Just as he has since 2010, Bruins head coach Claude Julien appears to be silencing his critics, adapting on the fly and cooling down the proverbial “hot seat.” This is not to say that Julien will finish the season behind the Bruins bench or even be wearing a fedora while coaching the Bruins against the Canadiens in the 2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium because by all accounts the Bruins “are who we thought they were.” But if Julien continues to adapt in game and hold his team accountable, he will make it harder for management to make him a scapegoat and let him go as everyone expects them to.
After losing their first three games — all on home ice — the Bruins won two games on the road but then returned home and mailed it in with a two-goal lead halfway through the third period, to fall 4-2 the Flyers in overtime. Following the game, Julien repeatedly called out his team calling them “light” which is polite for soft. Then when his team still came out flat the following game against the Islanders, Julien shuffled his third and fourth lines and finally found some chemistry in his bottom six as they provided two goals and helped the Bruins to a 5-3 road win over a very good Islanders team that had come into the game riding a four-game win streak.
While he deserved the credit for making the changes, Julien as always gave it to his players.
“You got to give credit to those guys,” Julien said. “Zac [Rinaldo] went on the third line and Kels [Kelly] gave us some more experience at our own end. And then Spoons, you know, he went and played the wing on that line and he and Kemppainen did a really good job and scored some real important goals for us. So I give credit to the guys for playing so well and adjusting so quickly.”
His captain wasn’t afraid to point out the positive effects Julien’s coaching moves had, though.
“We were skating better and we countering their speed,” Zdeno Chara said. “We made some adjustments in the neutral zone, we had cleaner breakouts and obviously we capitalized on some of their turnovers.”
The problem — both externally and internally — in Boston it seems though is that not enough people have been willing to give Julien enough credit when it comes to adapting and using a system that can generate offense. This has been the case for at least five years. Back in December 2010 following a tough 4-3 loss at Montreal (the Bruins’ third straight at the time) and with his team mired in a state of mediocrity, Bruins President Cam Neely aired his frustrations out in a radio interview on Boston rock station WAAF.
“Goals against isn’t an issue — goals for is an issue,” Neely said. “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.”
Those comments — and understandably so — were taken as a direct shot at Julien who has long been type-casted as a defense-first, conservative coach. There had already been reports in that previous offseason that Neely wanted to fire Julien after watching the Bruins blow a 3-0 series lead to the Flyers in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, but then GM Peter Chiarelli convinced him to give Julien another chance. These comments just fueled the fire that Neely wanted Julien out. Clearly they were at odds on the style the team should play and also many believed since Neely hadn’t hired Julien, he wanted his own guy behind the bench or at least a coach he played a role in hiring. According to multiple Bruins sources then and over the last four seasons, this was part of what became a constant rift between Neely and Chiarelli, with Chiarelli always backing the coach he hired every time Julien’s job status was called into question internally and externally.
So what did Julien do after he was essentially publicly called out by Neely in that WAAF interview? Oh just help the Bruins become the fifth best offense in the NHL that season and more importantly, lead them to their first Stanley Cup in 38 seasons. During that Stanley Cup run, the Bruins erased a 2-0 series deficit to the Canadiens and the Canucks and won three Game 7’s. Following that historic run, former Bruins alternate captain and future Hall of Famer Mark Recchi told this scribe that without Julien’s system and willingness to tweak that system the Bruins don’t even get by Montreal in the first round.
“You look at the little things he changed and his willingness to say ‘hey this isn’t working here’ and he was a main reason we were able to change that series around in Montreal,” Recchi said at the time. “People never give Claude the credit he deserves and he deserves plenty.”
Of course it has never been confirmed publicly, but at the time there were plenty who believed if the Bruins hadn’t gotten to the Stanley Cup final with another Game 7 victory over the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, Neely would’ve ordered Chiarelli to fire Julien and maybe even given Chiarelli his walking papers then. But that wasn’t the case and Julien ended up leading the Bruins to within two wins of another Stanley Cup in 2013. Even after that, though, the belief that Neely wanted Julien out lingered, which is why it is so surprising to many Julien wasn’t sent packing with Chiarelli last April. But as Julien told CSNNE.com in June, he believes he and Neely buried the hatchet a while ago and that Neely isn’t eagerly awaiting another chance to let him go.
“That’s what has been out there. Is that the truth? That’s the biggest question. I guess that comment keeps coming back and I remember meeting with Cam about that … that 0-0 comment. It’s so long gone,” Julien said back in June. “We’ve been together on the road and we’ve had drinks. We’ve spent time together, so it’s foolish to think a president is hovering over a coach’s head just waiting to fire him.”
“He’s had the power, I guess, to [fire me] and he didn’t. So I think that right there has got to tell you something. It’s not an issue for me. Those things come out in different ways, and those are things you live with in this business. There is all kinds of speculation, but there is no concrete evidence.”
Just as recently as October 1, Neely was doing his best to quiet the rumors saying Julien wasn’t on the proverbial hot seat and that he believed Julien could adapt and succeed with this lineup in transition.
“Players are successful to get into the league and they keep doing the same things that got them there. But there’s areas they can improve,” Neely said at Bruins Media Day “I looked at as a player like ‘OK. I got in the NHL, now what else can I do to improve my overall game. But sometimes you get the blinders on and say ‘This is what got me successful and this is why I’m here’ whether it’s a player or coach. You keep doing that over and over again. But there’s areas of your game or your techniques as a coach that will help improve you as an individual or the team as a whole. And absolutely Claude is doing that.”
Again, should the Bruins slip further out of playoff contention in the next ten days, Neely’s tune could change. He also could’ve been doing what he needed to PR wise to not let the talk of Julien’s coaching status distract the team. But right now Julien is doing that with his coaching and silencing the critics that say he can’t coach to score. Heading into NHL action Monday night, the Bruins were tied for fourth in the NHL in goals scored (27), third in goals per game (3.86) and held the league’s best power play scoring at a 33.3 clip.
Ironically, the Bruins have allowed the third most goals (29) and second most per game at 4.14.
“You guys keep asking about our defense, but you wanted that offense and now you’ve got it,” Julien joked to the media recently. “Now we need to figure out how to get that defense back and find what’s made us have success before.”
Unfortunately for Julien and the Bruins, with this current blue line that is going to be a very tall task. But Julien has met plenty of challenges — on the ice and on the air — before and right now, regardless of how some in the local media feel, he’s once again adapting and showing why around the NHL he is one of the most respected coaches of the last decade.
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