It's hunting season on NHL GMs and coaches.
With Ted Nolan gone in Buffalo, Toronto having its own Night Of The Long Knives in gutting the front office and several other NHL figures (notably Craig Berube in Philadelphia) hanging by a thread, the Sword Of Damocles (Owner Vengeance Edition) fell on its latest victim Peter Chiarelli in Boston yesterday.
The move probably came as a big surprise to some in the Bruins media:
You can pretty much bet Claude Julien & Peter Chiarelli aren't going anywhere after being given green light by B's to speak this afternoon— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) April 13, 2015
and others seemed to confuse the difference between a coach and GM firing in their eagerness to get a piping-hot take out there:
With BOS, BUF and TOR in need of coach, Babcock might land 5 years, $25 million as coach. Free agency well played.— Kevin Paul Dupont (@GlobeKPD) April 15, 2015
but it surprised some a little less. A week ago, I argued that Bruins missing the playoffs would be a good thing precisely because it would potentially lead to some blood-letting in the Bruins front office that needed to happen for the club to progress again, and so we now get a chance to see if that's the case.
The Boston media was more cautious - Fluto Shinzawa argued strongly that this was not the time for rash decisions in the Boston Globe...but the Bruins appear to have taken that counsel, considered it and then rejected the plan.
They needed to. This is a Bruins front office that desperately needs a shakeup. Peter Chiarelli, according to Shinzawa and others, was the man on the outside of a triumvirate increasingly dominated by President Cam Neely, who has reportedly become disaffected both with the direction of the team and Claude Julien's defence-first style of coaching. He and Charlie Jacobs have clearly decided that, nine seasons after Chiarelli was hired and one Stanley Cup, his usefulness to Boston has run out.
The signs were there. Ever since 2011, Chiarelli has desperately been trying to recapture the magic of that team. But the personnel decisions seemed...puzzling. There was the Séguin trade, which frankly will be debated until the end of time in Boston and could go both ways, but as an example, here's some of the names joining in the calendar year 2012: Brian Rolston, Chris Bourque, Greg Zanon, Garnet Exelby. If you look at all the signings made in that calendar year (and there were 15 of them-we're excluding Malcolm Subban) only Torey Krug and possibly Niklas Svedberg stand out as contributing any real value since (though Zach Trotman is a work in progress). Chiarelli took a Stanley Cup-winning roster that could have been built upon, a strong, relatively youthful corr, & did nothing to make it better.
2013 is an interesting year...heavily skewed by the Séguin trade and the Jagr trade, as well as the pickup of Carl Soderberg. However, at this point we're already looking at a GM desperately trying to hit a home run and then flustering into backup plans...Jagr, for example, was "second choice" to Jarome Iginla and while things turned out well and the Bruins went to the finals, there's still a sense that eventually, the big swings for the fences have to run out of luck sometime.
So it proved in 2014. This time round the Bruins got Iginla, but a loss in the Conference semi-finals after building a President's Trophy team is...well, disappointing to say the least for Chiarelli and Julien. Coming into 14/15 there was a need to retool, reload and push on. 2014 also saw the Johnny Boychuk trade, which in hindsight appears to be one of the biggest mistakes of Chiarelli's tenure, especially when considering the return...upper-mid-round picks that may not mature for several years if ever.
And so to this year...one that saw a need to retool, reload and push on that just...didn't happen. From being too active and willing to pull triggers in the past, Chiarelli froze up at this trade deadline...just when the Bruins desperately needed new blood. His only significant move of deadline day was to bring in Brett Connolly...which didn't work.
Couple a declining return and some bad moves with being forced increasingly to the outside and being inextricably linked with a coach stuck in playing a defense-first style those above him hated, and Chiarelli's days were always numbered - the Bruins missing the playoffs just put the final nail in his coffin. Clearly, his signing record the past few seasons has convinced the Bruins leadership that he simply can't rebound or make the moves necessary to build this team back up. A change was needed, and Chiarelli was the most visible scapegoat the ownership had.
Saying that, who are the options? Where do the Bruins go now? Do they persist with Claude Julien, a coach playing a defense-first system disliked by his bosses that is looking more and more out of touch with the new faster, skilful NHL trends, or can the coach along with his biggest supporter? Do they restaff the top office with "company men" from inside the organization or look boldly outside and go for a whole new slate? Here are the early possible options:
Option 1: Keep Julien, promote Don Sweeney/Cam Neely takes over command.
