like Spooner, Pastrnak too has accepted blame both publicly and privately, as a source recently told Murphy’s Hockey Law he has “no issues whatsoever with Claude” and just wants to keep working harder to improve.
Ironically, the Bruins owe some thanks to their arch-rivals for the fact they’re still clinging to third place in the Atlantic Division and still holding a playoff spot in the tightly contested battle for the final spots in the Eastern Conference. Thanks to the Montreal Canadiens beating the Detroit Red Wings 4-3Tuesday evening, some of the potential damage of the Bruins’ 2-1 loss at New Jersey that same night, was at least put on hold. The Bruins still somewhat control their own destiny as they prepare for what should be another difficult two-game roadie at St. Louis (Friday) and at Chicago Sunday for a tilt with the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. But while the Bruins could very well come home with no control of their playoff fate, they would have no control at all if not for Julien, the best head coach in the storied history of this Original 6 franchise. That’s why it’s time Neely and even Sweeney truly step up and give Julien his proper due.
That doesn’t mean a repeat of what to say the least, appeared to be an awkward ceremony for all a week ago. This means either Neely coming out now (which Julien really deserves) or right when the season ends — as he did last summer — and eliminating any doubt Julien won’t be back next season with a sincere endorsement admitting he doesn’t try to “win games 0-0”. Or it means when the season ends, immediately sending Julien on his way to what multiple NHL insiders are speculating would be a quick offer by the Ottawa Senators (should they fire Dave Cameron) or an offer for a second stint with the Canadiens (should the fire Michel Therrien). The feel here obviously is the latter would be the wrong choice, but it’s better than leaving a possible hall of famer dangling in the wind as they did after firing Chiarelli last spring.
Deservedly so, the opinions and thoughts of the Hall Of Famer Neely, carry enormous weight amongst not just Bruins fans, but the media that covered him as a player and the new wave media that watched him as a player or even those who just saw highlights and were told stories of him as a player. Whether Neely knows it or not, that is the deal here in Boston. The belief here is that Neely means it when he said there is currently no personal rift between him and Julien. They are both professionals and they’re both just doing their best to do their jobs. But the unfortunate reality is that many fans and media in Boston still revert to Neely’s comments back in 2010, and with the Bruins season once again spiraling out of control, the “Fire Julien” crowd is once again and unjustly blaming Julien.
Again, Neely missed an opportunity to truly silence them last week, but despite any previous philosophical differences and despite what happens after this season, he can still at least set the record straight. Give Julien credit where it’s due for being exactly the coach the Boston Bruins organization needed to get back the respectability they had when Neely played and for adapting to the system Neely wanted back in 2010. In the words of the Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” The Julien doubters, whether they know it or not, have gotten both. So as the Bruins try to avoid another collapse and if they collapse or not, may that be recognized.