In a day of snowy celebration, the Bruins traded their shovels in for brooms on Tuesday morning.
After 10 years in town, and just hours before the Patriots embarked on their city-wide parade to honor their Super Bowl LI comeback win, Claude Julien was relieved of his duties by the Bruins and the franchise began to frantically sweep what they could under the news cycle.
Not because Julien deserved it. He didn’t. Not because he’s held this team back. He has not. Not because it’s been too long of a tenure. That’s a stupid reason for something to end; “Hey, this has been almost entirely good, but it’s been going on for a long time, so I think it’s time to end this.”
But because this was the final chapter that needed to be written, if only for Julien’s own well being.
B’s general manager Don Sweeney was always going to fire Claude Julien and likely replace him with old P-Bruins head coach Butch Cassidy (which is exactly what happened). Sweeney’s vote of confidence for Julien in 2015 (he infamously said “Claude’s the coach of the Bruins as of today” at his introductory presser) might be the most egregious case of voter fraud Donald Trump is talking about.
But as Sweeney sat down for 26 minutes and held court with the media in a question and answer setting for the first time since media day, I found myself going back and listening to the questions and the answers that followed again and again simply because they didn’t seem to make a ton of sense.
So, lend your eyes for just a moment as I try to make some sense of a bizarre day in Boston…
Sweeney, talking about the goal’s for this club in his opening statement: "Expectations have not changed for this organization. We expect the players to make a push and get into the playoffs. It was the same regard last year, and that was why we added at the trade deadline, because our players had been in position. It didn’t work, we fell just short. But, I’m also committed, as I said last year, to draft. I wasn’t trading David Pastrnak to try to find the D that we feel we still need to improve our group and add depth to; acknowledging all the way along that we have some shortcomings in our roster, expecting either players to step forward and fill those voids, or continuing to find the right personnel to fit in with the guys that have won and are looking forward to winning again."
This is one that I hoped I heard and read wrong. So, a few theories here..
If the Bruins suddenly rattle off a few wins under Cassidy and find themselves back in a playoff position, they’re going to be buyers? No, that can’t be right. That can’t be right. Can’t be, right? (Say something enough times and it stops making sense.) If you truly were about winning in the playoffs this season, you do not fire Julien and replace him with Cassidy. Julien has won a Stanley Cup and he’s been to two overall. Cassidy never made it out of the second round during his tenure as the head coach of the P-Bruins. A few wins or a spark should not change the path or give you the sense that this team is anything more than a middle-of-the-pack club that would get straight-up waxed by a juggernaut in the first round. This is not the first time that some good old fashioned and confusing doublespeak comes into the game for Sweeney during this whole thing.
Second theory? This is Sweeney’s way of saying he was not going to trade future pieces (Brandon Carlo, Pastrnak) for the potential big fix, or that the prices for a smaller fix were out of his price range and involved players like that, which would be a positive. Remember, the Avalanche allegedly wanting Brandon Carlo for Gabriel Landeskog and the Blues wanted Pastrnak for Kevin Shattenkirk last June.
Other theory: This is Sweeney admitting that this team is going to be stuck in these crossroads until players like Charlie McAvoy, Zach Senyshyn, Jeremy Lauzon, and others seize NHL spots and that the slow build is something that the Black and Gold recognize as a must in today’s game.
Sweeney, on the coaching staff solutions: "I’m not going to pull away from Providence or go external at this point in time. I think that the development process, as I’ve always acknowledged, is incredibly important for the organization."
This one should be obvious. The P-Bruins staff is still real, real young between first-year head coach Kevin Dean and assistant coaches Jay Leach and Trent Whitfield, and the current fired coach market isn’t really loaded. In fact, Julien’s firing made him the cream of the crop, with Gerard Gallant, Ken Hitchcock, and Jack Capuano behind him. Hey, maybe the Bruins should call Julien back.
In the meantime, Joe Sacco, who was a head coach back with the Avalanche a few years back, will run the defense while Jay Pandolfo will move behind the bench (he’s watched from the coach’s box).
