Why Claude Julien is a top NHL coach

Claude Julien (and family) riding the Boston Duck Boats at the 2011 Stanley Cup victory parade (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Claude Julien (and family) riding the Boston Duck Boats at the 2011 Stanley Cup victory parade (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

With 370 wins as head coach of the Boston Bruins, Claude Julien is just 18 victories away from bumping Hockey Hall of Fame resident Arthur “Art” Ross from his perch as the franchise’s all-time leader (earned in three different coaching stints), a distinction Ross has held since 1945.

You would think that Julien’s success as the Boston pro hockey team’s coach (1 Stanley Cup victory, 1 SCF appearance, only one season without making the playoffs) would have him a near-unanimous for favorite son status among Bruins fans, but there is a vocal minority that never seems pleased with the job he’s doing. This post will attempt to make an effective argument in favor of Julien and explain why he’s a candidate for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top head coach this season.

Background

Julien was born in Blind River, Ontario (near Sudbury) and hails from Navan near Ottawa (across the river from Gatineau, Quebec) played major junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals and Windsor Spitfires in the late 1970s. Undrafted by the NHL, he worked his way up as a free agent in the Quebec Nordiques system after turning pro in 1981, playing a combined 14 NHL games in 1984-85 and 1985-86. He was a solid minor league puck-moving defenseman who finished out his playing career with stops in Kansas City (IHL) and the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks in 1992.

His first major head coaching job was with the QMJHL’s Hull (now Gatineau) Olympiques, where as a rookie coach, he led that team to the 1997 Memorial Cup championship. His next stop on the coaching rung was coaching Montreal Canadiens’ AHL farm team in Hamilton, Ontario. He coached that club for two full seasons and parts of a third, promoted to the NHL after helping the Bulldogs to an impressive 33-6-3-3 record (.800 winning percentage) in 45 games before replacing the fired Michel Therrien behind the Montreal bench. Julien’s Habs went 12-16-4-4, missing the ’03 playoffs.

In his first full year as NHL coach, the Habs bounced back under Julien, making the 2004 postseason and bouncing the Bruins in a seven-game battle in the opening round before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in their next series. It was during the Bruins-Canadiens matchup that he coined the popular term “700-pound line” to describe the unit of Mike Knuble-Joe Thornton-Glen Murray for the Bruins. The Habs fired Julien halfway through the 2005-06 post-lockout season with a record of 19-16-6 in 41 games (Bob Gainey fired Julien to be interim HC, then named Guy Carbonneau to the post)- [thanks to a Eagle-eyed reader who pointed out this error in fact- sloppy on part- KL].

Julien’s next stop was with the New Jersey Devils, hired before the 2006-07 season. In one of the more curious developments of that year, Julien was pink-slipped by Lou Lamoriello after 79 games- just three games short of completing the regular season and with an impressive mark of 47-24-8.  Julien was fired as rumors swirled of a dressing room uprising in New Jersey, though Lamoriello would never go into detail as to why he made the controversial move. In a 2013 New Jersey Star-Ledger piece penned by veteran Devils beat reporter Rich Chere, Lamoriello was asked if he had any regrets about firing Julien and said:

“No, because I made the decision at that time with the information I had in front of me,” Lamoriello told The Star-Ledger. “If you could go back and make decisions again, knowing what you know now, things would be different.

“You can’t look back. You’ve got to trust the position you’re in and the information you have. Nobody else has that information.”

Lamoriello went on to say in the article that he did not feel the Devils were mentally or physically ready for the 2007 playoffs. With the current Maple Leafs GM behind the bench that year, New Jersey was ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup runner-up Ottawa Senators.

That opened the door for Peter Chiarelli to give Julien his next and current opportunity, replacing Dave Lewis after a disastrous single season in Boston, the B’s GM’s first at the helm. Julien’s departure from New Jersey created plenty of discussion points when he was introduced as the new head coach, with the news greeted for the most part with skepticism.

