With two mind-numbing performances in a row extending years worth of futility, Boston Bruins fans have hit their breaking point. The Blame Game is alive and well in Boston.
The Boston Bruins are taking on water.
As Jeffrey Lebowski once said, “The plane has crashed into the mountain.”
On the heels of Monday’s 4-0 drubbing versus the Islanders, Boston scored just 44 seconds into Wednesday’s contest versus Detroit. They were up 3-0 less than nine minutes into the first period. They took a 4-1 lead into the first intermission.
The Bruins still lost.
Were things not going so poorly these days, there would be positives to take from this game. Two power-play goals through the first period extended the unit’s recent success. An early penalty threatened to eradicate Boston’s early lead, but instead Brandon Carlo blasted a shorthanded goal, extending Boston’s lead. Torey Krug, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron continue to play stellar hockey. Frank Vatrano was a post away from a first-period hat trick, as he continues to establish himself as a legitimate threat every time he takes the ice. Hell, even Adam McQuaid scored a goal.
But none of this matters, because the Boston Bruins cannot close out winnable games.
Watching multiple three-goal leads disintegrate versus a cellar dweller calls for a couple ibuprofen. Watching it happen after Monday’s listless performance, in a season full of disappointing performances, after two previous seasons of disappointing performances calls for the whole bottle. And a bathtub of gin.
It’s safe to say, at this point, that the Bruins have bottomed out. It’s plain for all to see with every listless start, collapse, or somber postgame presser that this team has zero confidence in itself. None. We’re talking pubescent, anti-social, acne-laden levels of confidence. And with each loss, the burner underneath Claude Julien’s seat gets turned up a notch. With fingers being pointed in every conceivable direction, let’s examine the list of culprits.
Right or wrong, there’s no other place to start than with Boston’s bench boss.
As of this writing (Thursday PM), Claude Julien is still the head coach in Boston. This could change at any second, and no one would be shocked. Upset? Vindicated? Relieved? All of the above? It’s fair to say Julien’s removal, should it come, will be met with the full spectrum of emotions.
This is hardly the first time Claude has found himself on the hot seat. In fact, many “In The Know” hockey folks suggested that he would have been shown the doorway back in 2011, had Nathan Horton and the Bruins not vanquished Montreal in Game 7 of the Conference Quarterfinals. Since Horton’s OT winner, Julien has won a Stanley Cup, appeared in another Cup Final, won a President’s Trophy, and became the winningest coach in team history. Sometimes one bounce, one goal, one moment changes everything.
Now, none of that is to say a coach can’t overstay his or her welcome. Claude Julien is a surefire future Hall of Famer, and he would hardly be the first coach with an enshrinement-worthy resume to get canned. Mike Felger likes to joke that Julien is Boston’s “coach for life.” It’s a sardonic and overly simplistic approach to the situation (that’s what he does), but it’s also not entirely unfounded. The coach is virtually ALWAYS the first to get the axe when a team struggles and Boston’s struggles date back to the Spring of 2014.
I laid out the case for/against firing Claude Julien a couple weeks ago:
Sparing you another go-round of the details, I will say this: Claude Julien does not get out-coached on a nightly basis. That’s a fact, and it’s not up for debate. He’s as respected as an NHL coach can be, illustrated by his inclusion on Team Canada’s staff in both the 2016 World Cup as well as the 2014 Olympics. In each of the past two seasons, he’s been handed a roster in flux; cap mismanagement and prior success forced the Bruins into a soft rebuild. Which brings me to a very important question:
How can an organization/fanbase embrace a “soft-rebuild”, think highly enough of its coach to expect a playoff berth anyway, and then call for that coach’s head when a roster in transition hits inevitable rough patches?
That’s precisely the kind of “have your cake and eat it too,” mentality all too common around Boston sports these days. We’ve grown so accustomed to winning we forget Boston teams didn’t win jack squat from the mid-eighties until the dawn of the 21st Century.
