The Boston Bruins are a historic franchise that has seen some of the greatest players and coaches in the long history of the NHL and their current coach, Claude Julien, is one of Boston’s best. Prior to the Bruins Claude had been a mostly minor league defenseman from 1980-92, but after retiring as a player began a more successful coaching career. After a brief stint with the Montreal Canadiens and an even briefer stint with the New Jersey Devils, where he led them to a 107 point season but was fired with three games left, he found his way behind the B’s bench.
He inherited a team that had not won the cup since the days of Bobby Orr and had missed the postseason for two years in a row. In a city that had the Brady Patriots, post-Bambino Red Sox, and a soon-to-be-champions Celtics, the team needed a complete overhaul in order to be viable in the increasingly competitive Boston sports market. Claude did his part in the overhaul and after a few years of sustained playoff success, brought the cup back to Boston in 2011.
Boston’s memory is short though and after falling to the Canadiens in the playoffs, in a season that they won the President’s trophy, the Bruins failed to make it back since and delivered two uninspiring seasons during that time. Most of this is not necessarily Julien’s fault. Peter Chiarelli, the Bruin’s GM who hired Claude, had mismanaged the salary cap in order to hang on to the team that had won the Cup and in the process traded away future superstar Tyler Seguin and major locker-room presence Johnny Boychuk. He was fired after one post-season miss and many thought Claude might have gone with him, but the new GM,
Don Sweeney, decided to stick with the coach who brought back the cup.
That decision may come back to haunt him though, as there are many who believe that Julien should have been fired the day Sweeney took the job and the next season would not prove them wrong. In spite of attaining a franchise record in wins for a coach, the 2015-16 season saw the team fall flat on its face in tough situations. In the Winter Classic, a game held in Gillette in front of 65,000 fans the retired Bruins in the alumni game looked better than the actual team. They made it to first place in the Atlantic division only to slide back just out of reach during a late season skid that saw them drop 3 of their last 12 games, including a 6-1 clubbing in their last game against a team that wasn’t even in the playoffs. In situations like these, blame typically falls hard on the coaches for not lifting their teams above the odds. Again Claude Julien was not fired.
The Bruins desperately are holding on to the belief that the slump is not his fault and that he can get back to his winning ways with just the right team. While he is a great coach, an example to counter this argument is the Pittsburg Penguins. They have won the Stanley Cup twice in 10 years, and it is not because they were loyal to their head coaches in those years. Both times they won the cup they had fired their head coach mid-season and saw a resurgence that led to success. They recognized the difference between lacking the talent to compete and lacking the system to compete. Granted in both of those years they had superstars like Sydney Crosby and Evegeni Malkin, but it takes the right system and coach to bring out the best in any player, even superstars. With weapons like Marchand, Bergeron, and a wealth of talented youth, it begs the question whether the past couple of years are outliers in a great coaching career or a mark of the man’s decline. It is likely that this season could see heads roll if the team fails to make the playoffs for a third consecutive time or even start to nosedive early, as impatient owners and fans demand better of the franchise. He might be a great coach, but sometimes the only thing holding a team back hanging on to a member that is past their prime.