Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 9, 2017

The Bruins Clumsily Drop The Other Shoe

Perhaps even a city with multiple franchises that have enjoyed enormous – indeed what fans in the rest of the country would likely call excessive – success in century is required to have one team with management that wavers from being merely dysfunctional to utterly inept. What other explanation could there be for the Boston Bruins? Tuesday morning a million fans swarmed into the city to celebrate the unprecedented comeback by the New England Patriots that ended with a fifth Super Bowl championship Sunday night. It was a day of celebration and joy, the tenth time in this still-young century that the duck boats have rolled down Boylston Street, filled with players of a Boston championship team in one of the four major sports. The early snow that turned to rain could not chill the happy emotions. Naturally, that was the time that the Bruins chose to announce the firing of head coach Claude Julien. Far more than the weather, the hockey franchise rained on the football team’s parade.

The actual act of firing the NHL’s longest-tenured head coach was scarcely a surprise. The Bruins missed the playoffs each of the last two years, and are mired in another season in which the TD Garden lights will almost certainly be turned out early. As noted here, the inevitable consequence of such sustained mediocrity is the dismissal of the man behind the bench. But as is often the case when a head coach or manager is fired, the problem with the Bruins isn’t really the coaching ability of Claude Julien.

For that ability is considerable, and there was no indication that he had lost his team, as sometimes happens to even the most skilled coach. The reaction from players, as well as most local pundits and many fans, bordered on mournful; a clear indicator of the respect and admiration that Julien earned during his decade in Boston. He was the longest tenured head coach in the NHL, a reminder that the job comes with a virtually guaranteed expiration date. Julien leaves Boston with 419 wins, shattering the franchise record of 387 set by Art Ross, the first man to serve as coach of the Bruins. He coached another 57 playoff wins and ended a 39-year championship drought when he guided Boston to the Stanley Cup in 2011. Two years later he took his team back to the Cup Finals, where the Bruins fell to Chicago. The following season Julien’s squad won the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record.

But just like our other major sports, past performances in professional hockey are steadily devalued. Despite having that best record the Bruins lost in the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, and the team hasn’t been back to the postseason since. One year later a loss on the final day of the regular season knocked them out of a playoff spot. Last season Boston lost nine of its final twelve games to again miss out. On Saturday, a 6-5 home loss to the Maple Leafs dropped Boston out of playoff contention, were the season at an end. As fans know all too well, the team’s situation is worse than the points standings suggest, because four of the six teams either just ahead or just behind Boston have either three or four games in hand on the Bruins and thus more chances to add to their points total.

If the loss to Toronto was the final straw, and assuming general manager Don Sweeney didn’t want to compete with the Super Bowl, he could have announced Julien’s firing on Monday or Wednesday, since Boston wasn’t scheduled to take the ice again until Thursday evening. Instead he stepped all over the Patriots’ celebration and had to begin his press conference, held hours after the dismissal was announced by press release, with an apology.

The tone-deaf timing of the coaching change is all too typical of Bruins management in the four decades plus the team has been owned by Jeremy Jacobs. As a team owner of such seniority, Jacobs is a powerful figure in the NHL. But his principal interest has always been Delaware North, the huge family owned food service and hospitality company headquartered in Buffalo, New York. Jacobs took the leadership reins of the company at the tender age of 28, upon the death of his father. Now 77, he only relinquished the title of CEO two years ago. For decades Boston fans have complained that their team’s absentee owner was only interested in fielding a team good enough to fill the seats at the old Boston Garden and its replacement, the TD Garden, both Delaware North properties. The Bruins under the Jacobs regime were generally decent but rarely a serious contender for the Stanley Cup. Jacobs found himself on any number of “worst owners in sports” lists.

The NHL now operates under a hard salary cap, so fans can no longer accuse the Bruins owner of being tightfisted relative to other teams; and it is true that in the past decade Jacobs’s public image has improved somewhat. Of course that also happens to coincide with the time that Julien was behind the team’s bench.

Boston’s management has not shown great skill at managing the league’s salary cap, and the last two years saw occasional rumblings in the local media that Julien was less than thrilled with the roster he was given. In particular the team’s front office seems unable to decide whether it wants to build around young players or stock up on veterans. In recent years two different general managers have traded away popular veterans Johnny Boychuk and Milan Lucic, but then turned around and also given up on youngsters Jordan Caron and Dougie Hamilton, both of whom had been Bruins draft picks. After professing a desire for a younger team Sweeney’s major free agent signing last offseason was 32-year old winger David Backes. Yet in the wake of Julien’s firing, team president Cam Neely said in a radio interview that the team’s direction going forward would be developing young players.

The Bruins may have stumbled through Claude Julien’s firing, but he remains a class act. In one final reminder to fans and local media of just why he was so highly regarded, Thursday morning Julien issued a statement thanking the organization for giving him the “privilege” of coaching the team. He went on to thank players, staff and of course the fans for “your devotion, unmistakable passion, energy and support.” Julien concluded with a special nod to all those who helped bring “the Stanley Cup back to Boston for the first time in 39 years.” The one certainty is that Bruins skaters will see their old coach again before too long. Only this time he’ll be behind an opposing team’s bench.

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Responses

  1. Nice!


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