The early years: 2007-10

Under Julien’s watch, the Bruins returned to the 2008 NHL playoffs for the first time since 2004 (with rookie coach Mike Sullivan), making the dance thanks to strong play from veterans Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard, Tim Thomas, Marco Sturm and others, minus Patrice Bergeron, who was hit from behind by Flyers defenseman Randy Jones 10 games into the season and lost for the balance of the regular campaign and playoffs with a severe concussion. Rookie Milan Lucic became an instant fan favorite, and the well-traveled Glen Metropolit provided tangible contributions from the lower lines.

Julien and company pushed the far superior Montreal Canadiens to a seventh game after wining games 5 and 6 with rousing performances that saw Phil Kessel begin to emerge as an offensive force after he was benched by the coach early on. Although the Bruins were no match for the Canadiens at the Bell Centre in a sound Game 7 defeat, better things were ahead for the team.

In 2008-09, Julien and his team finished with the second-best regular season record, earning Julien the Jack Adams Award for that one, and even better- wreaking havoc on the hated Canadiens in a four-game sweep in the 2009 playoffs’ opening round. However, the B’s were unprepared for a grittier, opportunistic Carolina Hurricanes bunch that prevailed in another seven-game series. This one hurt not only because Carolina beat the B’s at home in overtime in that final game, but because series villain Scott Walker scored the winning tally. It was a crushing setback, and the first real sign that a segment of fans questioned whether Julien was the right coach of this team.

If the end of the 2009 season was a tremendous disappointment, the 2009-10 campaign raised the bar on setbacks with a crushing end that was even more profound than the unexpected loss to Carolina the year before. After limping through a regular season marred with at times brutal play by Thomas which ultimately gave way to Tuukka Rask becoming the starter in January 2010, the B’s squeaked into the playoffs and then upset the higher-seeded rival Buffalo Sabres. Injuries that had devastated them (starting with the beginning of the end blindside hit by Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke on Savard earlier in the spring) finally caught up to them in the second round against the Philadelphia Flyers, as the Bruins became just the third NHL team ever to blow a 3-0 series lead, losing another decisive Game 7 on home ice after taking a 3-0 lead in the first period only to watch a spirited comeback that left a Boston fanbase beyond befuddled, as the outcry for Julien’s ouster reached a new high.

Chiarelli doubled down with his guy and tied his own fortunes to Julien in 2010-11.

Turning Point- 2011 Playoffs

And so it came down to one goal.

The Bruins had looked done after losing both home games to fall in a 0-2 hole to none other than the Canadiens in the 2011 postseason. But here they were- back at the TD Garden in a Game 7 after clawing back to even the series and taking a 3-2 lead before Montreal won Game 6 to return the series to Boston for what would likely be the end for both of Chiarelli’s and Julien’s tenure with the Bruins if they were sent packing for a third straight year on home ice.

A regular season of highs and lows had ultimately ended well for Boston, and the club entered the playoffs with a new-look roster bolstered by the addition of veterans Chris Kelly and Tomas Kaberle to go with the previous summer acquisition of Nathan Horton, rookie second overall pick Tyler Seguin and an upstart young scoring winger in Brad Marchand who posted his first career 20+-goal campaign. A repaired hip and second Vezina Trophy for Tim Thomas was a huge part of the team’s success as well, and as fans would discover, the best was yet to come for the quirky, yet ferociously competitive Michigander.

As the teams battled in what was literal sudden death (in sporting parlance at least) for Boston’s GM and coach, it looked like it might be curtains when a Montreal shot hit a player in traffic and skittered towards the B’s net before ultimately just going wide and being cleared out of danger. The tension was beyond description- the home team had held a one-goal lead well into the third period before Boston nemesis P.K. Subban scored the equalizer. The old salts who had seen the “too many men on the ice game” against Montreal 1979 swore that the ghosts of Guy Lafleur and Yvon Lambert were about to descend on the TD Garden ice, but then, Horton’s deflected shot goal sent the home crowd and club into euphoria. Julien earned a stay of execution, and his team rode it all the way to the first Stanley Cup championship for Boston in 39 years later that spring with series wins over Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Vancouver.

With that, the “Fire Julien” crowd disappeared overnight. He pushed all the right buttons, got great play from his team and never seemed to push the panic button even when the club had their backs against the wall. To this day, the calm cool with which he handled falling into an 0-2 hole in the Stanley Cup Final, is worth remembering. The B’s battled back to make it 2-2 and 3-3 before earning one final decisive win on the road, and through it all, Julien’s steady hand played an important role, overcoming the loss of Horton in the finals, while benefiting from the best hockey of Thomas and Marchand’s career.

