Let's start with a bald statement.
The Boston Bruins are on a knife-edge right now.
Not financially, of course - New England is a region where hockey will always thrive, and with the Bruins as its flagship, there is never any danger of them struggling financially. However, mismanagement could certainly see them fall well away from relevancy over the next few years
In terms of on-ice play, however, the current picture is, to put it bluntly, a little worrying. A defence that is held together with Zdeno Chara's will, a forward group that seemingly forgets how to score, and a team that never knows what it's going to be from night to night.
Couple that with a core that is screaming out for help that realistically may still be a year or two away, and a lethargic front office willing to throw all their chips in on the wrong hands, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Let's be clear here. Give Claude Julien a good team, and good things happen. We saw that in 2011. We saw it in 2013.
Give Claude Julien a bad team, and good things still happen - they just happen less often.
Here is the thing. This season is a perfect storm for a coach firing. The core players, with the exception of Brad Marchand, are having a bad year. The injuries seem frequent. The marquee FA signings aren't really working out.
And yet DESPITE all that, they currently sit second in the Atlantic, having taken 10 points off their last ten games in what is supposedly a "bad run". Games which, by the way, come as part of a viciously punishing schedule this season:
Look at the breakdown of rest situations for those teams. Boston is playing an insane amount of 3 in 4 nights and 4 in 6 nights. pic.twitter.com/x7jk7xzsKi— Rob Pizzola (@robpizzola) January 19, 2017
That, friends, is what you call a player-killer.
And yet somehow, the coach that is managing to do this, that even AFTER the two teams below them shake out all their games in hand and catch up will still see them sitting with a chance of a playoff spot either by right or as a wild-card is the problem here.
This is all very convenient for the Bruins front office, because it means that Claude Julien is a very tempting sacrifice that takes public and media attention away from a management group that seemingly has all the calm, rationality and poise of an angry bull on meth in a china shop.
Don Sweeney and his partner-in-crime Cam Neely, in the 18 months since they've taken office, have:
- traded a player who could have been the Bruins' next franchise defenseman for a song, citing "character issues" that never materialised while barely even seeming interested in retaining him -
- stockpiled a pile of draft picks then often thrown them seemingly at random towards players who common wisdom had would have been available far lower down the board (notable examples include Zach Senyshyn, who is now scoring in the OHL but the jury is still out upon, and Trent Frederic). The later-round picks like Jeremy Lauzon and Brandon Carlo in 2015 may save the day a little, but when one sees players like Travis Konecny, Mathew Barzal and Thomas Chabot ignored in favour of players like Jakub Zboril in 2015 and Trent Frederic taken in 2016 at the end of the first round and players like Alex DeBrincat and current OHL scoring leader Adam Mascherin passed over in 2016....they tend to even out.
- shown disinterest in renegotiation of contracts to the point that Loui Eriksson was allowed to walk for nothing this season, to be replaced by David Backes on a nightmarish deal that will likely haunt the Bruins for several years.
- Failed repeatedly to address glaring issues, like, for example, the hunt for a defenseman. In fact, this is a front office that thinks, if reports are any judge, that trading for a forward is the best way to solve the very real issues with a blue-line that is threadbare and struggling under the strain of players having to play roles far beyond their ability (see - Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller).
You can't do a job if you're not being given the right tools. It is Neely and Sweeney's responsibility to give Julien the tools both now and in the future. They haven't done that. They have had 18 months to put their own stamp on the team and so far the only stamp they've put on it is as a team that has no idea what it is and where it's going. If Sweeney and Neely have a plan (and it's not unreasonably to expect that they do) then it's not obvious to anyone else, including their own coach.
Julien is, essentially, being sabotaged by his front office right now.
Which makes the whispers continually floating around in recent days even more interesting. Talk that the ownership have given a "soft green light" to the front office to fire Julien if they feel it's necessary. Constant speculation from certain members of the Bruins media that a firing would improve the team, and "unnamed sources" telling these reporters that the front office are considering it.
The Bruins have a pattern. Whenever they plan to pull a move that might well be unpopular (see - Hamilton trade, Séguin trade, and others) the "unnamed sources" start to prepare the ground, and we start to get some of the insiders feed the odd article out there to almost "test the water". This is beginning to happen now.
That should worry you, Bruins fans. That should worry you a lot.
There's even talk that Cam Neely has his eye on being Bruins coach, or at least being more closely involved directly with the on-ice side of things.
Firing Claude Julien right now would be catastrophic for the Bruins. It's effectively firing one of the most likely sources of a solution in favor of allowing the root cause of the problem to take over.
The coach is not a problem for the Bruins. But he might be a problem for those running the team because he's not "their" man.
For Sweeney and Neely, if taking the spotlight off their continuing mismanagement of the B's resources and putting their own man behind the bench means firing one of the winningest coaches in NHL history, that's a worthwhile sacrifice.
All they might be waiting for now, it seems, is an excuse to push the button.