The Boston Bruins waited an eternity in NHL time to fire Claude Julien and, in the process, cost the team a shot at a deep playoff run. And you can thank Don Sweeney the general manager and the team president Cam Neely for that.
I don’t know who ultimately had the final say but I do know the firing of former Boston Bruins’ head coach came too late. They let Julien hang around at least one season too long. If it were my call, he would have been gone two years ago after the first late-season collapse
Claude Julien got canned on Tuesday, Feb. 7, and I’ll never forget the day. Not only because Julien was finally let go. But also, the New England Patriots held a championship parade in Boston that same day.
Hiding negative press releases is a time-honored practice here in Boston. The Red Sox and Patriots favorite tricks are to dump controversial stories on Friday evening when the news cycle is at its slowest. But Sweeney and the team took it one step further; they blatantly dropped the news on a day when half of New England was celebrating with the Pats.
It was an obvious ploy. So obvious, in fact, that Sweeney clumsily made news by trying to hide the news. When asked about the timing during the day’s press conference, MassLive reported that Sweeney said, “I’m not trying to take away in any way, shape or form, or deflect or try to mute the impact of the decision I’ve made this morning.”
The Bruins named Bruce Cassidy the interim head coach on Feb. 9. And after a strong finish to the regular season and an ill-fated playoff appearance removed the interim tag and made Cassidy the full-time head coach.
Why didn’t they do this after last season? According to Fluto Shinzawa of The Boston Globe this was the plan all along:
"“Cassidy and Sweeney clicked,” writes Shinzawa on April 27, “Their relationship and Cassidy’s resume led to his promotion as Claude Julien’s assistant for 2016-17. Cassidy was always going to be Julien’s successor, whether it happened at the conclusion of Julien’s contract or earlier.”"
So why did they let Julien hang around and stunt the growth of this team, damage the health of the goalkeeper, and handicap their playoff run? Yes, you need the talent to make the playoffs in the NHL. But the timing and substance of front office coaching decisions significantly impact whether Boston fans get to watch Bruins playoff hockey in May or not.
The damage Julien caused in 2016-17 for the fifty-five games he was the head coach was enough to undermine any chance the Bruins had at a deep playoff run.
Sweeney, when asked last week to evaluate Rask’s season, shockingly admitted to weei.com:
"“A tremendous start to the season for us. We needed it, our backup goalie got hurt, Anton was off to slow start, Zane [McIntyre] was coming in as a young player, Malcolm played a game. We needed him. Middle of the season I thought we rode him maybe a little too hard. He broke down a bit.”"
Rode him a little too hard? Yeah, you did. Or more accurately, Julien rode him too hard.
After playing him in 29 of 39 games (74%) to the end of December, through January Julien started Rask in 15 of the next 16 games (94%). Rask went 6-6-1 and put up a .867 save percentage. He got pulled from one game after taking a puck to the throat. The run ended with Rask getting yanked in the second period of a 6-5 loss to Toronto after giving up four goals on 14 shots. He looked gassed.
During this stretch, the Bruins fell from sitting pretty in second place in the Atlantic Division to clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot. Another late-season collapse seemed imminent. Julien’s job was on the line, and he knew it.
Tuukka would play 21 of the final 27 regular season games (78%) under new interim head coach Bruce Cassidy. However, he came apart for a four-game stretch in mid-late March where he went 0-4 (.842). Rask subsequently took several days to rest and heal what turned out to be an injured back. He played very well down the stretch and in the playoffs, stopping 172 of Ottawa’s 187 shots (.920). Tuukka Rask is an elite goaltender if you manage him correctly.
It’s no secret that the Bruins defense was severely under-manned in the playoffs. A horrid rash of injuries struck at the worst possible time. Four defensemen fell as the regular season ended and the playoffs began, including top-four D-men Torey Krug and Adam McQuaid. 24-year-old Joe Morrow was forced into emergency duty. Aging dead-weight John-Michael Liles and talented-but-mistake-prone Colin Miller had to soak up the minutes against Ottawa.
Do you think Morrow could have benefited from a few shifts in January when Julien was on the hot seat? He played in only 17 games all season and just four in January. He averaged 15:32 in ice time in the regular season. However, in the five playoff games against Ottawa Morrow played over 22 minutes per game.
Miller played in 61 regular season games, but only seven in January when he averaged just 16:42 minutes per game. He was asked to play 23:28 minutes in Game 3 and 18:10 in Game 4. This was after coming back from an injury of his own in Game 1.
John-Michael Liles, who played in all six playoff games and averaged 16:29 minutes on ice, played in just 36 regular season games. He also had a quiet January, lacing up for just seven games. Liles was a healthy scratch more often than not.
Zdeno Chara played in all 14 Bruins games in the month of January, averaging 23:02 minutes per game.
Morrow, Miller and Liles could soaked up some of those minutes and possibly stave off another year-end Chara breakdown. Instead, we got the usual exhausted Chara against Ottawa. (Did Big Z really lose two playoffs games almost single-handedly? I think he did.)
Julien did Bruins fans no favors with his personnel decisions in that dicey month of January. He burned out his goalie and rode his best defenders trying to save his job.
Cam Neely was once a feared power forward who could score on you just easily as he could knock you out with one punch. He was a force of nature on the ice. There was no indecisiveness in his game. Unfortunately, he hasn’t carried these qualities to his front office game. He sat by while his rookie GM dragged his feet on pulling the trigger on Julien. And for that, we don’t get to watch Bruins’ playoff hockey in May. And that sucks. Thank you, Cam. Thank you, Don. You didn’t have the guts to cut Julien loose when you should have. And now you’ve ruined Spring for me and the rest of Bruins nation.