Deconstructing the Claude Julien firing

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.

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On Brandon Carlo and other random thoughts on the 2-1 Boston Bruins

The Boston Bruins got a big win in Winnipeg Monday night and took four out of six points in their season-opening roadie, sandwiching a loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs with victories over the Columbus Blue Jackets and Jets.

Rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo netted his first NHL goal in the triumph last night, unleashing a handheld Howitzer from the slot up under the crossbar that former UMass-Lowell superstar and Mike Richter Award-winning goalie Connor Hellebuyck was powerless to stop. Here’s the goal and it’s a beauty for a 1st NHL tally: watch the way he slides up from the point to make himself available, as Andy Brickley would say and then drives the puck up high where mama hides the cookies.

Carlo has been a nom du jour in Boston circles since the B’s picked him 37th overall in the 2015 draft’s second round. It was a selection acquired from the NY Islanders in the trade for Johnny Boychuk (Minnesota defenseman Ryan Lindgren was the other second-rounder taken 49th overall last June) but the choice originally belonged to the Philadelphia Flyers, who forked it over at the 2014 trade deadline in exchange for Andy MacDonald.

The Bruins certainly look to be getting the better end of the deal these days.

Not only is Carlo a 6-foot-5-inch defender but he’s just 19 years old and has looked far more poised and refined than we gave him credit for. There are sure to be ups and downs for any rookie defender, especially one who’s skating on the top pairing with Zdeno Chara north of 20 minutes per night, but given Carlo’s physical attributes and accomplished defensive/shutdown play coming into his first full pro hockey season, it’s a solid bet that the peaks will outnumber the valleys with this kid.

As for Chara- he’ll turn 40 this season but there’s no need to throw dirt on his playing career’s grave just yet. He’s been effective in the early going and seems to be thriving with his young partner, as both have the size and skill to keep opponents away from the prime scoring areas, while also having the talent and ability to provide offense. The Boston captain had a goal negated on replay last night, but then fired a puck into the Winnipeg empty net after Carlo’s third period tally gave the B’s the insurance they needed for David Pastrnak’s team-leading fourth goal to stand up as the winner.

Chara has been a popular scapegoat over the last two seasons because he’s an aging veteran who by virtue of his outstanding play for so many years, was expected to perform better than he has (especially after a right knee injury suffered early in the 2014-15 season- he’s not been the same mobility-wise and it’s the new normal with Chara). There’s truth in that, but when you improve the supporting cast around future Hall of Famers in the twilight of their career as Chara is, it can make all the difference. It’s only been three games, but Chara and Carlo make an excellent pairing because they complement one another nicely. Unless their play falls off a cliff, the young buck is in a spot to learn a great deal from the legend. It reminds me a lot of what Kyle McLaren was exposed to when he made the Bruins as an 18-year-old in 1995-96 and skated with Ray Bourque. B’s fans will hope that Carlo ends up bringing a great deal more than McLaren did, but the latter was a top-10 pick in 1995, so more was expected of him. Carlo’s contributions, impressive as they are, fall into a pleasant surprise and bonus category, simply because he was the 11th defenseman drafted in 2015. The reality with Carlo is- he wasn’t supposed to be in Boston at 19 and playing 23 minutes-plus while contributing at both ends (he’s a +7 on top of it all with a positive Corsi rating), but we’ll take it. Free chicken never tasted so good.

It’s time to own up to the fact that TSP was far too conservative in our projections of Carlo. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the pick, and hype isn’t always a good thing, but to the former Tri-City American’s credit, he took advantage of injuries to Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid to establish himself as being worthy of sticking in the NHL. Sometimes, that’s what it takes, because veterans, by virtue of their one-way contracts and experience, will keep positions on a roster over the younger guys because of the economics and options. In this case, Carlo likely would have gone down to Providence, or very well could have begun the season as the seventh defender and a healthy scratch if not for the loss of two right-shot defenders before the start of the new season.