Sweeney, on a trade and players not performing to their standards: "Well, there haven’t been a lot of trades, certainly during the season. It would have required us to deviate from some of the players we currently have or recently selected in order to go after the level of player you may be describing from an impact standpoint. Have we made a misidentification of players that would impact us? That does remain to be seen. That’s the evaluation process that we need to go through. On a personal level, players that are not hitting their high-water mark from even the previous year, that’s a concern of ours. There’s no question that that represents an opportunity for us to explore outside or inside and to replace the player and evaluate. Every decision I make is going to be evaluated, but I guarantee you that it will start with me in terms of acknowledging that this just wasn’t good enough."
Jimmy Hayes, signed to a three-year, $6.9 million contract before he even played a game for the club (they had to sign him, he was a restricted free agent), has scored 15 goals in 115 games in Boston. Matt Beleskey, after a career-best 37 points last year, has scored just two goals and seven points in 31 games this season. And of course, David Backes, who has just 11 goals and 22 points in 47 games in the first year of a five-year, $30 million contract, has not lived up to that contract. All Sweeney moves. He’s also probably lumping Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci into that conversation, too.
Sweeney, on the year-long backup goalie struggles: "It’s an area that has put a tremendous amount of pressure on our group. Anton [Khudobin] didn’t get off to a great start, and then got injured. That hurt us a little bit. We weren’t looking to accelerate either Zane [McIntyre] or Malcolm [Subban] in that situation. So, we’ve been exposed to that area. It’s put a tremendous amount of pressure on our group overall. And again, that’s part of the equation. I said to the team this morning – if a goaltender doesn’t play well, is that necessarily on the coach? Or if the coach – sorry, if the goaltender plays well and the team doesn’t score, is that on the coach? No, it’s not. It’s on myself and the players themselves need to accept that responsibility that we need to have a better player in that situation, or the players step up and improve their own play."
Between their three-headed backup nightmare, the Bruins have a 1-10-2 record. Seriously. They have grabbed just four of a possible 26 points in that regard. Overall, the trio has allowed 48 goals on 371 shots. That’s an .871 save percentage. That is almost impossibly bad at the NHL level. If the Bruins grab even just nine more points (which would draw their backups at .500 in terms of points grabbed, which is sort of the expected bare minimum for an NHL capable backup), the Bruins have 67 points on the year and are just one point out of first place in the Atlantic Division.
Sweeney also goes on to basically say that this is not Julien’s fault, so why are we here again? What world is this?
This storyline was a point of contention between Sweeney and Julien, too, from what I’ve gathered. Julien strongly felt that he needed a better backup goaltender option, but was never given one. It was no accident that Julien would often pepper in a 'or outside the organization' when talking about how to fix the club's backup goaltending woes this season.
Sweeney, on his relationship with Julien the coach: "I don’t think any two people are going to agree on everything. I’ve respected and I’ve acknowledged the structure and accountability that Claude certainly, as a coach, brings to the table, and I think every team needs. But, at times, there’s where you are in a given situation, to be able to implement a particular player, and whether that’s having the patience in a younger player and such, there were some times when I’m not necessarily going to agree on things. But, as a general manager, you’re not going to trump decisions from a lineup standpoint. And as a coach, they would like to say, well, maybe there’s better personnel you can find. But again, my relationship with Claude has really evolved and grown over the last little while. It’s just, seeing where our group is today and where we want to get to, I’m excited about whether or not Butch and his coaching staff can make their own imprint."
Sweeney probably wasn’t too thrilled on those nights where he saw Ryan Spooner or Austin Czarnik relegated to a fourth-line wing (these players are natural centers and should absolutely, 100% play there or not at all), or when Colin Miller was a healthy scratch for John-Michael Liles.
There was also likely a point where this came to a head and Julien told Sweeney that he needs more (more offensively capable players on the wings) if he’s going to get more out of them. This one sort of comes back to the Neely-Julien drama that’s been talked about before and how Neely sometimes felt that Julien wanted to win games “zero to zero” if he could. Flip side: Talk to any player in that locker room and they’ll tell you that Julien has made the necessary adjustments to stay current in today’s game.
But Cassidy could make an impact here. He has a strong relationship with some of their youngsters up front -- Czarnik, Spooner, and Frank Vatrano -- and could find better ways to utilize them and play them more to their strengths than to the strengths of their veteran linemates. Interesting dynamic.