Claude Julien doesn’t lose his man in coverage. He doesn’t fail to show up for puck drop. He doesn’t fade as the game goes on. Claude Julien doesn’t play hockey; his job is to devise game plans to put his team in position to win games. If you’re under the impression that his job is to babysit or inspire adult millionaires to play a game….I think you just answered your own question regarding who REALLY deserves the lion’s share of the blame. Until expectations match the roster he’s given, it’s hard to justify terminating the winningest coach in team history. Especially if the impetus is to “provide a jolt,” or because no one knows what else to do.
Now we’re cooking with fire. The Bruins (excluding Marchand and maybe Pastrnak) have, to a man, underperformed at one time or another. However, this is an unavoidable occurrence. Even the most elite players in the world hit slumps; the hope is that the rest of the roster can pick up the slack. While Boston certainly possesses elite talent here and there, the roster’s depth is questionable, at best: The team’s third line has been an open sore all year long. The blue line has outperformed expectations to this point but is hardly formidable. The backup goaltending has provided the team with one win in eleven tries.
Though the overall talent level of the team at this time is mediocre, that’s not the crux of this segment. The issue goes deeper than that.
Boston’s internal leadership, in my opinion, has not received the scrutiny it deserves. Now, I’m not in the team’s locker room, nor am I frequently around it. I can’t personally speak to what’s said behind closed doors. But Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci are all known to be quiet, reserved, “lead by example” types. They all also wear letters on their chests.
David Backes was brought into the fold this offseason to inject a more vocal style of leadership. Torey Krug is evolving into a leader in the room. I’m of the belief that a player (young or old) is much more inclined to absorb a chewing-out when it’s coming from a veteran leader as opposed to the team’s portly, bald, 56-year-old coach. I’d personally be less likely to tune out my 6’9″ captain, at least. I don’t know what is being said and done by Boston’s core, but it hasn’t been enough.
Boston’s internal leadership hasn’t done enough to aid their coach. However, it takes more than healthy fear and a lot of barking to win, just as it takes more than just skill. Or even effort, for that matter. This is the formula for a winning team (in any sport):
Take any one of those ingredients out of the mix and the odds of winning decrease precipitously. THIS has been why we continue to see Boston lose winnable games, blow leads, get off to bad starts, etc. The roster has flaws and questionable depth, so they’re already at somewhat of a disadvantage. 82 games is a physical and mental grind, especially for young players (of which Boston has many); there will be off nights. A condensed schedule is only exacerbating this. Boston has had rotten puck luck for most of the season. They lead the league in nearly every advanced metric and barely cling to a playoff spot. Moreover, when one unit heats up another cools down; the team has yet to sync up and click on all cylinders.
Since the calendar turned to 2017, Boston has played nine games. They’re averaging three goals per game over that span. Their power play is clicking at 31% (9-29), upping the unit from 28th to 17th in the NHL. Brad Marchand is white-hot. Patrice Bergeron is back. Torey Krug has been downright dynamic.
Meanwhile, Tuukka Rask, Boston’s early-season savior, has gone ice-cold. Excluding his early-exit start versus Nashville, Rask has just an .872 save percentage over that stretch. Four times he’s submitted a save percentage below .850. He’s been chased from starts versus the Islanders twice in the past month. Blown coverages or not, Boston needs Rask back on his game ASAP.
To a man, the effort and focus need to be present nightly, regardless of the schedule. I’m sure the guys are tired; this schedule has been grueling thus far. But it is well-past time to dig deep, find that energy, and play impassioned, intelligent hockey. A little luck wouldn’t hurt either. Whether or not Boston has the overall talent to complete the equation remains to be seen, as this team has seldom put all the ingredients together for 60 minutes, much less several games in a row.
An infusion of talent from outside the organization (particularly for the third line) would likely go a long way. And Boston doesn’t have to sell the farm to acquire it.
