A week after getting fired after nearly a decade as head coach of the Boston Bruins, Claude Julien has landed on his feet, being named today as head coach of Boston oldest and most bitter rival, the Montreal Canadiens, replacing Michel Therrien. To summarize, the Bruins still do not seem to have a plan going forward, and they just gave their biggest rival a coaching upgrade, looking like fools in the process. This is where we are right now.
Bruins fans could see this coming from miles away. It had long been speculated that the Bruins had held off on firing Claude in the past to block division rivals like Montreal or the Ottawa Senators from getting him. Julien has been constantly rumored to be a coaching candidate for the Habs, considering he has been their head coach before, and considering he is one of a handful of bilingual NHL head coaches. In 2011, when Randy Cunneyworth was named interim head coach of the Canadiens, the organization apologized and promised the permanent head coach (it ended up being Therrien) would be able to speak French.
This is a good move for Montreal. They are a playoff team that has struggled as of late, and perhaps a coaching change is what they think they need to kick start to put them over the top. As I mentioned last week, the Claude was fired by the Bruins, it was Michel Therrien who got fired by Pittsburgh in 2009 before they won the Stanley Cup under Dan Bylsma. The Canadiens have a great goaltender in Carey Price, and a great defensive defenseman in Shea Weber who seems like Julien’s kind of player in the tradition of Zdeno Chara, and they think this coach combined with these players could be the mix they need to win their first Stanley Cup since 1993 (the last Cup win by any Canadian team).
For Boston, this is more of what I was talking about last week. The Bruins did not fire Julien sooner because they did not have a better plan and they were afraid to see him coaching a rival. Now, they still do not have a better plan, winning streak that includes a win over Montreal under Bruce Cassidy notwithstanding, and Julien is coaching a rival. While the Bruins are stuck in the middle, Bruins fans are stuck seeing their team’s all time winningest head coach (Julien passed Art Ross, who has an NHL trophy named after him and who named the Boston Bruins, on the franchise win list last season) behind the bench for the Montreal Canadiens of all teams. The thought crossed my mind the other night when the Bruins played the Habs that if the Bruins win, Claude could be Montreal’s new coach, but the reality is just now sinking in, even though I understood this could and probably would happen on an intellectual level for years.
Ultimately, blame for this falls back in Cam Neely and Don Sweeney. They tried to prevent this from happening, and it still happened, and Bruins fans are still stuck with them while Julien is coaching a real contender and Peter Chiarelli is running the loaded with young talent Edmonton Oilers. There have been worse time to be a Bruins fan, but the fact that the people who made the franchise respectable for the first time in decades are gone makes me concerned about how soon things will get better.
January 19, 2016 edit: Today, the NHL decided to make things right and confirmed that John Scott will be attending the All-Star Game in Nashville and will serve as the captain of the Pacific Division’s All-Stars despite getting traded to Montreal and being assigned to their AHL team in Newfoundland. Good job, NHL. My angry take on the matter from a couple days ago has been neutralized for the most part, but you can still read it below.
The National Hockey League has proven once again how out of touch it is with its fans. Not since the 2012 Lockout, in the months when before I started this blog, and was using my university’s newspaper as the outlet to vent my frustrations about the issues that plague the sport I love have I been so angry with the powers that be. I had mellowed out a bit as a hockey fan since then. Sure, Gary Bettman isn’t a great commissioner, but my focus was turned to the overwhelming incompetence of Roger Goodell at the helm of the NFL. Sure, the hockey owners are a collection of billionaires who made Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life look like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but NFL owners were no better, and in fact far worse given how much more profitable their league is and given that NHL player contracts are fully guaranteed, while NHL contracts are not. I had accepted that the NHL would not become bigger than the NBA, but recognized that the NBA was doing a lot of things really well from a business standpoint, and started to root for them to overtake the NFL in popularity. I thought there were things the NHL could do to improve their standing, and borrow from the way the NBA was growing their fanbase, and I thought that was working. All of that may still be true, but this week I cannot help but feel disgusted by the NHL, and feel sorry for John Freaking Scott of all people.
