Here’s why the Claude Julien firing was not good for the Bruins: All the very obvious reasons you can think of.
Here’s why the Claude Julien firing was good for the Bruins: It was the first step in admitting something they should have realized two years ago.
The Don Sweeney administration has to this point been disastrous for the Bruins. He took over after the 2014-15 season came to an end and immediately oversaw the selling-off of various players the team couldn’t re-sign for various reasons. Carl Soderberg to Colorado for a sixth-round pick was a cap casualty, as was Milan Lucic to Los Angeles the next day. Dougie Hamilton to Calgary for three picks was a mess but when you’re told the player isn’t going to re-up with you, that’s what has to happen. Reilly Smith and Marc Savard’s contract to Florida for Jimmy Hayes seems now what it should have seemed like then: A calamitous misevaluation of Smith’s usefulness and the value Hayes provided.
Zac Rinaldo for a third-round pick? Humiliating. The Matt Beleskey UFA contract? A totally foreseeable misstep.
So to quickly recap: Soderberg, Lucic, Hamilton, Smith, Savard’s contract, and a third-round pick went out the door. The Bruins brought only three first-round picks, two second-round picks, a sixth-round pick, Jimmy Hayes and Matt Beleskey back in.
And all of this, by the way, happened within about a week.
Now, when you shed a former 30-goal scorer seen as integral to your past success, a 23-year-old with 91 points in the past two seasons, and a potential future franchise defenseman and get back a raft of draft picks, a few prospects, and two mediocre veterans, there’s an “optics” thing there. The optics say, “This team is rebuilding.” Sweeney — and more specifically team president Cam Neely, who’s the real decision-maker for this club — didn’t see it that way. They went forward without selling off any top talent, trying to wring maybe another playoff appearance or two out of a group that, by any clear-eyed evaluation was not good enough to actually do so. A big part of that is on Sweeney.
As Dimitri Filipovic pointed out on Sportsnet last week, the Bruins have truly horrific backup goaltending this year. Boston is 1-9-2 in games Tuukka Rask doesn’t start. Even if they’re .500, this is a team very much in the thick of the playoffs. Julien probably still has his job. And it was a problem last year as well; Jonas Gustavsson went only .908 and gave away a few points a better goalie would have preserved. The Bruins missed last year’s playoffs by three points.
The Bruins’ problems obviously predate Sweeney’s ascension to the job, because the David Krejci contract was always going to be a killer, and it was one Peter Chiarelli gifted him because he had to. At that point the Bruins weren’t on a clear course for roster disaster, but Krejci’s inability to live up to that contract was clear the second pen left paper. Other bad contracts from both GMs followed, but you can argue the real problem began with the Tyler Seguin trade (no use re-litigating it now, but when you trade elite young talent on multiple occasions, your odds of future success are always going to diminish).
The likelihood that things keep going sideways for this group is right there. Krejci looks more or less done at 30. David Backes was a bad investment. Beleskey and Hayes only recently cracked a double-digit point total, combined. Patrice Bergeron is having a down year, scoring-wise, and now that he’s 31 maybe that becomes a little more common. Zdeno Chara is 39 and has one cheap year left on his current contract. Tuukka Rask has been ground into powder by the team’s inability to get even AHL-level backup goaltending. Only beautiful nice children like Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are producing anything of note this season. And Marchand, oh my, he’s 28 and on a brand-new, big-money contract.
The future for this group is: no future. The stuff Sweeney said about being able to evaluate this roster without Julien roughly translates — if my spin-to-English dictionary is correct — to “Julien was making almost everyone in this rotten lineup look better than they actually are.” They want to see where they stand without a top-four coach? Fine, but they’re not going to like what they find, and the problem is they know it.
More specifically, the problem is they should have known it two years ago when they turfed Chiarelli. Fire the GM and the coach at the same time, commit to an actual rebuild in Chara’s decline years, sell off the stars you can, keep the ones you can’t and have them guide a roster of kids — not Hayeses and Beleskeys and Backeses — through a transition period with a whole new coach/GM combo. Lots has been made about the “Julien wasn’t Neely-and-Sweeney’s guy” argument, and they could have avoided it if they’d just had the courage of their convictions and committed to a tear-down.
It’s not like these problems were difficult to diagnose. People (myself included) have been publishing columns for two-plus years saying these clouds were gathering. At the time we got a lot of flak for not understanding X, Y, and Z about this team, but if you wanted to look for the trouble signs, they were there long before we got to the point of firing Julien.
Now you can argue that ownership didn’t want a tear-down, that ownership like Julien as the coach despite his huge price tag, and that ownership wasn’t likely to allow a full rebuild. This is why you ownership shouldn’t make hockey decisions. Because if they vetoed firing Julien — all indications are that they did — but then only got onboard two years later, of what use was the two years? This is two years in which the Bruins could have been acquiring draft picks in earnest, and freeing up cap space to do that thing smart, low-budget teams are doing where they use their cap space to acquire players and picks they covet.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s been an unmitigated disaster for the club for two straight seasons because the Bruins have had a foot in the grave the entire time and no one was competent or, if you want to be more optimistic about the front office’s evaluative skills, ballsy enough to do something about it.
If the fear was Bruins fans wouldn’t sit through a rebuild, well, here we are anyway. Julien was almost certainly getting in the way of their ability to really bottom out, and I think if that’s the reason to fire him, that’s fine. That makes sense.
But if that’s the decision, like the decision to steer the ship right into the rocks, that was long overdue. Instead, two years of this crap.
The Bruins have some very good young players in the pipeline, so they might get back to being competitive within just a few years. Imagine how much farther along they’d be if they could have recognized their very recognizable problems before they metastasized.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.
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