Sometimes, a key factor to solving a larger problem is right in front of you. Sometimes, it takes unforeseen events like injuries to open that window of opportunity to see it, but to Carlo’s credit- he’s shown a lot of poise and maturity. Again- it’s very early in the season, but his play has given the GM options, even if and when Miller and McQuaid return to the lineup. What’s more, you have other impressive young talents in the system: Rob O’Gara is getting big league games under his belt, and looks like he belongs- even if he might not be making the tangible impact on Boston’s fortunes right now that Carlo has. Matt Grzelcyk is playing with speed and confidence down in Providence. Jakub Zboril is playing more like a top-15 pick should in Saint John, and there is a lot of excitement surrounding BU defender Charlie McAvoy now that his NCAA season is underway. He’s been relatively quiet thus far, but a breakout performance is coming- just you watch. Jeremy Lauzon is on the shelf due to a concussion suffered in recent action, and according to his team- there is no timetable for his return. That’s a downer.

There’s reason for excitement down the road, but as impressive as some of those names might be, they are still unknowns. Carlo, on the other hand, is making himself into more of a known quantity each night. And, given the way things are going, it looks like he’s earning more and more trust and a prominent role from the Boston coaching staff.

It was tough to see Boychuk go, but even the most ardent critics of the trade (and granted- it was far more about the timing of it all and the expectations for that 2014-15 Bruins club than anything else), have to be encouraged that Carlo is giving Boston some tangible returns so soon.

The book on Carlo is far from written, but as the old cliché goes: so far, so good.

***

The top line of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and David Backes has been carrying the offense in the early going, and somethings got to change if the Bruins expect to keep adding W’s to the ledger.

Dominic Moore tallied his first goal as a Bruin off a nice feed from Tim Schaller, making his Boston debut. Fellow Providence College product Noel Acciari started the play by outworking the Winnipeg defender behind the net to chip it to Schaller who found Moore alone and off to Hellebuyck’s right for a quick snipe.

Unfortunately, the B’s have gotten bupkus from the David Krejci-Ryan Spooner connection, and that needs to change. Austin Czarnik excited watchers with his speed and hands in the first two games, but neither Matt Beleskey nor Jimmy Hayes could get anything going in terms of goal production, so right now- Claude Julien and his braintrust need to figure out how to shake things up and generate some secondary scoring.

Patrice Bergeron’s expected return will move Backes down to Krejci’s right wing and that will help. Danton Heinen hasn’t been bad- he’s made some neat plays, but as said on this space many times- his game is not flashy. We had someone on Twitter say “Heinen hasn’t caught my attention,” and that is precisely the point. He’s a cerebral, playmaking winger who has made several impressive passes and plays in the face of a big hit or effective forecheck, but because he’s not dynamic, few are noticing. Unfortunately for Heinen, in a results-oriented business, he’s expected to produce, so he’ll likely be moved down the roster (or perhaps down to Providence) to try and work out the kinks. There’s a lot of potential here, and at TSP we recognize it…but if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to see it, does it make a sound?

***

Third year forward David Pastrnak is getting. After. It.

He tallied his first career four-point game (2g, 2a) against Columbus and has scored in every game thus far.

On National Pasta Day, “Pasta” threw the puck to the net and it went in off of Winnipeg defenseman Toby Enstrom. It was a shot that was “al dente” if you please, but Pastrnak is breaking out as multiple analysts thought he might. He’s got to stay healthy, but he’s playing with top talent and he’s shown progress in his physical maturity to go with a work ethic that was already outstanding when he arrived.

At some point, he’ll hit some dry spells, but for now- Pastrnak is delivering the offense that this team so desperately needs, especially with the gaping void where the second and third lines are in the early going.

Of course, the downside to all of this success is the second contract and money that Pastrnak’s agent will be looking for, but all in due time.

***

Tuukka Rask was superb against Winnipeg after allowing the breakaway goal to Blake Wheeler. The former Bruin came out of the penalty box and got behind the Boston defense before twisting Rask around and burying the puck. Moore came back with the equalizer just 19 seconds later, but Rask got the job done after that, denying and frustrating the Jets attack. This is precisely what the Bruins need from their $7 million goaltender, so he’s 2-0 this season with room for improvement, but credit where due- he’s getting it done. Oh, and he became the first Bruins goalie in franchise history to post two assists in a game, so there’s that. Not bad. He only needs 13 more assists to break the single-season mark jointly held by Grant Fuhr and Tom Barrasso.

***

Krejci and Torey Krug are taking heat for their early season struggles. Fans know they had significant offseason surgery and their original timetables to return to the lineup were not decisive in pointing to them being ready to go on opening night, yet they made it.

Now, a great deal is expected of the duo and that’s a fair point to bring up, but the game is not played by robots who magically come back at 100 percent. If they weren’t ready, it would have meant even more untested guys in the lineup and there would have been critics coming out of the woodwork.

