By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Was Claude Julien the real problem with the Boston Bruins? Was he a problem at all? Under interim head coach Bruce Cassidy, the team is about to answer those questions.
It’s an unfortunate reality in the NHL – and in all other pro sports – that if a head coach gets fired, it’s most often because the players weren’t performing up to their level. Some of the blame for that underachievement could fall on the coach’s shoulders, but ultimately, it’s the players themselves that decide his fate.
After practice on Tuesday, the Bruins’ first with Cassidy as interim head coach, Brad Marchand told reporters that Julien deserves much of the credit for his emergence as one of the league’s premier offensive talents over the last two seasons. Julien’s work with younger players has been a point of criticism for the now-former Bruins head coach; Marchand is proof that he had the ability to make it work with certain guys.
“I can easily say that I wouldn’t be the same player if [Julien] wasn’t my coach the last number of years,” said Marchand. “It’s very disappointing and frustrating in here because this is avoidable if we would have done our jobs.”
Marchand added that Julien always expected the best possible effort from every player in every game, and that’s why the Bruins won so many games and had success in the playoffs in his nine-plus seasons as head coach. For one reason or another, it appears that the message has not quite resonated with certain players or gotten through to the team on a consistent basis in the past two-and-a-half seasons.
Cassidy may be able to unlock the performance of certain core players and additions to the Bruins who haven’t played up to their usual standards in 2016-17. Patrice Bergeron (29 points), in particular, remains on pace for one of the worst statistical seasons of his career and is still just a plus-2 on the season. He is well aware that his performance has been subpar, along with the rest of the team, and that the responsibility for getting better ultimately lies with him and his teammates.
“At the end of the day it falls back on the players,” said Bergeron. “We’re the ones who are not executing on the ice, and hopefully we have to realize that this isn’t going to fix everything. We have to go out there and do the job and be better as a whole.”
Cassidy held his first two practices with the Bruins on Tuesday and Wednesday, going over with the team what Torey Krug called a “minor retooling” of the system in place. The Bruins will likely be more loose and aggressive in the offensive zone and you will see more activity from defensemen “supporting” the rush. But details aside, Cassidy acknowledged that his first NHL head coaching stint with the Washington Capitals was an unmitigated disaster and that he continues to learn from it to this day.
“I thought I did some things well there and some things that I could have done better, at the end of the day we didn’t win enough,” said Cassidy. “That’s generally why they dismiss the coach; I don’t think I was any different.
“It’s been a long time since then, so I’ve forgotten half that stuff and put it behind me. … Those are things I try to keep to myself and learn from and hopefully get right the next time.”
In Boston, Cassidy’s “next time” is now. But he remains a huge question mark with the specter of his Capitals stint hanging over the Bruins for the rest of this season. The Bruins’ performance under him will serve to answer some questions about the team and how it was playing under Julien for the past two seasons and change.
It’s rare that anyone would argue that Julien was one of the Bruins’ biggest “problems,” but most supporters of GM Don Sweeney’s decision to fire Julien would argue that it was simply time for a change. That would imply that the Bruins’ players needed a coaching change in order to play up to their expected standards. If they do not do that – or, worse, if they go backward – it would invite questions of whether it really was “time to move on” from Julien.
Anyone who’s been paying attention to this Bruins team over the past two years knows that much of their problems stem from poor roster-building, which has spanned two GMs. Sweeney leads a Bruins front office that has markedly improved its drafting in the past two years, but his moves at the NHL level mostly have not panned out. Still, marked improvement from the team as currently constituted over the next 27 games would almost certainly make Sweeney’s job safe for another year, with or without a playoff run – and it would vindicate his decision to fire Julien.
No matter which direction the Bruins go from here, the players that Sweeney has put on the ice will prove what kind of impact Julien was having. Sweeney had better hope that they do play better than they have over the first 55 games of the season – because otherwise, he and president Cam Neely will be exposed as the real issue with the Bruins. Even Julien’s critics may admit that much if you asked them right now, but their negative feelings toward the former head coach are also an indication that they feel the players will be better without him.
Are the Bruins better off with a new face behind the bench? Are further changes going to be needed in the front office? It’s now up to the players to decide.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.