For those who haven’t been paying attention (and I can’t blame you if you haven’t), the NHL this year decided to change the format of the All-Star Game yet again. In the past, they’ve done Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference like the NBA always does, American players vs. Canadian players, North American players vs. European players, and had team captains pick the teams like it’s kickball in middle school gym class, and those are just the formats I can remember off the top of my head. This year, after the success of changing the regular season overtime format from 4 on 4 to 3 on 3, they decided to make the All-Star Game 3 on 3 as well. It is my understanding that there is still an aspect of the captains picking teams system (I’m not entirely sure, and I honestly don’t care enough about an exhibition game that has been seemingly changing on the fly as long as I’ve been following hockey), but the game itself would be injected with the fun skates-on-fire chaos that exists when each team has two fewer players on the ice. Considering all the different ways the NHL has tried to shake up the All-Star Game, and considering that they haven’t even played the All-Star Game half the time this decade because it gets cancelled any time there’s a work stoppage or the Winter Olympics, the NHL All-Star Game shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and should be fun, right?
Enter Jeff Marek of Sportsnet and Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo Sports. They host the popular hockey podcast Marek vs. Wyshynski, which I have pitched to my Boston area friends as Felger and Mazz if Felger and Mazz only talked about hockey and pop culture, and if Mike Felger was Canadian and sounded Canadian. They had the idea on their show of trying to get John Scott of the Arizona Coyotes, a career enforcer in an era when that role is declining faster than seven footers with no shooting range who can’t hit free throws and running backs taken in the top ten of the NFL Draft. According to Scott’s Hockey Reference page, the 32 year old Michigan Tech alumnus has played for six NHL teams, and has amassed a whopping five career goals to go with 542 penalty minutes. Marek and Wyshynski thought it would be amusing to see 6’8″ John Scott in a 3 on 3 situation, skating against the likes of Patrick Kane or Alex Ovechkin, in a situation that his coach would never trust him in a real game.
Marek vs. Wyshynski planted the seed of John Scott’s All-Star candidacy, but it was Reddit that took the idea and ran with it, because that’s how the Internet works in 2015-16. Scott ran away with the All-Star vote, and in doing so, generated more interest for the NHL All-Star Game than I can ever remember. One would think that the NHL would be excited about the publicity, that even if the buzz around the All-Star Game was Internet trolling (albeit in maybe the mildest form of trolling I’ve ever seen), at least it was generating buzz.
We live in a world where people feel like they need to be outraged about something at all times. That’s why Donald Trump is leading in the polls, that’s why air in a football in a blowout of an AFC Championship Game was treated like something that should actually be of concern, and that’s why members of the hockey media who for years thought of the All-Star Game as nothing more than a pointless exhibition are now upset over the sanctity of their precious tradition being tarnished by a goon like John Scott being voted in. Measures have been taken to take the All-Star rosters out of the hands of the fans, to prevent a national tragedy like this from happening again, but the way John Scott has been treated has been far worse.
Before I go any further, I should say that I am no fan of John Scott the player. In 2013, I wrote a post on this very blog saying that Scott gives hockey a bad name. I think the only reason he’s in the NHL is because he can fight. I am one of those people who believes that fighting still has a place in the game, but that fighting for the sake of fighting is a thing of the past. The best era of Bruins hockey in my lifetime could be called The Shawn Thornton Era. Shawn Thornton signed with the B’s after winning the Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007, and was a fixture of the team and the community until 2014. During that span, the Bruins became relevant again, made the playoffs every year, won the Stanley Cup, came within 17 seconds of Game 7 in another Stanley Cup Final, and won their first President’s Trophy in over 20 years. Thornton was the team’s enforcer, but was more than a fighter. He could actually play hockey, and while he was never any kind of offensive juggernaut, he did score ten goals in the 2010-11 season. That is my idea of what an NHL enforcer should be, and John Scott does not fit that mold. That being said, John Scott the person seems like a pretty funny guy (one time, he scored a goal and then had a t-shirt made depicting himself scoring a goal), and a family man. He seemed to be playing along with the joke quite nicely, and was excited to be a part of the All-Star festivities in Nashville with his wife (who is expecting another child) and children. One of the great things about the constant sports coverage we get thanks to the Internet is that we get to see the person behind the name, behind the actions on the ice that we may not like. It’s good to remember that the guy who is a punchline in hockey forums and on sports talk radio is actually a person, too. It’s all in good fun, or at least that’s what most people working outside the NHL offices who pay attention to this trivial story seemed to think.