We’re allowing a grace period to take into account that neither player was able to do their standard offseason conditioning and training, coupled with a natural confidence test as they work through the surgically repaired hip and shoulder and get a more solid footing.

Neither is performing at their normal level, but now is not the time to pile on. We’ll give it more time and call it like we see it going forward. The good news for the team is that the record is 2-1 and not 0-3…it doesn’t alter the fact that the B’s aren’t getting the high level of play that fans are accustomed to, but that can all change. We tend to make perfection the enemy of good enough. That’s life and the Internet age with pro sports, but no one should be pressing the panic button yet.

Sharks and Penguins for Lord Stanley plus other notes

Well, it isn’t exactly how we drew it up after the San Jose Sharks failed to make the playoffs a year ago, but here they are- for the first time in the careers of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau– the players taken 1st and 2nd overall in 1997- the West Coast apex predators have a chance at winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

For some Bruins fans, it’s shades of Ray Bourque in 2001 all over again. Former Bruins star and captain leaves town and has a chance at winning their only championship, with the Boston NHL club mired in mediocrity. Of course- there’s no real comparison between the sentiment fans had for Bourque and what folks are expressing for Thornton- but it’s kinda similar.

Thornton was a good guy, a heck of a player, but a lousy captain. He wasn’t ready for the responsibility when he was given the ‘C’ in 2002 at age 23. I think he liked the idea of being the team captain, but when it came time to handle the essence of leadership and the sacrifices that come with being a team’s identified leader and the one who has to face the music in good times and bad, Thornton wasn’t mature enough to handle it.

In hindsight, being traded out of Boston was the best thing for him. Playing in California suits Thornton perfectly and it’s interesting to note that he eventually lost the captaincy in San Jose as well. California cool only gets you so far, apparently. GM Doug Wilson obviously made the right choice, as Joe Pavelski has been everything you want from a captain and more. He’s scored the big goals and if the Sharks are going to overcome their 0-1 series deficit, Pavelski will be the guy who leads the charge. He’s a winner. And Thornton is on the verge of earning that moniker for the first real time in his career- it won’t be easy but now is the time for Jumbo Joe to demonstrate the best kind of leadership- setting the example and stepping up.

Being a great captain is different from how someone is measured as a player. That he’s not a top leader is not an indictment of Thornton, because his NHL body of work is Hall of Fame-worthy. However, when it came to anointing him with the mantle of leadership in Boston, it was too much, too soon. And his tenure in San Jose proved that some guys are simply better followers than leaders.

On the flip side, the Pittsburgh Penguins are vying for a fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history, and what would be a second for Sidney Crosby (2009), tying him with franchise icons Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr (1991 and 1992).

After underachieving for much of the year, the Pens pulled an impressive Lazarus act, surging at the most important time possible, and riding the wave of outstanding play from Crosby, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel...(wait, did you say PHIL Kessel?) and rookie goalie Matt Murray.

Big things were expected of the Penguins this year going into the season, so if you had pulled a Rip Van Winkle on the eve of opening night and woke up today, you wouldn’t be all that surprised that Pittsburgh is in the SCF for the first time since they won it all seven years ago. It’s how the Penguins got here that has been so interesting, and it took them a while and a coaching change (hello, Mike Sullivan) to get going, but with a relative unknown in net who’s posting quite a Cinderella story in Murray, they’ve knocked off some good teams to get here.

Flip a coin. A lot of Boston fans are cheering for Thornton, and that’s all fine. Remember- if his team wins it, he will have earned it. He doesn’t deserve to win…no one does.

And as for the pick…draftniks sigh…it’s 29 or 30. What does it matter at this point- where once people thought it might be a lottery selection, Martin Jones dashed those dreams but even choosing at 18 might have netted the team a nice power forward in Max Jones (no relation) or perhaps a later flyer on Julien Gauthier or developmental D in Logan Stanley. No matter…the Sharks have busted those dreams and so you have to figure the pick acquired from San Jose for Jones will be in play come draft weekend. I would be surprised if the Bruins hold onto it if they can flip it for an extra 2nd and perhaps a 3rd (Don Sweeney would likely have to package a pick or prospect) or 4th rounder (typical value for moving out of the end of the 1st). Or, the team might use it as a part of a trade deal to bring back the much-needed NHL help on D. Either way, the Sharks have continued to rub a little salt in the wounds of a lost Boston season.