No matter where he plays, Ryan Spooner has the look of a player who needs a fresh start. Whether he’s playing left wing in the Top 6, on the third line, or centering the third line, he has the look of a square peg in a round hole. With expansion looming, Austin Czarnik on the roster, Jakub Forsbacka-Karlsson on the way, and his pending RFA status, Ryan Spooner is no longer part of Boston’s future. He alone, or included with a young defenseman (Zboril, O’Gara, Grzelcyk) could net Boston some needed scoring punch or an additional impact defender.
I could easily hammer out another 2,000 words here regarding Boston’s front office. Easily. Instead, I will once again refer you to my article from a few weeks ago, with a small addendum beneath the link: https://causewaycrowd.com/2016/12/29/boston-bruins-bruins-can-escape-hockey-purgatory/
It’s just too convenient for Bruins fans to bash Don Sweeney. The man has been on the job for less than two years, for Pete’s sake. He inherited a nightmare of a salary cap and more than a little of the fanbase’s ire and mistrust. Yes, he doled out identical extensions to Adam McQuaid AND Kevan Miller. Yes, the Jimmy Hayes/Reilly Smith swap was awful. But this recent Bruins stretch has reignited a bunch of Dougie Hamilton-trade bashing.
Don Sweeney inherited an unhappy and unrightfully-greedy Dougie Hamilton and turned him into three prospects Bruins fans can’t stop talking about. Jakub Forsbacka-Karlsson, Zachary Senyshyn, and Jeremy Lauzon figure to play huge roles on Bruins teams of the future (all three could arrive as soon as next year). So, new rule: You are not allowed to criticize the Dougie Hamilton trade while also being excited about the three blue chip prospects his departure yielded.
Cam Neely oversaw the Chiarelli Regime, which likely makes hit seat hotter than Don Sweeney’s. If a front office change is made, it makes more sense (to me) to bump Neely to an advisory role in lieu of replacing Sweeney, at least at this juncture.
Don Sweeney has, to this point, committed to restocking Boston’s pipeline. He has done so in quantity, quality, and value; Brandon Carlo, JFK, and Jeremy Lauzon were all picked outside the first round. He deserves the chance to see this through. Unless, of course, he panics, caves, and trades Brandon Carlo to Colorado. That would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the front office is flailing, directionless, and contradictory. that is the kind of executive you replace.
We’re all frustrated. The players, coaches, management, beat writers, fans…everyone. The organization and fans alike are not accustomed to prolonged mediocrity. And the manner in which the Bruins have been losing of late has only added fuel to the fire.
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Franchises don’t stay great forever. The Blackhawks and Penguins, in particular, endured multiple embarrassing seasons in between eras of pride and success. Welcome to the Free Agency Era, where parity is king. Success comes at a cost, and the past two-plus seasons are the price Boston must pay for six straight seasons as a legitimate contender. Eventually, the bubble bursts.
The Boston brass is on record embracing a “soft rebuild.” Well, this is what they look like. Barring the team’s two most recent ugly losses (and make no mistake….they were ugly), this team is exactly where they are supposed to be: contending for a playoff spot with a loaded pipeline.
Consider this: No team in the NHL has played more games to this point than the Boston Bruins. With an extraordinarily condensed schedule this season, that means a lot. The two teams surrounding Boston in the standings (Ottawa and Toronto) each have five games in hand on the Bruins. How will they fare down the stretch, as their schedules tighten while Boston’s opens up? The Bruins still have three games versus Ottawa, and two versus Toronto, meaning the B’s have five chances to win crucial head-to-heads.
Moreover, Florida and Tampa Bay are each slogging through injury-riddled seasons. Florida already fired their head coach. Their record since? 9-8-9. Not all coaching changes provide “a jolt.”
Panicking is easy. So is pointing fingers and finding someone, anyone to blame. What is not easy is remaining composed under fire. There is a plan in place, and that is to remain competitive while building toward the future. There is a future Hall of Fame coach at the helm. Trust the process, stay the course, hold fast, and hope you live to see the sunrise. And don’t trade Brandon Carlo.