According to Bob McKenzie, the NHL and the Arizona Coyotes asked Scott to bow out of the All-Star Game, and he refused. In response to that, the NHL did their best to make John Scott go away. This week, the Coyotes send Scott down to the minors, which is not unusual for a guy like Scott, who has been straddling the line between the NHL and AHL his entire career, and yesterday the Coyotes traded him to Montreal, where the Canadiens promptly assigned him to their AHL affiliate in St. John’s, effectively ending his eligibility for the All-Star Game unless the Habs decide to call him up to their NHL roster.
The weirdest thing about the way the John Scott situation was handled by the league is the way they passive-aggressively gave it the “nothing to see here” routine that made it a much bigger deal than conducting business as usual. Sending him to the AHL is one thing, but Arizona trading him to Montreal is another. I found out about Scott getting traded because I got a news alert from the Yahoo Sports app on my phone while I was at work. Because I’m too lazy to adjust the settings, I usually only get alerts that pertain to the Bruins (and the other Boston teams), unless it’s a really big deal. For instance, last week, I did not get an alert about the Ryan Johansen/Seth Jones trade between Columbus and Nashville even though two good young players taken with high picks in recent years moved in the deal. I had to find out about that one on Reddit, but “All-Star Captain John Scott has been traded to Montreal” was something my phone needed me to know right away.
If Scott got to play in the All-Star Game, it would be something to tune into. He wouldn’t be the first enforcer named to the All-Star Game. When Mike Milbury was coach of the Bruins, he selected Chris “Knuckles” Nilan to the All-Star team, and people were mad about it then, but at the end of the day, who really cares? The fact the Gary Bettman or whoever is pulling the strings with the Scott fiasco is going this far to discredit the fan vote seems to forget that the fans who vote for John Scott are the same people who are what make the NHL a viable business. If the league wants to grow, expanding the game to non-traditional hockey markets is certainly important, but so is embracing the weirdness of the fans you already have. John Scott’s All-Star candidacy should be celebrated for what it is: lots of people online trying to tweak with the fabric of an ultimately meaningless exhibition of a game that kids play on frozen ponds, but somehow the economy supports a system in which adults can get paid to play. It’s all supposed to be fun, and that should be obvious. Then again, this is the same league that has cancelled all or part of three different seasons because the billionaires are afraid of making too many players into millionaires at the expense of the fans, at the expense of the customers. Great, now I’m mad about the lockout again. Thanks, Bettman!
I wrote a few months ago about the underwhelming to disappointing summer the Boston Bruins were having, just a few years after winning the Stanley Cup, and just one year after adding perennial 30 goal scorer Jarome Iginla to a roster that was 17 seconds away from forcing a Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals. That was before the B’s traded Johnny Boychuk for nothing that could help them this season, and that was before the injuries and excuses began. This Bruins team is bad. It’s the worst I’ve felt as a fan about the team since the 2009-10 season, but even then, a young Tuukka Rask had given us a reason for hope. This team isn’t tough, can’t score, and has deficiencies on defense that make the goaltending look bad. How did it happen this way to a team that won the second President’s Trophy in franchise history last spring? What has to happen for things to get better?
The highlight for the Bruins in the summer of 2013 was the acquisition of Jarome Iginla in free agency, after the B’s had failed to complete a trade with the Calgary Flames during the season. Iginla instead was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom the Bruins swept on their way to their second Stanley Cup Finals appearance in three years. Unfortunately, Iggy’s stay in Boston ended with a second round playoff exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens (who lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New York Rangers, who lost in the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, meaning the B’s didn’t even come close to being beaten by the best team in the tournament). Once again a free agent, Iginla took his talents to Denver to join the Colorado Avalanche in the summer of 2014.
