Firing Claude Julien is a bad move, and doing it on Patriots parade day is shameful

Scott McLaughlin
February 07, 2017 - 10:20 am

Claude Julien is out after nearly 10 seasons as Bruins coach. (Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports)

A Friday news dump is one thing. A Patriots parade news dump is quite another. It has felt like the Bruins were on the verge of firing Claude Julien for the better part of two years now, and amazingly they picked the morning of the Patriots’ Super Bowl parade to actually do it.

Julien deserved better. The greatest coach in franchise history deserved better than to be scapegoated for the failures of the front office. And he certainly deserved better than this cowardly effort to bury the news under a Patriots celebration (the press conference is during the damn parade!).

The decision to fire Julien at all is bad enough. There will be those who will say it was time, that the Bruins needed a change. They did need a change, but the head coach wasn’t it.

The Bruins are currently out of the Eastern Conference playoffs, sitting all the way down in 12th place in terms of points percentage. But, as weird as this may sound, Julien actually deserves a good deal of credit for the way the B’s have played this season.

They have been the best possession team in the NHL. They have the best expected goals-for percentage. Before you scoff and say something about that proving that analytics are meaningless, keep in mind that most of the time, possession does correlate with winning.

If you’re looking for an explanation of why that hasn’t been true for the Bruins this year, start with shooting percentage. They have the worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the NHL at 5.97 percent. You could try to somehow blame that on Julien if you want, but you’d be better-served blaming 1) bad luck, and 2) a lack of talented finishers.

The bad luck part is frustrating because there’s not a whole lot anyone can do to change it. Sure, you can work to get better looks, more traffic in front and so on, but ultimately you basically just have to be patient and trust that if you keep putting that many shots on goal (the Bruins are averaging the most per game in the NHL), more of them will start going in at some point. The longer the struggles continue, though, the more impatient a lot of people become.

The lack-of-finishers part is not on Julien. That’s on the front office. This team had Tim Schaller in its top six for a not-insignificant stretch earlier this season. If the Bruins aren’t talented enough to finish their chances, Cam Neely and Don Sweeney need to look at the roster they’ve constructed and not expect Julien to magically turn grinders into scorers. The biggest reason the Bruins have gone from a perennial playoff team to one that's on the verge of missing the postseason for a third straight year is that the roster has gotten significantly worse through a combination of bad signings and bad trades committed by the front office, not because Julien forgot how to coach.

Then if you look at the other end of the ice, the Bruins’ goaltending has just not been good this season. Plenty has been made of their backup goaltending -- the combination of Anton Khudobin, Zane McIntyre and, briefly, Malcolm Subban has been downright dreadful. But it also needs to be noted that Tuukka Rask has been bad since the start of December. After getting off to a strong start -- which is the reason he was named an all-star -- Rask has an appalling .886 save percentage in 26 games since Dec. 5.

Maybe some people will see the low shooting percentage and poor goaltending as the B’s underperforming, as some sort of sign that Julien’s message isn’t getting through anymore. They are underperforming, but it’s hard to make the argument that it’s because of Julien’s system. A system that results in strong puck possession and a significant shot advantage is a pretty good system, especially when you consider that the Bruins’ defense corps is still nothing close to a championship-caliber group. You don’t need Scotty Bowman behind the bench to realize the message boils down to, “Finish more chances and make more saves.” 

Julien isn’t a perfect coach. This writer has certainly had some fun ripping him for sticking with untalented grinders in the past, or consistently playing defensemen like Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller over more talented, more offensive-minded defensemen like Colin Miller. Tossing him some blame for the Bruins’ frequent slow starts this season is probably fair.

But ultimately, it’s hard to imagine there are too many coaches who would be able to do anything more with this roster than Julien has. Maybe Bruce Cassidy, Julien’s replacement, is one of those guys, but it seems unlikely. Even if more shots start going in and Rask gets back on track, there should be a recognition that both of those things were probably going to eventually happen anyway. And if and when that does happen, the Bruins would almost certainly be better off with Julien’s system still in place.

Anyway, regardless of where you come down on the decision to fire Julien, everyone should be able to acknowledge that the timing is a terrible look for the front office. They were hoping Boston fans would be too caught up in the Patriots’ celebration to care, that media would be too busy to cover it, but all they actually did was anger an already irritated fan base that knows Julien deserves better, that know after 10 years he deserves a hell of a lot more respect than this. This was a gutless move and Neely and Sweeney should be ashamed of themselves.