2012-15: Highs and Lows

In the years since the championship season, the Bruins have come close to winning a second Stanley Cup, but have also largely underachieved in the postseason, losing to the Washington Capitals in the opening round of 2012 and the Canadiens in 2014 (both going seven games). When Boston failed to make the 2015 postseason one year after Julien’s club had earned the B’s a President’s Trophy for top regular season record (the team’s first since 1989-90), the “Fire Julien” crowd came back with a vengeance.

When Chiarelli was relieved of his duties shortly after the end of the 2015 regular season (and subsequently hired as President and GM of the Edmonton Oilers) it was natural to think that Julien might follow him out the door (and very likely right to Edmonton). It didn’t happen, but if Julien was expecting a firm vote of confidence from Bruins President Cam Neely, he didn’t get it. Instead, reports surfaced that Neely had proposed a coaching change back in January. Having said all of that, no one from management ever spoke out against Julien, and Neely addressed his relationship with the coach shortly before the start of the 2015-16 season. Countering speculation that Julien was entering the year on the coaching hot seat after the disappointment of the previous season, Neely was quoted by ESPN’s Joe McDonald, saying:

“It’s unfair to say that,” Neely said. “Claude’s a very good coach in this league. [New Bruins GM] Don [Sweeney] came to us with a plan of how he would like to see the team play, and he’s had many conversations with Claude about that, but a lot of things happen throughout the course of the year that’s not necessarily just on the coach. It’s unfair. I know why certain things are said at times, but it’s really unfair to start the season where it’s out there that the coach could be on the hot seat. It’s unfair to Claude.”

McDonald closed out the piece with Julien’s own take on the situation, which was not unexpected given the timing:

Julien has said many times since the spring that he’s not concerned or burdened by his job security. He understands it’s a business and his job is to get the most from the players he’s given.

“I’m good where I am right now,” he said. “I’m not even thinking about that. The only time I have to is when [media] asks me. Other than that I just go ahead and I do my job, and I enjoy doing my job.

“I’m happy to be here. This is a place I’ve felt really comfortable with the people around me, the organization, the city and the fan base. I love working for this organization. I just keep coming in every day, trying to do my best and try to last as long as I can.”

As the old adage goes, watch what a person does more than what he says. And as we’ve seen in 2015-16, Julien has let his actions behind the bench do the talking en route to the team’s 19-9-4 record in the early going.

Changing on the Fly

Spend enough time on message board and social media sites long enough, and the common theme you’ll see and hear from Julien’s most vocal critics is that he employs an unimaginative, smothering defensive system that his players are unable to execute properly. What’s more, Julien is rigid, inflexible and refuses to change his ways by employing more effective personnel packages. That’s certainly an opinion, but those who believe that will have a harder time proving it other than blowing a lot of hot air and getting indignant with those with whom they disagree.

To debunk the idea that Julien slavishly employs his defense regardless of his roster makeup, we’ll turn it over to the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa. The veteran hockey scribe chronicled the coach and his staff’s attempt to better tailor the team’s breakout to better take advantage of his rosters abilities and limitations, back in mid-September as training camp was just about to get underway.

Now, there is a legitimate debate to be had as to the effectiveness of this change and if, in fact, the B’s players are actually executing this proposed change to a real degree of consistency. However, if you point to the boost in offensive production and the ability the Bruins have shown to score goals off the rush this season when compared to a year ago, there’s enough anecdotal evidence to say that Julien and company were onto something, at least.

When it comes to personnel, Julien has shown a willingness this year to try new things. He’s given different players at every position except goaltender the opportunity to demonstrate their worth, and with waiver claim Landon Ferraro and rookie recall Frankie Vatrano striking gold in key games over the past month-plus, he’s not shied away from sitting more veteran players like Jimmy Hayes for example, in favor of keeping players with skill, speed and the ability to push the pace in the lineup. It hasn’t been perfect, and he’s shown more of an inclination to stick with the struggling Kevan Miller longer than fans and analysts might like, but that is more a reflection of trust that Julien has in that player to execute the gameplan versus other players who might look better on paper, but who the rest of us don’t really have all that much of a handle on outside of limited sample sizes of game action. That’s not to say Julien is right or wrong here, but he’s moving pieces around and hitting on winning combinations. Some of us might not like those combos or agree with the reasoning behind them, but with the team on a roll, the coach will stick with what is working.

