The Claude Julien era with the Boston Bruins has come to a predictably unceremonious end. In its wake, the crosshairs are firmly where they’ve always belonged: On Cam Neely and Don Sweeney.
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In my writing, I’ve regularly referenced how hockey is a game of “breaks,” both good and bad. It was a good break that enabled the Boston Bruins to vanquish Montreal in 2011. Had Nathan Horton not beaten Carey Price in a Game Seven overtime, it’s quite possible Claude Julien gets axed there and then. As it were, Horton’s shot found its way past Price, and seven weeks later the Bruins won their first Cup in 39 years.
Versus Toronto Saturday night, Boston erased a three goal deficit, then tied the game once more after conceding a goal, only to concede another in a gut-wrenching and ultimately franchise-altering loss. Had Zane McIntyre been able to locate JVR’s game winner I likely would not be writing this article. As it were, Boston’s backup goaltending faltered once more, and the winningest coach in franchise history is out of work.
None of this is to say that Julien’s firing came from out of left field. Far from it. The ax has been hanging over Claude’s head for well over a year now; Saturday’s crushing loss was merely the final straw on the camel’s back.
There have obviously been those within Boston’s fanbase who have been calling for Claude’s dismissal for quite some time. Even Bruins beat writer Joe Haggerty has stated that perhaps a new voice is necessary in the locker room. But outside of Boston, virtually everyone from Bob McKenzie to Mike Babcock have referenced Julien’s abilities, track record, and lack of talent on roster as reasons to stick with the NHL’s longest-tenured coach.
I have personally gone on record defending Claude Julien and the job that he has done. Now that his dismissal is official, continuing to hash out the merits/drawbacks of his firing is a waste of time. It happened, and now we all must move on. But this does not mean we shouldn’t pay attention to HOW it happened. How it happened and the prescribed path forward is every bit as telling in regards to where this organization currently stands.
Part One-Bury The Story
With the city gearing up for a celebration of the world champion Patriots, the Bruins Brass scheduled their press conference 30 minutes after the start of the citywide parade. On the timing of the presser, Sweeney had this to say: “Well, sort of like the weather in New England, I did not necessarily pick this day to take away from the great accomplishment by the New England Patriots. But I had taken a few days to assess where we were at and came to my decision to make a change with regards to Claude.”
First of all, way to invoke the weather, Don. Classy AND topical. Doing so is actually quite fitting, albeit accidental. The moves by the front office the past several seasons have been roughly as predictable as March in New England.
Moreover, observe the choice of words. Not wanting to “take away” from the Pats’ accomplishments has NOTHING to do with attempting to bury a story under a bigger headline. The Super Bowl Champs, unlike the Boston Bruins, did not have their image tarnished by the convenient timing.
Boston’s last game before Julien’s dismissal was Saturday night. The Super Bowl was on Sunday. The parade was on Tuesday. The firing could have easily occurred on Monday. With Julien living on the chopping block all season long, I’m sure Cam and Don didn’t need the extra 24 hours of deliberation on this one. It was a deliberate, cowardly move by Boston’s front office. Regardless of where you stand on Julien’s dismissal, it’s safe to say he deserved more respect from his employers.
Part Two-That Other Time We Buried The Story
Strangely enough, this is not the first time Boston’s front office has handled a firing in this manner. The 2014-2015 Bruins Season ended on April 11. Boston had just missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Four days later on April 15, General Manager Peter Chiarelli was relieved of his duties. April 15 of that year not only marked the two-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, but was also set by Mayor Walsh to be the inaugural observance of “One Boston Day,” a new citywide holiday honoring and remembering those affected. Though Don Sweeney wasn’t affiliated with this decision, his boss Cam Neely certainly was. I’m sure Cam also needed to take exactly four days to announce this firing as well, and it was also not intended to “take away” anything from those affected by the bombing.
Part Three-Go AWOL, Leave Coach And Team Hanging
Aside from being tactless and classless, the timing of the firing makes little sense from an asset management perspective. Boston’s front office allowed the question of “will they, won’t they” to hang in the air for months. As the speculation surrounded the team, neither Cam Neely nor Don Sweeney were anywhere to be found. Such blatant “ghosting” may have been appropriate had former teammate Steve Kasper been calling the shots. As it were, Neely and Sweeney’s silence on the matter was deafening.
