Hockey is an organic sport. It constantly changes and evolves, with trends in player recruitment and team makeup coming and going. Coaches who can either see the next big trend coming before it happens or adapt themselves to the "new" way of doing things are often the most successful, particularly in today's NHL.
In Claude Julien, Boston have a coach who has shown he's willing to adapt to new concepts, but also has a loyalty to a somewhat traditional "top-six and bottom six" view of how hockey line structure should work-a view which says the top six are the guys who go out and get the goals, and the bottom six are, in the main, the guys you put out there when you want to stop the other side getting the goals. And as for the FOURTH line...well, that's where you put the muscle.
It's an approach that can (and has) worked beautifully in his career so far. Julien can boast a record that currently has him 6th among active NHL coaches in career points percentage (percentage of possible points available in games he's coached his teams have won), along with a total of over 900 NHL games as a head coach (32nd all time) and a playoff winning record that has him 29th all-time in playoff winning percentage (ahead of names like Lindy Ruff, Michel Therrien and Darryl Sutter).
Nobody with half an eye on the NHL would ever call Claude Julien a bad coach. In fact, these statistics indisputably put him among the best when it comes to active NHL coaches.
And yet, despite that, this season has caused this writer to wonder...is it time for at least one old dog to learn some new tricks - and going a step further, is the current wave of talent in the Bruins system going to demand a change in approach in order to integrate them more effectively?
Certainly, line decisions of late have been...well, interesting. There was the David-Pastrnak-as-a-fourth-liner incident, the Joonas-Kemppainen-as-third-line-centre experiment, and the fact that no matter what the B's are doing right now, they can't find a place for players like Frank Vatrano and Austin Czarnik while other players would seemingly actually have to kill a puppy in order to be a healthy scratch.
On the face of it, this is all defensible. As Chowder's resident stats-analyst John explains:
"Claude likes his bottom-six to be low-event, which essentially means not a lot happens while they're on the ice. High-event players (like Vatrano) are fun to watch as a lot more happens when on the ice, but there is a lot more likelihood of shots being taken against them as well as them shooting or scoring in the attacking zone, which means there's a lot more chance of Bruins conceding as well as scoring."
So essentially, the B's lines are designed with clear templates and jobs in mind - the top line is ELITE SCORING, the second backs them up, and the third and fourth are primarily focused on defense.
Of course, Ryan Spooner, third-line centre extraordinaire, somewhat throws a wrench into that plan, and it's interesting to see that he's been rewarded for his offensive heroics by...er, being shoehorned into a top-six wing, while David Pastrnak (probably one of the most exciting B's players to watch and a player crying out for...say, Vatrano to feed or a Czarnik to be fed by) has been sent to the AHL after toiling on the third line with Joonas Kemppainen, who Julien likes but has no offensive capabilities.
Indeed, at times it appears the prototypical Claude Julien player, at least for the bottom six, is one that reacts to any chance to go forward and create with all the dynamism and eagerness to exert himself of a stoned koala.
"Low-event" is a term invented for players like Kemppainen. But the one thing he IS good at is...not allowing anything dramatic to happen when he's on the ice. Including plays by his linemates. He is the prototypical fourth-line centre.
The trouble is, so is the guy B's are using as their ACTUAL fourth line centre, Max Talbot.
This has led to a logjam in thinking recently - a logjam that has seen the B's keep up players like Kemppainen and Talbot under the justification of "doing a job" while potentially far more valuable players like Vatrano and Czarnik are kept out of the lineup purely on the basis that "there's no room for them" in the top six - an argument that looks even weaker when you consider that "Brett Connolly, Bergeron and Marchand's dream winger" is the NHL equivalent of trying to make fetch happen. Claude Julien is the NHL's Gretchen Weener right now.
We've argued before that Vatrano would be an ideal player on Bergeron's wing, in fact.
However, the really interesting thing that's brought Julien's conservatism into sharp focus is, ironically, the moves of another team - specifically, the Florida Panthers looking to trade Brandon Pirri - the price quoted being "3rd line C/gritty forward, plus a low 2nd".
Here is a comparison of Pirri and Kemppainen, via Own The Puck's excellent WARRIOR charts.
Whilst Pirri has had more ice-time then Kemppainen, he's almost equally as effective defensively, with a far higher offensive output at a cheap price. A "third line forward" price. Julien appears to consider a player comparable to undrafted Euro FA Joonas Kemppainen as a genuine third line forward right now, while other teams are looking to give up young players on reasonable contracts and 22 goals last year for that price. Ask yourself this-would you consider Pirri and Kemppainen on a similar level or worth to a team?
Not only that, though...this approach of Julien's - the "safe" approach, if you like, is not an approach that allows the B's to make best use of the very talented players like Vatrano and Czarnik currently massing outside the B's dressing room door looking for a way in. It's also an approach that sees David Pastrnak, a true fan favorite and one of the brightest young players the Bruins have seen since Joe Thornton, being wasted with grinders and then sent to the AHL.
That's almost a criminal level of misuse of Pastrnak, but he's merely the latest poster boy for an approach that seems almost to dislike skill beyond a certain level-an approach that leaves to some of Bruins' brightest prospects being overlooked.
More worrying, there's not really a logic behind it because they're outperforming or at least matching those being given the nod on the bottom six. Here's Vatrano v Kemppainen, for example.
Given similar icetime, look at how much better Vatrano is performing in almost all categories - including defensively...and yet he's still considered "unpredictable" and "not suited" for a role in the bottom six.
Essentially - as can be argued has been proven again by the 6-2 loss to Anaheim - Claude Julien's current template, while successful before, may not be the one for this Bruins team. In fact, it may actively be holding it back.
Is it time to throw out the established rulebook and Julien to have more faith that going for more offense won't necessarily harm his team?
It can't hurt, can it?