About 24 hours ago, the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney officially swung the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging over the organization and coach Claude Julien’s head for weeks (some would even say years), dismissing the franchise’s all-time wins leader and Stanley Cup champion behind the bench, setting off a firestorm of criticism online and in the media for the timing and way it was handled.
This post will attempt to analyze the move and the subsequent naming of assistant coach Bruce Cassidy as the B’s interim bench boss. It is by no means the first and last word on the matter, nor will it hit every bucket that the firing impacts. Whether you were someone who felt it was time to go and are angered that the team elected to do it on the morning of the New England Patriots’ victory parade, are someone who felt he was not the problem and are even more irate at the timing, or are someone who feels like the move had to be made and have no issue with it (and everyone in between), this piece will try to raise multiple perspectives and shed light on some of the other factors that led to where we are on Wednesday, February 8, 2017- nearly a decade after Julien was brought in on the heels of the failed Dave Lewis experiment.
Being Claude Julien
The 2006-07 Boston Bruins were a horror show in Peter Chiarelli’s first full year as the GM after he replaced Mike O’Connell in the summer of 2006. A season that began with promise and optimism on the heels of the Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard signings, plus landing exciting Minnesota forward Phil Kessel in the draft that previous June, went off the rails pretty fast and much of the blame in the public space was assigned to Chiarelli’s first choice as head coach, Lewis.
Lewis was an easy scapegoat, but much of the criticism wasn’t unfair, either. A solid assistant under the Scotty Bowman Detroit Red Wings years, some guys just aren’t cut out to be head coaches and Lewis was one, turfed from Detroit so that they could hire Mike Babcock after the 2004 season. Credit goes to Chiarelli for recognizing that Lewis was not the leader his team needed and making the change after one bad season, but his choice for replacement- Julien- who had been dismissed in a controversial move by Lou Lamoriello as head coach of the New Jersey Devils during his first season with the club in first place- was anything but heartily embraced by the Boston faithful.
Julien was the classic study in contrasts- he wasn’t a “sexy” coaching name B’s fans could easily get behind, though his body of work was pretty solid after finishing his pro hockey career as a hard-nosed journeyman defenseman who saw cups of coffee with the Quebec Nordiques, and likely would have been a lower-end but serviceable regular in the modern 30-team NHL. Since hanging up the skates, he had won a Memorial Cup behind the bench of the QMJHL’s Hull Olympiques and moved up the coaching ladder in the Montreal system, ultimately earning his first NHL job with the Habs and going on to preside over the first-round upset of their rival Bruins in 2004, overcoming a 3-1 series deficit in the process.
When he arrived in Boston to skepticism in many circles, Julien focused on getting the room to buy in right away and the veteran players did just that. Several players certainly helped that club get into the playoffs in his first season behind the B’s bench- Milan Lucic, Tim Thomas, Chara and Savard were quite instrumental in helping a plucky but largely pedestrian roster fight and scrap to get back into the postseason after missing in 2006 and 2007. Savvy veteran Glen Metropolit also became a symbol of the two-way, heavy-on-the-puck lower line grinder that became a fixture on all of Julien’s best teams (sometimes there were several of them). Later on, we would see Chris Kelly, Gregory Campbell and others take on that role, but the signature defensive, wear-you-down, make-you-pay-for-mistakes style paid off with a championship in 2011 (with Julien’s Bruins pulling a Lazarus act in two of the four playoff series to capture Lord Stanley for Boston for the first time in 39 years) and another trip to the final series in 2013 (with yet another Lazarus miracle against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round).
Julien certainly had his critics- some of it fair and some not. But the widespread support he had in the room spoke volumes for the way he ran his teams. On a personal note, Mr. Julien was a gentleman off the ice. Sure, he could get combative with the media, but you got the feeling it was never mean-spirited, and even the most ardent Julien critic from the Fourth Estate had to grudgingly admire the way Julien took on the criticisms in order to shield his players from the heat. He was at his most engaging when not talking about hockey- I still recall the time during the 2011 draft when he stopped to say hello when walking past the media risers on the way to the Bruins’ table and I mentioned a mutual acquaintance. The conversation then segued into stories about his days spent working on his billet family’s chicken farm when he was with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHA as a junior player. His eyes twinkled with the recollections of holding two chickens in each hand by their feet, but he got serious for a moment and said something like, “You know- that kind of work really makes you appreciate the gifts you have and the chance to be a pro athlete and play the sport you love.”