The 2015-16 hockey season and rollercoaster is just days from being over, but the endless offseason is only getting started.

***

Here’s a guy to keep an eye on, btw: Tri-City Storm forward and USHL Clark Cup champion and playoff MVP Wade Allison. He’s a big, heavy-on-the-puck right wing with size and skill.

He’s shot up the various draft boards and rankings after an outstanding second half of the season, and the Western Michigan University recruit’s stock is surging at the right time.

I’d say his first couple of steps are a little clunky, but he’s a powerful skater in the straight line who does effective work in the high danger areas and along the walls. His tremendous playoff scoring run keyed the Storm all the way to a sweep of Dubuque in the Clark Cup final.

Don’t sleep on this kid (and forget about getting him in the 3rd round if you’re thinking he’s going to fall), who seems to have it all including an impressive personality to boot.

NHL’s final four: ‘Bolts, Blues draw 1st blood and other musings

It’s May, which not only means we’re into the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs semifinal round, but it is also my busiest time of year with the annual pre-NHL draft heavy lifting. Between my obligations to Red Line Report and New England Hockey Journal, haven’t had much time for the blog of late, but things will slow down considerably in the next week-10 days.

One bit of cool news- Red Line will be the NHL Network’s official content provider for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, so we’re excited to bring you, the fans some unique insights on many of the players as they get drafted. Kyle Woodlief and I will be working on profiles of players, so I encourage you to tune into NHLN’s draft broadcasts on Friday night and Saturday.

Now, as for the NHL postseason…

I went against my gut and picked against the St. Louis Blues in one of my playoff brackets and regretting that. They’re going to win the Stanley Cup, and I should have known better. There are no flaws on that team with top-to-bottom roster depth. They have elite skill from Vladimir Tarasenko, plus quality veterans like David Backes and Alex Steen. Their blue line is set with a great 1-2 punch of Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, plus huge and talented newcomer Colton Parayko looks like he’ll step in to fill the void when Shattenkirk likely becomes a cap casualty. In net, Brian Elliott is playing the best hockey of his career, and Jake Allen is the future of that club. Full marks to GM Doug Armstrong and his staff for putting a contender together…he really wanted to add Loui Eriksson to the mix but couldn’t make the cap numbers work enough to pursue the kind of trade Boston wanted, but make no mistake- this roster is good enough to go all the way, and they will.

Here’s a pet peeve of mine, and I’m sure to get some disagreement on it, but here goes nonetheless…

I keep seeing people out there on Twitter and elsewhere talking about how Joe Thornton “deserves” a Stanley Cup. Let me be clear here:

No. He. Doesn’t!

No one “deserves” anything in the NHL- you have to earn it. I felt the same way when Ray Bourque was playing for the Colorado Avalanche. I was absolutely happy when Bourque skated off into the sunset with his only NHL championship, but if he “deserved” to go out that way, he and his team earned that right after 16 wins and a come-from-behind effort against the Devils. Life is hard and often unfair- good people can work for something and not achieve it but I refuse to buy into the theory that just by playing a long and successful career, you “deserve” a championship. Championships are special and winning them not only takes a lot of skill and hard work, but a good amount of luck, too.

If Thornton and (Patrick Marleau) his Sharks win the Cup this year, so be it- it will have been earned. But pardon me for not jumping on the sentimentality train here…I don’t think the Sharks are good enough. They’ve never been able to win the big game and get over the hump. Wanting someone to win and them being good enough to do so are two different things. We can be happy for him if he succeeds, but you’ll never, ever see me pulling for a player to go all the way because he “deserves” it. I’ll pull for someone because I want him to win or because I think his team is good enough to be a champion.

It’s that simple.

(But while I’m on the subject of the Sharks- how about that Joe Pavelski, eh? Talk about a winner! Joe Playoffski is at it again and he looks like a man on mission, so if there is one guy who aims to make a difference vs the Blues in the Western Conference final, it’s him. (And for the record- snagging Pavelski late in the storied 2003 draft is one of Sharks chief scout and good guy Tim Burke’s finest moments.)

Hat’s off to the Tampa Bay Lightning.  They took Game 1 against Pittsburgh of the Eastern Conference final after losing yet another key player.

