Monday, May 24, 2010
SHOULD THE BRUINS FIRE CLAUDE?
It's taken a little more than a week for Game 7 to properly settle in. I'm only recently cleaning up the empty beer cans around my house from this series, like spent artillery shells from the battlefields of World War I.
It was such a weird ending. The Bruins upset the Sabres, with relative ease, in 6 games. Then they draw the 7th seeded Flyers. Everyone anticipates a hard-fought, back-and-forth series. The Bruins win the first two, but in very tight contests.
Game 3 convinced us all that the Bruins had found a new gear. A 4-1 win on Philly's ice, going up 3 games to 0, an historically insurmountable lead. Then Game 5 convinced us all that the Bruins had taken their foot off the pedal, and had dropped a few cylinders in their engine. While Games 6 and 7 were close battles won by Philly's grit and their better finishers, Game 5 was a travesty. Losing 4-0, on home ice, against a backup goalie. Game 3 made us relax in Boston, Game 5 made us buy extra cigarettes and douse our livers with poison.
And while we'll always remember the last mistake in the final battle, that too-many-men call, it was allowed to happen by a completely pitiful effort in Game 5.
How can a team soar so high, then 4 days later crash so low? It's not an easy question to answer. But let's try.
Claude Julien is an excellent strategist, and a great defensive coach. He's instilled a game-changing defense and penalty kill scheme here in Boston. He deservedly won the Adams Award last season, and he's gotten a lot from the talent available to him. The Bruins have lacked the stars that other perennially successful teams have (Washington's Ovechkin, Green and Semin; Pittsburgh's Crosby and Malkin; Detroit's Zetterberg and Datsyuk; so on and so forth).
He is perhaps the best regular season coach in the NHL. Which is insufficient for the Bruins and their fans.
The Bruins are a moody team. Maybe it just seems so because we're familiar with them, but do other teams have moods? Do the Red Wings have good moods and bad moods? How about the Penguins, Blackhawks, or Devils?
In 2008, the Bruins squeeze into the playoffs as an 8th seed. The Bruins fall behind 2-0 against Montreal in the playoffs, then 3-1. They rally, winning an epic Game 6 5-4 in overtime. Then Game 7 comes around and the Bruins play a flat, uninspired game, losing 5-0. Nobody really criticizes them because they were an 8 seed, and it was an accomplishment to merely force 7 games.
In 2009, the Bruins have their best regular season since 1971-72. The top seed in the East, they roll through the Canadiens like Rommel through the Ardennes Forest. The Bruins win Game 1 of their 2nd round series against Carolina, dominating the Canes 4-1. Then they get complacent. Cam Ward has a great Game 2, the Bruins lose in OT in Carolina, then actually fall behind 3-1 before waking up. They win Games 5 and 6. But once again, lose in Game 7, this time in OT. The Bruins went from confident to arrogant to complacent, and they let the Canes take control of a series that never should have gone 7.
In 2010, the Bruins earned a 6th seed in the East. Disappointing compared to pre-season expectations, pleasing compared to mid-season expectations. They outfight the Sabres. But still saw themselves struggling to eliminate them in Game 5. In fact, Buffalo throttled them 4-1.
Then we know what happens next.
Claude Julien has been the Bruins coach for 3 seasons. He's made the playoffs 3 times, and has won 2 playoff series. Not bad at all. He's won the Adams for coach of the year, he's 133-78-35 as Bruins' head coach, or approximately 44-26-12 per season (that's an average of 100 points, which is usually good enough to vie for a divisional title).
But in the playoffs, which are a completely different game, his Bruins teams are 14-14. He was 4-7 in the playoffs when he coached in Montreal. So he's 18-21 overall. Most striking, he is 3-7 when his team can eliminate their opponents. He is 1-3 in Game 7s.
Maybe it's just coincidence. 10 games is indeed a small sample, and 4 of those are Game 7s, which are utter mayhem. Numbers can be so selectively chosen to suggest something larger at work. So let's get back to the human side of this.
We all saw how fierce the Bruins were in Game 6 of the '08 series against Montreal, seeming to will the puck into the net with their hearts and minds. Then we saw an empty, heartless, indifferent Game 7.
We all saw how intensely the Bruins crushed Montreal in '09. Then how they struggled with a basic 2 man forecheck, and couldn't maintain possession of the puck for 3 straight games.
Then there was this season. It'd be one thing if the Bruins and Flyers played 7 ridiculously tight games (like Games 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7), and it was almost coincidental the the Bruins won 3 then Philly won 4. But that's not how it happened. The Bruins broke the Flyers in Game 3. Then humiliated themselves in Game 5.
It's always hard to close teams out. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was looking for a good hockey bet and I advised him to bet on any team down 3-0 in Game 4. But when the Flyers ignited and showed some serious fire, what was the Bruins' response? To shit the fucking bed.
I remember hearing before Game 4, that Claude Julien had ordered his players not to use the word "sweep" during practice or at any other time. Is that the attitude of a winner?
Hockey teams occasionally need inspiration. Laviolette provided that to the Flyers in Game 7 when he called a timeout. He kept his team confidently calm, but also energized and motivated. I'm not saying Claude should be Bill Parcells behind the bench. There are plenty of ways to inspire. And he just doesn't do it. Does he look or act inspirationally behind that bench?
The city of Boston is blessed with two of the best hockey coaches in the world: Jerry York and Jack Parker. The last 3 NCAA titles belong to these two giants. And their styles are completely different. York is the quiet and stern old man who seems friendly but you're also terrified to disappoint him. Parker is the aggressive, assertive guy who very vocally demands nothing but the best at all times.
What's Claude Julien? What's his personality? What do the players feel when he feels something? Claude's smart. He's a thinker, a master strategist. But to paraphrase Tedy Bruschi, hockey isn't like chess, it's like rock em sock em robots. And it's not like Julien is a nerd or anything, he played the game, he just puts too much emphasis on thinking and not enough on doing.
How many times did Dennis Wideman seem to overthink things this season? How about Michael Ryder, or Blake Wheeler? This was not a dumb team, but an extremely indecisive one. How many hesitations in the crease did we see? How many too-many-men penalties were there (that's a result of indecision, like Savard calling for a change, then staying on the ice).
It just doesn't seem to gel with this team, and I don't think it would work with any team, at least not work all the way to the Cup Finals. This team was at its best from Game 2 of the Buffalo series to Game 3 of the Philadelphia series. They took chances, were aggressive, and decisive. Then they get up 3-0 in a series, or 3-0 in a game. Then they start trying to adhere to some sort of gameplan. Fuck that, just play.
Gameplans and strategies are good to have before a game, and to keep in the back of your mind. But reality is unscripted, unplanned, and it just happens. In hockey, it happens even quicker.
So 2 things can happen for the Bruins to be successful
#1: Claude Julien needs to get fired and a more relaxing and less cerebral coach needs to replace him.
#2: Claude needs to change, maybe with the help of his players.
If the Bruins are unwilling to cut Claude loose this instant, he at least has to be on probation. And he needs veterans of the Mark Recchi ilk, players who will act, not contemplate. Maybe give him 20-25 games in 2010-11 to see if things function properly. If not, it's the axe.