Julien got it. And, because he had never been a star player for whom everything came easily, he was able to translate that message to his players. The biggest thing of all, however, is this: they responded. So, for the fans who might have felt his coaching style and system was unimaginative, the reality is- he got the most out of the rosters he was given to work with. It started with his first win as B’s head coach on October 6, 2007 (3-1 road win vs. the Phoenix Coyotes)…repeat 419 times and he walks away with his head held high and the ability to walk into another NHL coaching job whenever the desire hits him. Bottom line- if Julien wants to coach in the NHL next season, there are multiple teams out there who will gladly take him on.
And that’s a fact.
Don Sweeney and the burden of command
There’s an old military saying that says command is the loneliest job on earth. The idea behind it is simple: as commander, you have to make the tough decisions, often unpopular ones. In order to provide the right balance of leadership, you can’t be too close to your charges nor can you be overly distant. As a result, the middle ground you often must occupy is yours and yours alone.
Now in his second full season as general manager of the Bruins, Sweeney is discovering that there aren’t many on board with the direction he’s taken the team, and this latest decision of his has cost him in the goodwill and optics department. He seemed to acknowledge as much yesterday in his press conference, so we won’t revisit. Again- few would argue that the timing of the announcement was the issue versus the decision that Julien would be let go itself. For many, that was fait accompli…something already baked in the cake. The Boston coach had been on the hot seat for some time and amidst various rumors going back to 2011 even, he had been on the verge of being fired several times. For coaches in any pro sport, it’s not a matter of if they leave their position, but when. Nothing lasts forever and the vast majority of them are dismissed in lieu of staying in one place for an entire career and retiring to myriad accolades, a gold watch and a key to their fair city.
Sweeney is a good man. I believe that. He was a respected player- one who willed himself into the Bruins lineup as an undersized but speedy and competitive defenseman out of Harvard in the late 1980’s after being a late draft pick in 1984. The legendary Raymond Bourque took him under his wing, and some 1,000 games later, Sweeney was one of the most respected and longest-tenured Bruins in franchise history when he left to play one half-hearted season in Dallas before hanging them up after the 2002-03 season.
He was one of Chiarelli’s first hires, a former Crimson teammate and trusted agent who was brought on board as a consultant in 2006…I still remember talking to him about his new position and Sweeney using one of his favorite analogies to describe it- “a blank canvas” in terms of what he was looking to do and the kind of impact he was chartered to make. In short- he was a hockey guy, rejoining his beloved Bruins and ready to do whatever the GM needed him to. That evolved into the key player development coach who is credited with firing up the annual B’s development camps, their first one taking place in Wilmington in 2007 to eventually being named assistant GM, where his duties focused on scouting and player development. Mr. Sweeney went to a ton of games- we saw him everywhere from places like Oshawa on New Year’s Day in 2011, to being a fixture at the various area NCAA and prep tournaments in and around Boston.
Julien wasn’t Sweeney’s guy, but the belief is that the new GM who replaced the man who had brought him on board after the 2015 season recognized how committed the players were to the coach and that Julien was doing what every NHL team needs their roster to do- play hard more often than not. If it sounds overly simple, it’s really not. Systems and set plays are just not as critical to hockey as they are in football and basketball. Many players, by the time they arrive to the NHL, know what they’re supposed to be doing on the ice and hockey is an intrinsically simple game when it all boils down: take the vulcanized rubber puck and put it in the opposing net more times than the other guys get it into yours. Sure, styles and systems are influencing the game more than ever before, and Julien was more old school in his thinking vs. the newer school of thought that centers around puck possession and clean zone entries and exits, but overall- in many cases, it comes down to effort and will. If the players are motivated and have the talent to compete, chances are- your NHL club will win more games than they lose.
