The unraveling of the 2015-2016 Boston Bruins season started long before training camp, long before the days of summer free agency. Specifically, it started on June 26, 2015, when GM Don Sweeney traded his second-best defenseman to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a decent futures haul but nothing that would provide any sort of immediate relief.
The Bruins, tied for 22nd in the league in goals-against per game in 2014-2015, spent the summer of 2015 making their already weak defense worse, not better. It was glaringly obvious to anyone who watched the Bruins in ‘14-’15 that defense would be a major, major issue this year.
The acquisition of Colin Miller helped. However, it "helped" in the same way a hungry person being told tomorrow’s dinner will be delicious helps: cool, but what about now?
If you look at what management did in the offseason, it becomes strikingly ridiculous: you lost your second-best defenseman and replaced him with nothing, deciding instead to focus on getting your team ENERGY by giving up an asset for Zac Rinaldo.
Yet Claude Julien’s coaching is the problem?
Management failed Julien spectacularly this season, so much so that one can’t help but wonder if it was by design. Julien was tasked with lofty expectations yet given so few tools that it’s almost like Sweeney and Neely were setting him up to fail.
If management truly had Julien’s back, the solution would have been simple: something from the top to the effect of "we know this is going to be a rough ride this year, but we hope that it’s the start of a step in the right direction." Give a mandate to Julien to play the kids, to give ice time to C. Miller, Frank Vatrano, David Pastrnak, Joe Morrow and the like to see what the organization has in the ranks.
Instead, Julien was expected to compete with what he was given. Julien’s reluctance to take chances on the younger players is a frequent (and not completely without merit) criticism. But what is he supposed to do? If he’s tasked with winning now, he’s going to do what’s worked for him in the past. I have a hard time believing Sweeney and Neely told Julien "play our young defensemen, stop playing Dennis Seidenberg" and Julien said "lol no!"
It’s the same no-win situation Neely put Peter Chiarelli in last season: if you don’t make the playoffs, it’s going to cost you your job, in spite of it being abundantly clear the roster is fatally flawed. Chiarelli ended up not dumping contracts at the deadline, attempting to make a job-saving run over doing what was best for the franchise. Can you blame him?
This year, Julien did the same. He gave more ice time than was merited to the Kevan Millers and Joonas Kemppainens of the world, seeking that valued "dependability," while C. Miller, Morrow, Trotman, Seth Griffith, Austin Czarnik and Vatrano continued their NHL development by...not playing in the NHL.
Let’s be honest: there seems to be no real direction whatsoever from the men at the top of the organization. Does anyone have any idea what the Bruins are doing?
This "soft rebuild" that they claim to be doing is pretty much a garbage fire. It’s a plan that seems hell-bent on maintaining mediocrity, being just good enough to still fill the Garden on a nightly basis and sneak in a playoff round or two, but nothing with any real end goal.
The Bruins have been like the Jekyll and Hyde of hockey operations: trade Milan Lucic (move for the future). Extend Adam McQuaid (move for now). Trade Dougie Hamilton for just draft picks (move for the future). Keep Loui Eriksson without an extension (move for now).
The organization is stuck on some sort of planning roller coaster, riding "going for it" and "let’s build for the future" peaks and valleys until all of the fans just want to get off the ride. This has been going on since 2013, and the common thread is Neely. Is he under pressure to "WIN" from above? Absolutely.
But someone has to step up and take the reins here. Pick a course and stick with it, or the team is going to end up being like the late-‘00s/early-’10s Vancouver Canucks: consistently good enough to make some noise, but always flawed enough to not reach the promised land.
What’s hard to understand is, given all of the mismanagement, how Claude Julien is the problem. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of Julien: he needs his veterans, is slow to change and tends to be more heavy-handed with the kids than he does with established players.
But this season? This season was arguably Julien’s most masterful as a coach. His coaching was able to get a team with arguably the worst defense in the entire league to within a point of a playoff spot.
His coaching and adjustments saw the penalty kill climb out of what seemed from an impossible hole, from last in the league to tenths of a percentage point out of top ten in the league.
His strategy and personnel adjustments saw the Bruins have three 30-goal scorers for the first time in what seems like centuries. The Bruins had the fifth-most productive offense in the league this season. Fifth! If Sweeney and Neely had given Julien one more decent defenseman, the Bruins probably win the Atlantic Division going away.
Julien is not the problem, and firing Julien would just be making a change for the sake of making a change. "Things didn’t go well. Something must change!"
Yes, something must change: the organization’s leadership has to, you know, start leading. Start building a legitimate team, and start replacing the assets lost in the Johnny Boychuk, Tyler Seguin and Hamilton trades before you turn on a coach who’s done the best he can with very little.
Sweeney and Neely gave Julien a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe and told him to go out there and win the Monaco Grand Prix. Somehow, he was able to drive that thing to respectability, yet he’s the problem?
Management gave Julien, the best coach the Bruins have had in decades, a roster with a few diamonds and tons of scraps, and demanded a high-end piece of jewelry.
Firing him for this mess would be borderline idiotic, the latest in a series of management blunders that have followed the 2011 Stanley Cup win, all of which came with the same man at the top of the organizational chart.
Maybe coaching isn’t the problem.