Julien deserves consideration for a second Jack Adams Award this season because he’s finding ways to keep his team on a winning track despite a lot of star power on a young, rather untested club. Beyond that, with the way the Bruins were almost universally mocked for the moves made at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, some of those snickering pundits are already coming out of the woodwork to express respect (and astonishment) at how Julien and his fine staff- Doug Houda, Doug Jarvis and Joe Sacco– have put together a team that is not only scoring (104 goals and counting) at a much better clip, but showing the verve and drive to gut out some tough wins. They’re far from perfect, but there aren’t many who were lining up to bet on the B’s this year, and they’re making it fun for the fans at the very least.

The intangibles and why Julien is a great NHL coach

What makes a great or even decent/successful NHL coach?

In hockey, just like any other major team (or individual) sport, it comes down to preparation, focus, intensity and execution.

A friend of mine named Ian Wilson, as passionate and knowledgeable a fan of the Bruins as anyone I know, used to quote the old saw that said- “You need an awfully long stick to score from the bench,” and that’s true. The modern NHL coach can’t do a great deal to directly influence the outcome of games on a regular basis other than giving the players focus, direction, discipline and at times that extra shot of experience and motivation needed to go out and get two points on any given nights.

This blog post doesn’t need go down the road of what makes a truly great NHL coach just that, but in Julien’s case, his demeanor and personality has a lot to do with it. He’s not a taskmaster who employs fear and intimidation in the mold of a Mike Keenan, but he is demanding in terms of what he wants from his players and will not tolerate if they make certain transgressions. If you’re a fan of one of those guys who just doesn’t or won’t get it, then there’s a good chance you don’t care a whit for one Claude Julien, but he’s nothing if consistent in terms of how he levies his expectations and treats the players like adults.

You got a sense of that in the recent first episode of the EPIX-produced hockey show Road to the Winter Classic, where scenes inside the Boston dressing room between periods demonstrated his business-like demeanor, pulling no punches in telling the team where they were falling short, but not screaming at them. Not that Michel Therrien did any of that either from his perch with the Montreal team, but compare and contrast the way both coaches talk to the players and then tell me honestly which guy you’d rather have behind your bench. More than one player has told me in the years since Julien arrived in Boston that they appreciate the way he conducts himself, and the word ‘fair’ has come up repeatedly with them. You know where you stand with Julien- there aren’t any mind games and if you’re one of his guys, his trust and faith in you is rewarded with ample ice time and a chance to contribute, perhaps sometimes to a fault. However, if you’re not one of those guys, then…well, not so much. Finding the balance is important, but lest we forget- hockey is a sport played AND coached by humans. The players don’t always get it right, and neither, for that matter, do the coaches. But a willingness to change and adapt one’s approach is the real secret to sustained success.

As a military officer with nearly 22 years of service, I’ve seen the personality dynamic of how a coach is perceived in a room play out in similar fashion by commanders and staff of general officers. What I’ve learned is pretty simple- no matter how well (or poorly) a particular general or senior leader is perceived by the rank and file and those on their staff who know them best, no one is ever completely loved 100 percent or completely free from criticism. There’s always an inner circle of some kind- it’s human nature. And if you’re inside it- you love your patron. If you’re not inside that circle, then you’ll begin to hear the criticisms. It’s no different with NHL coaches and I would submit to you- any coaches in any sport or profession which requires an abundance of teamwork. When you’re in a business that requires people to achieve an ultimate end state, whether it’s accomplishing a military objective or winning the Stanley Cup, you need most of everyone on board, but if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll never truly find complete consensus support of your leadership, no matter how effective and approachable those leaders or coaches are.