Unfortunately for Julien, Sweeney’s vision and plan- yet to be clearly articulated (and to be honest- the GM is under no real obligation to do so if he chooses), has seen a roster take shape with some shortcomings or “gaps” as Sweeney himself said in the press conference Tuesday. The team’s defense needed help in the offseason and didn’t get it, at least in the way fans had hoped it would in the form of a proven but young enough (and skilled) defender to help offset Chara’s decline and eventual departure to close up a Hall of Fame career. The B’s and Sweeney caught a break when precocious rookie Brandon Carlo captured a fanbase’s excitement with his poise and bar-down defensive play, but like many young players, he’s had his ups and downs, and as critical points fell by the wayside, those downs have become more frequent. The defense and Tuukka Rask were outstanding and helped to offset the offense’s struggles in the first half, but lately, the paradigm shifted and the B’s are scoring more with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron getting it done, but the team giving too many goals. The most recent 6-5 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs was apparently the final straw that broke the camel’s back amidst other agonizing, snatch-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory outings.
The coach had to go…everyone knew it. Even those who supported him knew it. And perhaps the only explanation for why it didn’t happen sooner is that maybe the players themselves- including the most respect of the B’s leaders- pleaded for the opportunity to let them play for their coach’s position. If that happened and Sweeney held off, then the GM deserves credit here. The easy play was to fire him after the collapse against Detroit a few weeks back, with the team surrendering leads of 3-0 and 4-1 to fall in a shootout.
What we do know is that the GM’s decision to announce Julien’s dismissal on a day when the city of Boston was overflowing with goodwill over the New England Patriots’ fifth Super Bowl championship since 2001, and brimming with excitement over the duckboat parade that seems to have become a near annual occurrence in Titletown USA’s streets, was met with anything but widespread support. The GM is the one assembling the roster, and in the absence of the team’s president (we’ll get to him later), was the face of this decision and bears the burden of responsibility for the backlash. Firing Julien was sure to generate criticism in some corners, but in retrospect, the GM probably wishes he had a do over. Regardless, what’s done is done. There are no mulligans, and the toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube. The burden of pressure now falls on Julien’s successor, who inherits a difficult situation.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundown kids
Let’s be clear here: anyone fixating on what Boston interim head coach Bruce Cassidy did with the Washington Capitals over a decade ago in his first and only NHL top coaching stint is probably just looking for a fight and has their minds made up already. If you’re one of these people, just stop reading…nothing said here is likely to matter to you. Our position is a lot different- That was then, this is now. If you reflect on the last 10-13 years of your lives and allow for the idea that you learned some lessons over that time, then you’re fair-minded enough to understand that Cassidy has done the same. People wanting to put undue emphasis on the mistakes Cassidy made with the Capitals as proof that he can’t at least help the Bruins take positive steps forward are not the target audience here, so we won’t even try.
Instead, this is for those with enough of an open mind to see where this is all going:
Cassidy has been with the B’s organization as an assistant and head coach in Providence for just about the entire portion of Julien’s tenure behind the Bruins bench. There is no one better equipped to come in and finish out the season than Butch Cassidy is. He knows the veteran players and he knows the kids. Some of the younger guys who have succeeded despite some having written their Bruins obituaries (ahem- Ryan Spooner) owe a great deal to Mr. Cassidy. He’s a hockey guy, a former failed 1st-round pick who eats, sleeps, breathes the game and knows how to get players to play for him. He’s not Julien, however, and no one should be arguing that he is.
Cassidy has the reputation as a no-nonsense guy; a taskmaster. But, he also has enough of a feel on players that he can identify the areas in their game that are not NHL-ready and get them there. Not everyone has made it under Cassidy’s watch, but he was one of the few coaches to get through to Alex Khokhlachev, and Koko played his best hockey by far in Providence under the new Bruins coach. Might there be room for a chance for the B’s to perhaps reach out to Koko’s team in the KHL and explore options? We won’t go that far, and in all honesty- we haven’t researched whether it is even an option given his contract status, but given that the team still owns his NHL rights, it’s something to consider.
Cassidy is blunt and direct. That rubs people the wrong way, but there’s one thing he won’t be accused of and that’s coddling players. He’s an “in at the deep end, sink or swim” kind of guy, but he’s also smart enough to throw players a lifeline and give them the tools to be successful if they listen and apply the coaching in their games. I’ll never forget a question I asked him about Zach Hamill at the 2011 Bruins development camp during a post-session press briefing and he laid out a detailed but succinct road map and blueprint for why the 2008 1st-round pick had not lived up to his potential, and, for those listening closely, why Hamill was not likely to ever come around. It was as stunning as it was impressive for its honesty and clear, deliberate effort not to sugarcoat it or put a happy face on a player who, despite some legitimate promise as a top-10 selection, lacked the essential components to just meet expectations.
