This season, on more than one occasion, I’ve felt an irrational disdain – perhaps even a feverish animosity towards Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien. Some of his decisions leave me screaming at the television while others find me sunken into the couch, drained of all but enough energy to fire indirect curses at the team, its management and the divine visage that seemingly fails to shine on the Bruins. Seeking answers, I feel the need to make an objective analysis of coach Julien’s effectiveness in several key categories – the development of prospects, the effectiveness of strategy, the ability to motivate players, and results both individual and team. I want to know, is my animosity misplaced or should I enthusiastically join one of those HF Boards groups that vociferously advocates the sole precept: Fire Clode?
One can attribute the development of several key youngsters toward the Julien Regime in Boston, and several to his shorter stays in Montreal and New Jersey. Easily identifiable as Claude’s success stories are Phil Kessel, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, and Milan Lucic and to a lesser extent: Mark Stuart, Dennis Wideman, Blake Wheeler, Johnny Boychuk, Travis Zajac, Tomas Plekanec, Adam McQuaid, Mike Komisarek, Michael Ryder and even Zach Parise. Whew! Those (myself included) actively worrying about the development of young Tyler Seguin can take a deep breath; Julien’s record with fostering fledgling talent is more than satisfactory. It would be difficult to intelligently advocate that Seguin’s growth would be stunted by Julien’s mentorship. It remains to be seen if CJ can foster the growth of a superstar from bud to blossom, but we can rest assured that it won’t be ‘Clode’s’ fault if Tyler falters.
Claude’s shown himself to be a decent strategist, particularly on the defensive front. Over his eight-year head coaching career, he’s coached a top-five scoring defense four times, finishing an average of just over 8th in scoring defense throughout his career. Since taking over the Bruins the team has finished in the top three in scoring defense for each of the last three seasons, and over his tenure their average finish in that category has been better than fifth. His system of responsible defense, strong neutral-zone play and forcing the puck to the perimeter has made the Bruins’ D quite formidable. In terms of offense and special teams, Julien certainly comes up short, with only two career top ten offensive finishes and only one truly successful season on the PK (09-10). Adjustments seem to come slowly to the Julien regime, and whether or not it’s accurate, he’s been described as a rigid structuralist. While his teams’ powerplay struggles have achieved legendary status this postseason, one can’t fault Julien’s effort, as he’s rotated in fourteen of his twenty playoff skaters for significant time with the man advantage, and he’s used both the overload and the umbrella and demanded movement when their play has become too stationary.
Pundits sometimes struggle with Julien’s steadfast confidence in his system and the players who he believes in to methodically and passionately execute it. His trap is equal parts brain and heart, with his team executing best when they’re simultaneously cerebral and emotionally invested. It’s by no means a sexy system, it can be unequivocally tedious to watch – but the B’s don’t have the personnel to play a fast-break, aggressive offense. With some of the slowest defenders in the NHL, and perhaps one of the slower top-9s in the league, the trap gives them the best chance to play their own brand of physical, puck-possession hockey and win games.
There seems to be a mixed bag of opinions on CJ regarding his ability to motivate players. He Is very much a player-friendly coach, giving many struggling vets an opportunity to play through their issues and retain relatively consistent playtime (particularly during the regular season). He’s been known to use healthy scratches sparingly among his underperforming regulars and is perhaps loyal to a fault. It took Julien more than 170 consecutive games of Michael Ryder to try and motivate number 73 with a seat on the bench.
It’s this stirring loyalty that seems to evoke a similar emotion in his players. Said B’s alternate captain and veteran leader, Mark Recchi: “…he [Julien] was very composed…the guys rally around it [the coaching staff’s composure]….we believe in the coaching staff and they believe in us…” This is evocative of how a coach like Julien is equal parts infuriating and magnificent, when the going gets tough, CJ doesn’t try to radically alter the B’s gameplan or team makeup, he instead puts more emphasis on the execution of the gameplan in hand, trusting in his team’s ability to get it done.
This sort of even-keeled, reassuring faith can get the B’s into trouble, as they have the unfortunate habit of starting games off flat and getting down early, giving up the first goal in half of the games in this postseason, and likewise giving up at least the first goal in 40 of the 82 games during the 10-11 regular season. However, the Bruins have been one of the most successful teams when trailing early, winning half of these games during the postseason and at a successful .400 clip during the regular season. This again, speaks to the ability of CJ to motivate his team and vindicates the trust he has in them
The ‘failures’ of the 2009 and 2010 postseasons are certainly blemishes on Julien’s record, but each can be explained in large part as the results of (in 2009) a personnel and playstyle mismatch versus a fast, aggressive team who exploited Boston’s flaws on the breakout; and in 2010 an injury-laden Bruins (Sturm, Krejci, Seidenberg, McQuaid and a still-concussed Savard) fell apart in four straight games against the talented Flyers. Both instances should certainly temper the resolve of anyone planning on lauding Julien unduly, but lest we forget the other coaches to have ‘accomplished’ this ‘feat’ are Jack Adams (I think there might be an award named after him, or something), Joe Torre (terrible, terrible coach), and Marc Boileau (…nevermind, pretend I said Scotty Bowman or something).
As my fellow analyst and shadow puppetry enthusiast Bill Ladd notes, CJ has only lost a single playoff series in fewer than seven games in his coaching career (2004 with Montreal to the eventual Stanley Cup champs, Tampa). This alone indicates his ability to successfully motivate his teams to up their “compete level” to go toe-to-toe with any opponent they might face. In any case, as Behindthenet blogger and statistician Gabe Desjardins reports, random chance accounts for 38% of regular-season performance, a number only elevated by the short sample size of postseason hockey. While Julien’s motivational problems might account for some of his recent playoff issues, to lay the blame squarely at his feet is folly at best.
Ultimately, a coach is judged by two numbers: Wins, and Stanley Cup Championships. He is one of the NHL’s active coaching leaders in wins, point percentage and consecutive postseason appearances. As for Stanley Cups, we here at LFHR are crossing our fingers, knocking on wood and praying to any and all unholy spirits that will hear us so that Julien will join that club this June. Even if he doesn’t, it is remarkable that only six NHL-employed head coaches have won Cups as jefes (not counting Ken Hitchcock, Jacques Lemaire and Marc Crawford who may or may not seek and find employment this summer) and only the four most recent champs are still employed by the club they won with. There are several coaches of seemingly greater stature than Julien who’ve never won, like Ron Wilson, Jacques Martin and Lindy Ruff.
Claude Julien frustrates the hell out of me, both as a fan of the bruins and a passionate follower of the game of hockey. While I love that he espouses a physical and defensively responsible brand of hockey, I could do without hearing the term neutral zone trap again. Those of you who’ve heard me on air know that Julien’s staggering patience makes me irritably impatient. His unwavering loyalty to his players and decided refusal to make significant in-game adaptations is more than a bit maddening. I psychically plead with him to for goodness sake turn Seguin (among others) loose offensively in more circumstances, and wish to all that is holy that he would be just a teensy bit more aggressive in calling timeouts.
As you might guess, I’m not about to start a “Claude Julien Appreciation Thread.” Still, I would argue that Claude has done more with this modestly-talented team than anyone else I’ve previously mentioned (even Torre!) could have hoped to do and is now sitting one win away from a chance at the most revered trophy in all of sport. Truth be told, Bruins fans such as myself could do a lot worse than Clode, and we probably couldn’t do much better.