After hearing the news, multiple Bruins came forward, lamenting their coach’s dismissal. Brad Marchand was one of those players. While discussing how this was avoidable, Marchand admitted the months-long speculation became a distraction for the team. Because of course it did. The onus for this falls squarely on the front office.
For all the talk of needing “a fresh voice” in the locker room, those who ultimately pulled the trigger had previously created and cultivated quite a bit of instability in the room themselves.
Part Four-Fire The Coach Right Before The Picture Clears Up
Boston has just three games remaining before their week-long bye. Boston will not be practicing during the bye, and as such I understand wanting the team to get a few practices in with their new coach. But Boston was certainly not playing their worst hockey of the season immediately ahead of Julien’s firing. They’d won three games in a row before their contest versus Washington. Boston went toe to toe with the league-leading Capitals for 40 minutes before ultimately losing Patrice Bergeron for the remainder of the game, and in turn the contest itself.
The 6-5 loss to Toronto showcased some bad turnovers and worse goaltending, but also featured a brilliant, gutsy comeback. A comeback that was one goal away from being a potential season-altering win. Their once anemic offense scored 20 goals over five games. The Boston Brass could have fired Claude Julien multiple times during worse stretches…why now?
Moreover, the week-long bye will allow Toronto, Ottawa and Philadelphia to all make up the games in hand they have on Boston. The condensed schedule has wreaked havoc on Boston…let’s see how their competition fairs. Maybe they all blow past the idle Bruins. Maybe one or two of those teams falters a bit. After all, Philadelphia concedes more scoring opportunities and shots than anyone in the league. They also possess the worst goal differential of all NHL teams within the playoff picture. Toronto has a roster full of players who have never played an 82 game season before. At least after the bye week the Bruins would know where they stood in relation to those they’re competing for a playoff spot with, and could have planned their next move(s) accordingly.
Part Five-Hide Behind Bruce
After eight seasons as the bench boss in Providence, Bruce Cassidy was brought up to replace Doug Houda as an assistant to work specifically with the defense. Beyond that, Cassidy was essentially Boston’s coach-in-waiting. As such, it’s not surprising the front office felt comfortable turning the reigns over to Cassidy, especially considering he spent over 100 games as head coach of the Washington Capitals earlier in his career.
It’s also not the least bit surprising that neither Neely nor Sweeney had the conviction to get behind the bench themselves.
The Florida Panthers also fired a great coach this season. Their new coach? The man who fired him, Tom Rowe. Rowe now serves as both GM and head coach, with Senior Executive Dale Tallon handling the majority of the administrative day-to day. There’s something to be said for a man who says, “You’re doing this wrong, you’re dismissed,” and then puts his own neck on the line by assuming the duties and responsibilities of the recently departed. That’s called gumption. Fortitude. Integrity.
If Cam Neely or Don Sweeney felt that Claude Julien was not getting the most out of his players, or that he wasn’t doing an adequate job of devising game plans, and as such deserved to be fired….how is it that neither of them have the courage to put their money where their mouth is? Show us, Cam. Prove us wrong, Donny. Get in that locker room and raise Hell. Motivate. Scheme. Broaden the horizons of what this team can be.
But no, they have not chosen to do the honorable thing. And at this point, why should we expect them to?
I didn’t think it was possible for the Bruins front office to handle the Julien situation any worse than they handled the roster’s construction, but here we are. Neely has now TWICE deliberately buried a high-profile firing behind a major citywide event. Neely and Sweeney spent months completely absent from the public and media, allowing speculation to morph into a massive distraction for the players. At any point they could have taken at least SOME of the heat off of Julien, but chose not to. When they finally did pull the trigger and fire Claude, they not only did so with poor timing, but have once again chosen to hide…this time behind Bruce Cassidy. They won’t even commit to Cassidy beyond this season.
Both Neely and Sweeney played the game with honor and integrity. The lack of integrity they’ve displayed as executives is both sad and embarrassing. It’s not a good look for the organization at all.
Cam Neely dished out more than a few black eyes in his career as a player. As Team President he has handed out one more. Only this time, the recipient is his own team.