Fans and media can expect more of the same from Cassidy while he’s taking the podium as B’s bench boss. Some fans with their pet players and “untouchables” might not like it at times, but as an accountability guy, no one will be above it or exempt from getting the coach’s public attention if their effort and performance levels fall short. That’s the Bruce Cassidy I got to know in Providence, and he’s going to be the same guy in the NHL.
What fans can also expect is for him to try to get the team to play with higher tempo and pace- he’s all for using speed and skill on the back end to get to pucks quickly and get them out to boost the transition game. Whether he has the roster to succeed in his gameplan design, however, is what we’ll soon find out.
As renowned deep sea wreck diver and Vietnam veteran John Chatterton once said- “Examine everything- nothing is ever as it seems or people tell you.”
If you’re taking this blog at face value, then you’re probably wrong. If you’re taking the words of others talking about what Cassidy did as a 35-YO 1st-time head coach or how “mean” he was to your favorite prospect who simply didn’t have the talent or mental toughness to make it out of Providence, you’re probably equally as wrong. Take the time to examine the situation and get as much context as you can; then- and this is important: listen to what he says and then pay close attention to what he does. If you form an opinion based on that, then it’s your view…you’re welcome to it. If you’re expecting me or others to write what you think we ought to be writing about Cassidy, then prepare to be disappointed.
Olympus has fallen
This leads us to the president- the man whom, as a player, was as close to perfection and universally loved as a Bruin as you can achieve. Bostonians and Bruins fans everywhere didn’t just love Cam Neely…they revered him.
He was the man who came to town on his 21st birthday in 1986 as a headed-for-Bustville early 1st-rounder in Vancouver, and became even more popular than the immensely popular guy Harry Sinden traded him for- Barry Pederson– damaged goods who would never come close to the lofty 100-point seasons he amassed in Boston for the Canucks.
Neely grabbed the city’s heart and didn’t let go in his decade of going up and down the right wing, lasering pucks into the net with surgical precision while pounding hapless defensemen into the boards and playing that blue collar-style game that was so crucial in the close confines of the old Boston Garden. He drove the net with reckless abandon and immortals like Patrick Roy faced their mortality when Neely had the puck on his stick in a prime scoring position. He was the Great 8- the preeminent power forward of his era whose Hall of Fame career was cut short by injuries started with an Ulf Samuelsson low-bridge in the 1991 Wales Conference Final that Neely never forgot nor forgave. He became the fastest Bruin to 50 goals, doing the trick in 44 games…all on one knee and never able to play the second of back-to-back games that season.
When the end came suddenly in the summer of 1996, an entire nation of Bruins fans wept with Neely as he admitted that his body (hips and knees), still young by NHL standards at 31 years of age, could no longer hold up against the punishment and the sheer physics that required him to play his game. He walked away from it…not on his terms…and although he attempted a comeback some three years later, it was simply not to be.
When he first became vice president of the team he earned his HHOF credentials with, and later president, fans were excited. Their beloved Cam- the man whose No. 8 hung from the rafters to great fanfare when the Bruins retired it in a memorable ceremony earlier in the decade- had come home. It seemed to be a match made in heaven. What could possibly go wrong?
Fast forward to 2017 and Neely is in an unenviable position- vilified by the hardest core of Bruins fans who see him as an extension of an ownership group that has never really had their support and trust. Amidst reports in the media of Neely touching off internal power struggles and questions about his managerial acumen and work ethic, the once untouchable icon of Bruins lore is now a public face for scorn and mistrust of the happenings on Legends Way. Right…wrong…otherwise- Neely not being present for the Julien press conference seems to have only stoked the fires of discontent. Even though he released a statement about Julien’s dismissal, the action seems to have created the opposite of the intended effect and fanned the flames even higher.
