BOSTON — The Bruins felt they needed to a change at the top, even if it meant doing it on a day when the city was celebrating a championship.
Boston fired Stanley Cup-winning coach Claude Julien on Tuesday, just hours before a downtown parade in honour of the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl victory.
General manager Don Sweeney apologized for the timing, but said the team’s two-day break between games provided time to recover from the emotions of Julien’s dismissal. He said he wasn’t oblivious of the optics, but added "I’m not going to make a decision just based on that."
With the team in danger of missing the playoffs for a third straight season, Sweeney felt he had little choice. Boston has lost two in a row and six of nine and fallen out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Assistant Bruce Cassidy was named interim coach.
"I had come to a conclusion that in moving this group forward with an eye toward the plans that have been put in place, that I wasn’t willing to commit to a longer term basis with Claude," Sweeney said.
He also said there is time before the March 1 trade deadline to make adjustments that could get the Bruins in position to make the playoffs.
"There’s no question I think this group has a chance to get in," Sweeney said.
Bruins left wing Brad Marchand said he’s hopeful the change will give the team a jolt.
"At the end of the day it falls back on the players," he said. "We’re not the ones that are executing on the ice and hopefully we have to realize that this is not going to fix everything. We have to go out there and do the job."
Julien is the fourth coach to be fired this season following Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis last week , Gerard Gallant of the Florida Panthers in November and Jack Capuano of the New York Islanders in January. Three of the past eight Stanley Cup champions have made a coaching change midseason.
Julien was the longest-tenured current coach in the NHL, starting with the Bruins in the 2007-08 season. He went 419-246-94 over nearly 10 seasons, including two trips to the NHL finals and a Stanley Cup title in 2011. The Bruins lost in the finals two years later, and the year after that earned 117 points and the Presidents’ Trophy before losing in the conference semifinals to archrival Montreal.
But in 2014-15, Boston was eliminated from the playoff race on the final day of the regular season — the first time in Julien’s tenure they sat out the playoffs. Again last year, the Bruins had a chance to reach the playoffs heading into the final week, but they lost nine of their last 12 games to finish ninth in the East.
The Bruins hadn’t kept a coach who missed the playoffs two straight years since 1965, when Milt Schmidt was given a third year before he was replaced by Harry Sinden.
Julien was spared in 2015 when team president Cam Neely decided to fire general manager Peter Chiarelli instead, replacing him with Sweeney. Sweeney gave Julien another chance, saying "He’s the coach of the Boston Bruins as of today, for sure."
Julien said at the time that he had little room for error.
"It just means that I’m probably the next one to fall off the totem pole, right?" the former Canadiens and Devils coach said last summer. "I’m going to try to make it last as long as I can."
Again last summer, the Bruins spared him, with Sweeney saying Julien was the right coach to guide the team through a "bumpy transition." Last season, Julien became the all-time Bruins leader for wins by a coach.
Cassidy, 51, is not a newbie to the Bruins, having spent nine years in the organization. He completed his fifth season as head coach of the Providence Bruins in 2015-16, having spent the three previous seasons with the club as an assistant.
This will also be his second stint as an NHL head coach, having previously coached the Washington Capitals from 2002 to 2004 and helping the team to a post-season berth in his first season there. Asked what he can get out of the team that Julien couldn’t, Cassidy said "We’re going to find out soon enough."
"I think that the team is not that far away from winning games," he said. "There’s a quote out there that ‘We’ve found more ways to lose instead of win.’ That means you’re generally close. So we’ve got to flip the switch on a few of those plays throughout the course of the game to go in our favour."
Cassidy said he isn’t expecting to make wholesale change, but will tweak the team’s defence to get "the puck back a little quicker" and "being more opportunistic with our chances" on offence.
While he said there will also be a focus on developing younger players, he said he’s aware mandate to win games now.
"It’s a results-oriented business," Cassidy said. "I’m aware of that. But we also want to remind the players that there’s a process involved to get where you want to go every day. We have to be focused on that."