That team has weathered injuries that would cripple just about anyone else, but like the Blues, the ‘Bolts are built to win it all after falling to the Chicago Blackhawks a year ago in the SCF final series.

Who would have thought that without Steven Stamkos, they would be where they are- up 1-0 over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final? With three more wins, Tampa has a chance to do what they could’t last year but the hits keep coming- Ben Bishop left Game 1 injured in an eerie parallel to last year’s playoffs. Depending on how much time Bishop misses, I wouldn’t bet against his backup, Andrei Vasilevskiy…the 19th overall pick in 2012 could be like another upstart young goalie turning heads in this year’s postseason (more on him later). He came in a year ago and performed well for Bishop, and he could do it again.

This club is talented, deep and experienced- don’t sleep on them.

I’ll admit it- I’m glad to see Mike Sullivan doing well with Pittsburgh. The Marshfield native and former BU star turned NHLer with multiple teams including the Bruins was a good coach for the B’s who was a victim of bad timing and a lack of vision by Boston ownership coming out of the lockout. As you may recall, he was behind the bench for Patrice Bergeron’s rookie season, recognizing the talent and character of Boston’s current franchise face even at 18.

Team owner Jeremy Jacobs allegedly issued instructions to then-GM Mike O’Connell not to sign any of the team’s unrestricted free agents entering the lockout season, anticipating the market to be flooded with veteran players when certain teams would have to become cap compliant. That meant that key guys like Mike Knuble, Brian Rolston and Michael Nylander were allowed to walk with no talent coming in that summer. Contracts tolling for the non-hockey year of 2004-05 resulted in the loss of 31-year-old D Sergei Gonchar to free agency, which cost them Shaone Morrisonn, their 2004 1st-round pick (Jeff Schultz) and 2004 2nd-rounder (Mikhail Yunkov) for what a rental player. Shades of Al Iafrate for Joe Juneau all over again- maybe one day the B’s will be able to fleece the Capitals like that.

Mr. Jacobs apparently didn’t see the salary rollback coming, so the deep talent pool never came to fruition and the B’s were caught holding the bag, missing out on prime FA targets in 2005. Sullivan paid the price, as the uninspired Bruins crashed in 2005-06, setting the stage for the major house cleaning that brought on the Peter Chiarelli era.

The Penguins were underachievers for much of the year until Sullivan stepped in and the players began firing on all cylinders. It’s similar to Dan Bylsma’s arrival in 2009. What’s most interesting is watching Matt Murray seize the starting job in net after Marc-Andre Fleury was lost to a concussion. Fleury’s healthy again, but watching from the bench.

Sullivan is a smart guy who was a grinding forward- he understands the game and quite frankly- I’m trying to figure out what took so long for him to get another NHL head coaching job. Looks like it was worth the wait.

It sure is looking like the Bruins will be able to draft a pretty good player at 14, assuming they hold onto the pick. It is entirely possible that in order for GM Don Sweeney to acquire the kind of young, cost-controlled NHL defenseman who can help stabilize and rebuild the Boston blue line, he’ll have to give that selection up. I can just sense the wailing and gnashing of teeth if that happens.

You can’t have it both ways, though- fans who want an upgrade on defense must be willing to sacrifice prime assets. San Jose beating Nashville in the second round took what would have been the 18th overall pick and dropped it to anywhere from 27-30 depending on how much further they go. That hurts, but the value of that pick as a trade chip just went down considerably.

The way the Bruins will look at it is this: if they can get a proven commodity at a position of critical need, they’ll give up that top-15 selection, which may or may not ever pan out and roll the dice with San Jose’s pick at the bottom of the 1st round. After a 10-selection 2015 draft, stockpiling draft choices is less important right now than hitting on the picks they do have. In the end, it all comes back to the old Sam Pollock-ism: Whichever team gets the best player, wins the trade. Calgary won when Boston dealt them Dougie Hamilton, with a wait-and-see caveat attached to Zach Senyshyn, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and Jeremy Lauzon. Giving up a chance at what should be a nice player at 14 is the price you pay in the grand scheme of things to swallow hard and do what is right for the hockey club in order to make it better now.

So, while draftniks stand to be disappointed, I’d be surprised as it stands on May 16 if the Bruins end up making both selections in Buffalo. However, it takes two to tango for any trade to happen, and Sweeney has already shown that if he can’t get the right value, he’s willing to do the unpopular thing if he feels it’s best for his team.

I guess we shall see.