How on earth did we get here? What kind of a Bizarro World do we live in where one of the most beloved hockey heroes of the last 30 years is now seen as a major part of the problem? Well, if anyone remembers Steve Kasper, then the irony of one event in 1996 that has since defined him and turned him from hero to villain, is not lost on anyone. Kasper, once one of the top defensive forwards in the game (other than Patrice Bergeron, Kasper is the only Bruin to win a Frank J. Selke Trophy which he did for his effective shadowing of Wayne Gretzky in the early 1980’s) and a popular Bruin. Fans were genuinely dismayed and angry when Sinden flipped him and other fan fave Jay Miller to the Los Angeles Kings in early 1989 for the Pride of Peabody, Bobby Carpenter. It ended up being a good move- injuries and being on the wrong side of 30 accelerated Kasper’s decline, while Carpenter went on to have some good years with the Bruins.
So, when Sinden brought Kasper back to coach the team in the wake of Brian Sutter’s dismissal in 1995, it was met with optimism even though he had little in the way of an NHL coaching resume. It all came crashing down during his first season behind the Boston bench- an up-and-down affair that was a harbinger of dreadful things to come in an eventual bottoming-out the next year (resulting in his firing), but sparked by Kasper dressing and then benching two key veterans in Kevin Stevens and Neely- sitting them on the Bruins bench for an entire game without sending them out to take a single shift. It was as outrageous as it was humiliating…and from that moment on, Kasper became persona non grata to Bruins fans.
All of the goodwill he’d earned as a player…gone in an instant.
And so, here we are- learning an important lesson once again that no one is safe from the wrath and ire of Boston fans, not even the target of that one night of humiliation- a man who by all rights practically owned Boston. If you didn’t believe it after Kasper, and you still had doubts after B’s fans turned on Tim Thomas over his choice of publicly declaring his politics by refusing to visit the White House, then no one should be surprised that the star that Neely’s pure production and toughness and courage once powered, has now lost its luster.
Where do we go from here?
We glossed over ownership, but the reality is- look to the saying about not judging a person by what he says but what he does that matters. The Jacobs family has empowered their management teams under Chiarelli and Sweeney to spend to the cap. It hasn’t been for a lack of money that the Bruins have not been able to make the postseason to compete for a Stanley Cup since 2014. So, if you want to glom onto Jeremy Jacobs’ statements about expecting a deep run into the playoffs, you won’t get much of an effort to argue against that conviction here. We happen to think it was talking points and an owner showing support for his team, rather than a shot across his front office’s bow, but we’ll allow that we could be wrong here. But, if you look back in history, this isn’t the first time that Mr. Jacobs has been inartful with his words, and it probably won’t be the last. If you go through life taking everyone literally, then prepare for more disappointments.
The real issue for the Bruins is where they are headed.
Sweeney has done a fine job presiding over several promising drafts. He’s invested capital for the future- showing courage…and yes, it took major stones even if you didn’t like the deal’s return…to deal Dougie Hamilton when he did. We’re not crying for Argentina there, either- Hamilton is a good player, but he’s not the guy we thought he was. Calgary’s certainly figuring that out. When you look at the promise held by players like Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, Jeremy Lauzon and Ryan Lindgren (for starters), the defense will get an infusion of youth and talent in the coming years, and Sweeney deserves the lion’s share of the credit for that…assuming he’ll be around to see those seeds he planted bear fruit.
Questions about the wisdom and ROI the team has gotten from free agents Matt Beleskey and David Backes are fair, but not quite as simple as the harshest critics make them out to be. David Krejci is on a $7M deal that was not of Sweeney’s doing, but he has to manage the fallout from the veteran’s undershooting of value in the minds of many out there. The roster had known holes coming into the season and the bills are coming due. Sweeney no doubt realizes that, but he can’t score or stop pucks from the press box. Some of his higher-priced veterans are capable of a lot more than they’ve shown this season, and so the team will have to come together and row hard for now until the GM can either add or subtract from the roster.
In the end, we’ll close it up by wishing Julien well. There are plenty of lessons to be learned in this entire affair, and if you believe that life is a series of learning events, the fair-minded of us should have no issue giving Neely and Sweeney more time to translate their vision. That will ultimately be up to ownership, but just think- had some fans gotten their way by ousting Chiarelli at the first sign of trouble of a failed 06-07 season and bungled decision on his first head coach, Julien might not have ever darkened the TD Garden’s doorstep in the first place.
Farewell coach, and bon chance.
For the rest of the Bruins- their mettle is sure to be tested and if we wanted to have a better gauge of this club’s collective character and perseverance, we’re all about to find out.