Successful NHL coaches win the same way military leaders get credit for missions their charges accomplish: because they inspire those players (and troops) to give their absolute best for the common cause. Players want to play for guys they respect. Tyrants will have some level success when they lead with fear, but that success can only be fleeting, because eventually, players will rise up and resist that tyranny. Those who impose their will with an iron fist cannot expect to sustain their hold over those they rely on most. If the reports out of New Jersey are true and Julien had lost the room right before the playoffs (and after a superb regular season), then perhaps that important lesson was learned by Julien before he arrived to Boston and he became a better man and coach for it.

When it comes to Julien, I’ve never had a single player vent in negative fashion about the way he is or handles his duties as Boston’s head coachDoes that mean such players do not exist? Absolutely not. But when guys who play or previously played for him go out of their way to talk about the respect they have for the way he coaches or coached them, you know that you’re onto something good. Don’t change it. Don’t go looking for that next big thing or sexy name out there, because the right person might be exactly where you want him to be.

And that’s  a wrap, but before I go…

Last point about Julien is his personal and professional humility.

He had just a cup of coffee in the NHL, so he spent a playing career trying to work his way to the very top and got there for only the briefest of moments. Without much if anything being handed to him, he’s one who can relate to those younger players trying to establish themselves in the NHL with the Bruins. Imagine, if you will- some of the discussions he had with a young Brad Marchand, who looked like anything but a sure thing when he got his first taste of NHL action late in the 2009-10 season. The way Marchand has evolved in his career since is all the food for thought you probably need to know there. He did some head-shaking stuff, both on and off the ice, but his coach gave him a chance to work through it and didn’t try to change him, while at the same time, forcing him to be accountable. Julien has coached superstars and grinders along with those players in between, but through it all, he’s not let an ego come between his room and the final desired result that only one of 30 teams and coaches can achieve in a single season.

The personal humility comes from a story I was told by a junior hockey coach in Ontario who was part of Julien’s billet family when he played for Windsor and was a surrogate little brother to the Boston coach. The family owned a chicken farm, and between school and hockey, Julien found time to pitch in with the chores. Julien happened to be walking past me at the 2011 draft in St. Paul, and after exchanging a quick hello, I mentioned the coach’s name to him. Julien stopped in his tracks and immediately lit up with a wide smile and immediately began regaling me with stories about early mornings on that chicken farm and how much the family patriarch had taught him about responsibility, discipline, and the importance of being able to get a lot of things done when people are depending on you.

Think about that for a second- the coach who had just 10 days earlier risen to the very summit of professional hockey when he hoisted the Stanley Cup over his head on the Rogers Arena ice, was more interested and energetic about talking about a farm in Ontario.  He had time to dish on just one of the many waypoints in a potential Hall of Fame coaching career,but he seemed to enjoy that more than he does holding court with reporters and supporters. He could have simply acknowledged the name, made a perfunctory comment and continued his path to the Bruins draft table. Instead, he stayed a good several minutes to talk about that family and their farm. It didn’t take much to connect the dots on how much his time there taught him and how much he values the experience. And watching the twinkle in his eye as he spoke about those days taught me more about who Claude Julien the man is…much more than any brilliant game plan or sketched out play on a rinkside wipe board ever could.

Julien’s time as Bruins coach won’t last forever, and regardless of what happens this year and beyond, he’s given the Boston fans a lifetime of good memories to draw from.  But if his departure comes sooner than later, I’ll leave you with one more old adage:

Be careful what you wish for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Why Claude Julien is a top NHL coach

  1. Mr. Luedeke,

    First of all, I find myself reading your blog quite often and it’s really quite good. You do a great job and I really enjoy it.

    I have to say though, this article finally pulled me into the conversation from the sidelines. Very well written, and very informative. I enjoyed the history refresher, and even more so, your interpretation of Claude at the end. It was a pleasure to read, thank you for writing it.

    Like

    • Thank you for the kind words. I have long felt that a vocal minority has driven a negative narrative on Claude Julien, but the majority of informed fans appreciate what he has done for the Boston Bruins. Most aren’t around him when the cameras aren’t on, so I wanted to show a side of him that many don’t get a chance to see. I’m glad that the post prompted you to comment on the blog and Happy Holidays to you and yours.- KL

      Like

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