Claude Julien has been head coach of the Bruins since the 2007-08 season, making this his 10th season behind the bench in Boston.
To put it lightly, he has been on the hot seat and nearly out the door more than a few times.
So, it’s not exactly shocking to hear any suggestion that he’s once again on thin ice, with Boston sitting outside of the playoffs and having played the most games of anyone in the Eastern Conference.
“I think there is a wide swathe of the fan base that still loves and respects the coach and appreciates what he did bringing them a Stanley Cup title in 2011 and he’s the winningest coach in franchise history,” CSNNE Bruins beat writer Joe Haggerty said on Hockey Central at Noon on Tuesday. “He’s the best Bruins coach they’ve had in my lifetime and you could make the argument he’s the best coach they’ve ever had. It’s a bit of a mixed bag from fans.”
Certainly there are a few issues with the Bruins’ roster. First is the fact that Zdeno Chara, averaging a team-high 23:10 of ice time per game, is 39 years old and showing it on some nights. There are still times when he reminds us he’s still a very good NHL defender, but the “down” nights are beginning to happen more frequently.
Brandon Carlo, the 6-foot-5, 20-year-old rookie has been filling in some of that defensive and physical presence and 25-year-old Torey Krug is having a great season that could see him approach 50 points. Both of these players are helping to offset the slowdown of Chara.
Another obvious factor is the drop-off in production from Patrice Bergeron, who is on pace to struggle to reach 40 points one year after he nearly hit 70.
Again, though, Brad Marchand’s excellence and David Pastrnak‘s breakout season are helping to offset this setback. Bergeron’s underlying numbers are still dominant, too.
But even more than Bergeron is the lack of depth on the wings in Boston, where after Marchand and Pastrnak and David Backes, Austin Czarnik is the best scorer—and he will struggle to reach 25 points this season.
The backup goalie situation is also a huge problem. While the Bruins have the second-lowest PDO in the NHL (suggesting a second-half uptick is likely), they’re not there because of shoddy play from their starter—it’s the backups who have been atrocious.
Anton Khudobin (.885) and Zane McIntyre (.860) have struggled to stop the puck and have just one win between them. The good news is that Rask is used to heavy workloads, playing 70 and 64 games in each of the past two seasons. The bad news is he struggled down the stretch last year, posting a save percentage of .900 or above just four times in his last 12 games and getting pulled twice. Even at 29, the Bruins would prefer Rask be rested for the stretch run and playoffs.
So far, all of these areas of concern have originated in front office moves and not in a poor job by the man behind the bench.
It’s also worth noting that the Bruins have missed the playoffs twice in a row already. How many times has an NHL coach made it through three straight seasons of missing the post-season and kept his job?
“I don’t think it would be crazy (if he was fired),” Haggerty said. “I am also firmly of the belief that any coach who’s been anywhere for 10 years, it’s tough to keep the message new and fresh and continue adjusting with the personnel and to be heard in different corners of the dressing room. I’ve gotten the feeling for the last couple of years that there’s a comfort level in that Bruins dressing room that’s not necessarily a good thing and some of that’s on the coach.”
That PDO is tough to look past though. The stat, which measures the combination of a team’s shooting and save percentages, should gravitate towards 100, and teams that come in under are more likely to adjust in a positive trend. In two of the past three seasons the team with the worst PDO was still above 98 and those were legitimately bad Toronto and Buffalo teams. Carolina, Edmonton and Arizona were the only clubs below 99 last season, and they came in between 97.11 and 97.29.
Boston isn’t as bad as those teams, are they? Can’t be.
So their 97.34 PDO at even strength right now says they should get better after the all-star break, and any coach—Julien or his replacement—would look good as a result.
The wild card here is what ownership wants. If they are putting pressure on the front office to make the playoffs this season, or else, GM Don Sweeney and president Cam Neely will be forced into action. And in fact, their only immediate option could be to fire the coach.
“I think when you look at Don Sweeney and Cam Neely and the situation they’re in with a roster with a bunch of players that have no-movement clauses with a mandate to not trade a lot of their younger players because they’re trying to reload on the fly,” Haggerty said. “Not many sellers right now that are trading away players that can make an impact for a Bruins team that needs something right now, some kind of spark. I think potentially firing the coach and bringing in a different voice might be the most impactful thing they can do to sort of necessitate a team that’s in free fall right now.”
The question then becomes: who could the Bruins bring in that would do a better job than Julien?
If it’s Gerard Gallant, the front-runner for any vacant head coaching position right now, you have to wonder if his style is really that much different. The same goes for Bob Hartley, who has been known to be tough on his players and rub some of them the wrong way.
If Boston looks to its assistant coaching staff, they’d replace Julien with someone who has little or no NHL head coaching experience, and certainly no great success. Not to mention the fact they’re already part of the culture and voice in the room.
If the team goes another route and hires a first-timer from elsewhere, is that really a direction this “win now” Bruins team would be wise to move in?
The other option on the table is to wait out the storm, and that appears to be the best one right now. With a positive course correction likely, as the stats suggest, and no obviously great replacement available now, the question isn’t should the Bruins fire Claude Julien.
It’s more like “why would the Bruins panic and fire Claude Julien?”