This is the safest option for the team in terms of continuity, but it's also the least likely combination to work...as mentioned earlier, Sweeney and Neely are not believed to be massive fans of Julien's work, and so that could see a disconnect in the front office in times to come...exactly the same problem that hurt Chiarelli.
Option 2: Fire Julien, Sweeney/Neely take command of front office.
This is a little more radical, but allows the Bruins brass to assess who they bring in and tailor the coaching to their whims. The problem then is wondering how much the culture will change in the back office - Sweeney has experience in Providence developing players, but will he or Neely be willing or able to control the new coach enough to make sure they're used? And will the calibre of coach that the Bruins media are already talking about (say, Mike Babcock) really want to work in an atmosphere where they're effectively hamstrung-especially when Neely is already talking about how the Bruins need to get back to an "identity" that seemingly only he knows about?
Option 3 - Complete clearout - hire GM from outside, then a coach
The most radical choice. Right now it means the Boston media are talking about names like Ray Shero - a GM who lost his job in Pittsburgh following a similar template to Chiarelli in his attempts to rob veterans cheaply from other teams while somewhat neglecting his own development system/trading youngsters. He's also another GM that had a great core but didn't build around it to any decent degree...Chiarelli's problem, apparently..
The trouble is - in terms of GM candidates out there - are there many "established" GMs looking for work who would actually be an improvement on Chiarelli? There may be a few appear later in the offseason (Doug Wilson is on the hotseat in San Jose, perhaps) but when you're talking about a man who's presided over the destruction of what should've been a Western dynasty-in-waiting through incompetence as the best one out there, there's a dearth of candidates. The only logical option here is probably to hire a new, young, hungry GM from an assistant's position or AHL eager to make his mark, then let him recruit the coach and build the team in his own image. It's the option that would guarantee the most change, but it would also probably be too radical for Neely/Jacobs. Which is a shame, since it's the best one.
Option 4 - Julien stays, new outside GM
This, effectively the reverse of what the Maple Leafs tried to do to solve their problem, runs into all manner of issues off the bat. What if the "new" GM wants his own man in? What if his and Julien's vision differ so greatly that there's always friction when it comes to trades/callups? Also, as with any new GM, there will always be the question of just how much power they have compared to Neely and Jacobs, and any GM's vision is one that Neely has already said would have to fit with their "identity". Imposing an "identity" on a new GM pretty much means you're taking the job yourself through a puppet a lot of the time...given that Julien's defensive style is apparently not the "identity" Neely wants, how long will such a relationship last?
The Bruins are in a position where serious change is needed. Mismanaged cap, poor decisions recently on contracts (Neely again specifically citing Reilly Smith's extension shows that the ownership were unsure about it, although clearly not enough to...y'know, support it, which makes the "don't blame me, blame the other guy!" claim a bit streaky.) and general inaction, coupled with a GM who sometimes failed to make his own decisions to catastrophic effect (according to Doug MacLean on Hockey Central today, Chiarelli was talked into the Séguin trade by his staff) has come to a head this season as cap mismanagement/failure to adapt have both come home to roost.
The trouble is, the most apposite solution to this problem is also the one that, right now, it looks like the Bruins are least likely to take. If they're going to commit to changing the culture, they have to do it wholeheartedly, with a new GM and his own man brought in as coach to run the club the way he wants without interference from those above. Based on all the talk from Neely so far, that isn't going to happen. Cam has a vision, and he wants a man who will implement that vision. The good news is, the brain trust in Boston have a month or so to choose their GM. The bad news is, that man may not be out there right now.
The question now is whether the "vision" of a president is the one that Bruins hockey needs right now. For the best progress to be made, the Bruins need a GM courageous enough to essentially say "this team is mine, and changes need to be made" from the off, not one that's a puppet of the executive dining room or any "evolutionary" moves.
Are Cam Neely and Charlie Jacobs brave enough to hire someone like that, though? More importantly, can such a person really have an impact while the coach from the old regime remains?
The Bruins front office has a lot of soulsearching to do over the next few weeks.