Players come and go. That’s the nature of professional sports, but Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli did not bring in anyone to replace Iginla. Iggy was brought in to replace the production on the top line that Nathan Horton had contributed from 2010 to 2013 (Iginla was more productive than Horton in the regular season, but lacked Horty’s playoff scoring touch that defined his tenure in Boston), and without a player of that caliber drawing coverage and creating space, the production of Milan Lucic and David Krejci has also suffered this season.The Bruins offense is the worst it has been since 2009-10, the year before they traded for Horton (as well as Gregory Campbell, when the Bruins traded Dennis Wideman to Florida), when 4th liner Daniel Paille had to play significant minutes on the top line alongside Krejci and Lucic. The team has restrictions with the salary cap, but they have been doing a lot more subtraction than addition to this once great roster in recent years, and not just with the 1st line right wing position.
The Bruins lost some major pieces of their identity be choosing to move on from defenseman Andrew Ference (now living in hockey hell as captain of the lowly Edmonton Oilers) in 2013 and enforcer Shawn Thornton (now with the Florida Panthers) in 2014. The Bruins team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011 was not the fastest, not the most prolific offense, and not the most talented team in the NHL by any stretch of the imagination. They won with grit, hard work, physicality, and otherworldly performance in net after otherworldly performance in net by Tim Thomas. Guys like Ference and Thornton were quintessential Bruins in that regard. They were the glue guys in the dressing room who brought a physical edge on the ice. Ference was the guy who started the “Starter Jacket” tradition during the 2011 playoffs, awarding a vintage Bruins jacket he found in a thrift shop to the player of the game (and eventually giving it to the retiring Mark Recchi in the banner raising ceremony), and continuing similar rituals during other playoff runs. Thornton added a certain energy to the game, even if he wasn’t dropping the gloves, and adding Thorty to the lineup against the Vancouver Canucks allowed for the Bruins to play with an edge they did not have when he was in the press box.
At least when they let Ference walk in free agency, there was confidence that young defensemen Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton could step up and take on more responsibility on the blue line, but with the departure of Thornton this summer, it was a shift in philosophy as much as a change in personnel, and it has not worked thus far. The Bruins reacted their playoff loss to Montreal by thinking they needed to get faster and more skilled to be able to go toe to toe with Montreal in the future. That may not be wrong. The Habs had a player (who has since retired) very similar to Thornton in the form of Princeton grad George Parros. Parros is another old school tough guy, and has a mustache that never got the memo that the 70s ended, and was teammates with Thornton on the Stanley Cup winning 2007 Anaheim Ducks, but the biggest difference between the two players was that Thornton was playing significant minutes for the Bruins, while Parros sat in the press box during the playoffs for the Canadiens. The Bruins called up from Providence an enforcer named Bobby Robbins, a UMass Lowell grad who had never played in the NHL before this season, but had a little bit of Hanson Brother in his game and brought energy and toughness to every shift. He was sent back down shortly thereafter, and the Bruins are left with a little bit of skill, and not enough toughness on their roster. They did not necessarily need Shawn Thornton, but they do need a tough guy.
I was wrong about the Seguin Trade. I’ve admitted it, and I would be more insistent that the Bruins admitted it if it would change the fact that the trade happened and that Tyler Seguin is never coming back (at least not in his prime). I wrote in the summer of 2013 (on the day the trade happened if I remember correctly) that Seguin was a disappointment, and that Loui Eriksson was a better fit for the Bruins, and he has been nothing to write home about until very recently. Reilly Smith has exceeded my expectations, but that was only because I didn’t know who he was before the Bruins acquired him from Dallas. At any rate, the Bruins gave up on Tyler Seguin too early, and Seguin might score 50 goals for the Dallas Stars this year. It could be argued that Taylor Hall would have been a better fit for the Bruins, but he was off the board when they drafter at #2 in 2010. With talent like that, the Bruins should have been more patient, and should have allowed him to flourish in the offensive zone rather than harp on his defensive shortcomings. Seguin is still only 22, and has found a home in Dallas. Meanwhile the Bruins are struggling to score just as badly as the year before they drafted him.