Sweeney, on changes under Cassidy: "I expect our practices to change a little bit, in terms of Bruce has always been a coach that wants to practice at a really high pace. He’ll probably tweak a few things coming out of the neutral zone. We just discussed in a short period of time and watching the play of the players that he has coached over the years. Some of that might be personnel related, that he might see a player in a different vein. We’re going to go through that as a group and have those discussions based on what the best lineup is and how that lineup wants to look. Whether that’s a top-six component with a heavy bottom-six, or whether that’s a balanced lineup in sets of two that a lot of teams operate."
This practice note is interesting and was backed up by players that played under Cassidy in Providence. If the Bruins practice at a faster pace, perhaps they play at one, too? It’s an interesting thought, but there’s something to remember: the American Hockey League primarily plays a schedule that’s heavy on weekend games and light (usually totally free) on weekdays. Weekdays outnumber weekends, too, so you’d almost expect a higher pace for those practices, no? Naturally, Cassidy’s practices are lauded -- and the Bruins are not allowed to practice next week thanks to a bye week.
Sweeney, on what Cassidy brings to the team: "Offensively, Butch was an offensive player. I think he sees the game and realizes that our power play got off to a slow start. But, it’s certainly turned the corner. He and the rest of the coaches have been working on that. I think he gravitates towards players that have a creative mind. Along with the fact that, I said, he doesn’t deviate from the structure and accountability-wise. He’s pretty black and white from a player’s perspective. Where you stand and what you’re bringing to the table, I think that will be something that he likes to meet with players and set the expectations. And if it’s not going well in a game, he makes changes and makes adjustments."
This has been said to me before. Cassidy is not afraid to push the button of his star players and demand better out of them. That could be a kick in the ass that some of the team’s pricier, locked-in with no-move clauses need to right this ship moving forward, even if this season is a loss. In other words, he won’t be afraid to make somebody uncomfortable if they’re slacking. That could help that’s had as much ‘status-quo’ as the Black and Gold have had since Julien came to town in 2007.
Sweeney, on Cassidy’s interim tag and the coaching future: "I’ll have a list of candidates that I will be looking at closely and at some point in time, interviewing. I would consider Bruce a candidate and I want to evaluate on the fly. It’s not about wins and losses. The expectations for him to get us in or not be a candidate doesn’t exist. I want to go through the daily process of evaluating the impact that he can have, and I have had a working relationship with Bruce for several years and feel comfortable in the communication level that we’ve had in the past and what’s going to happen going forward."
I think you’d be safe to put some money on this being Cassidy’s job even if the Bruins go .500 to finish the year, but other names I would put on the list for the Bruins to consider or entertain this summer: Gerard Gallant (I haven’t met a player that didn’t love playing for him), Hitchcock (though he may be too Julien-esque for the B’s liking), Providence Friars coach Nate Leaman, and Harvard’s Ted Donato. Kinda rooting for Jack Capuano, too, just so I can ask for some hair advice.
Sweeney, on the future and salvaging this season with a move if it’s there: "Do I think we have an opportunity to make the playoffs? Absolutely, there’s no question this group has a chance to get in. Whether or not I can find a player between now and the deadline that sort of fills all those gaps, that does remain to be seen. But I think it does tail with the fact that I’m not going to be shortsighted. I’m going to stick to the longer term view as to what I have put in place with the intention of being able to bridge and bringing in players like David Backes and surround our guys that we get a chance to win now and be competitive now. I didn’t think we needed to do that. Our players and our core players are too good to not have that plan in place in the short-term and the long-term."
If the Bruins make a trade, it’s going to be for somebody with term and a ceiling that has not yet been met. I think the general preference there is still a young defensemen (the Ducks and Wild have tons to spare), too, but I’ve been wrong before. The price of a Duchene or Landeskog seem more appropriate for a win-now club, not a club looking to continue the build back into Cup contention.
Sweeney, on the heavily criticized timing of the Julien firing: "I don’t think this has that effect other than people here in the room are missing the parade. Yes, I acknowledge that and I apologize. But outside of that, I don’t believe I’m downplaying the impact of the decision and how difficult it was at all."
It’s true. Sweeney does officially owe me a championship parade.
Well, at least I’m not alone there.