Peter Chiarelli was enough in Boston’s defensive depth at the beginning of the season to trade Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders during the preseason. Boychuk, like Ference and Thornton, was a big part of the Bruins’ physical identity during both Cup runs, and had only gotten better since his first significant ice time during the 2009-10 season. After Dennis Seidenberg went down with a knee injury last season, Boychuk stepped up and established himself as the team’s second best defenseman after captain Zdeno Chara. In return, the Bruins got two second round picks, and a conditional third rounder, which felt like a bad return on a good player who is only 30. The trade looked even worse as Chara, Adam McQuaid, and Torey Krug have all missed significant time with injuries this season while Boychuk is making a great impact for the suddenly competitive Isles.
The Bruins have mismanaged the roster when it comes to the salary cap. I understand wanting to keep a good team together, but the Bruins overpaid players they should not have, and the salary cap has not gone up the way Chiarelli may have thought it would. The Bruins owe Chris Kelly $3 million this season and next season. They owe Loui Eriksson $4.25 million this season and next season. They owe Milan Lucic $6 million this season and next season, and his price is likely to go up if he becomes an unrestricted free agent as scheduled. The Bruins will also have to pay more for impending young free agents Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, Craig Cunningham, Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton (all restricted), Matt Bartkowski, and Carl Soderberg (unrestricted) after this season, not to mention veterans Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, whom the Bruins seem more and more unlikely to bring back, given the circumstances. That’s a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of variables keeping the Bruins where they are. A trade or two needs to be made to make the picture clearer.
If it were up to me (which is it not), almost everyone on the roster would be on the table for trade talks. The only players I would not trade under any circumstances at this point are Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Dougie Hamilton: the Norris Trophy winning captain, Selke Trophy winning alternate captain, and the promising young defenseman. The Bruins sold too low on Seguin, and after the Boychuk trade, my lack of faith in their ability to get a proper return on Hamilton has only been reaffirmed. David Krejci should not be traded under any circumstances, for all intents and purposes, but I left him off the list because of the long shot possibility of packaging him up to get a Jeff Carter, or an Anze Kopitar, or a Jonathan Toews, or a Ryan Getzlaf, but that will never happen. I love Tuukka Rask, but the Bruins drafted goalie prospect Malcolm Subban (P.K.’s brother), and the years the Bruins would spend developing him into a franchise goaltender are years that Tuukka is under contract. Going forward, they will only be able to keep Rask or Subban long term, so both should be on the trade block now. Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly are two players I would trade (for the right return, obviously) without feeling bad about it, and while I like them, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Dennis Seidenberg, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille, Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg, and Torey Krug are all players they could move and teams would be willing to give up substantial assets to acquire if the Bruins become sellers at the trade deadline.
I would be more confident in the Bruins’ ability to build through the draft and the farm system if Chiarelli was any good at drafting. Much like Theo Epstein with the Red Sox, much of his championship roster was put together by his predecessor, with key acquisitions like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tim Thomas being made my former GM Mike O’Connell (now the Director of Pro Development for the LA Kings), and the trade to acquire Rask on Draft Day from Toronto happening while Chiarelli was still under contract with the Ottawa Senators (was it Chiarelli? was it O’Connell’s people? was it Harry Sinden? My guess is Harry, but that’s another column for another day). Chiarelli’s greatest drafting successes came early in his tenure when he selected Phil Kessel (#5), Milan Lucic (#50), and Brad Marchand (#71) in 2006 (in 2009, Kessel was traded to the Maple Leafs for the draft picks that became Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight, and Dougie Hamilton), but he’s gone cold since then. His best recent draft selections were Seguin (#2, 2010) and Hamilton (#9, 2011), but that was because those were picks acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs so high it would be really hard to miss, and even then, they dealt one of those players after three seasons.
Other Bruins drafts were highlighted by Subban (#24, 2012), a goalie drafted by a team that didn’t need a goalie, Jordan Caron (#25, 2009), Jared Knight (#32, 2010) and Ryan Spooner (#45, 2010), who have not been able to establish themselves at the NHL level, and Zach Hamill (#8, 2007) who was drafted ahead of Logan Couture, Brandon Sutter, Ryan McDonagh, Lars Eller, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Max Paccioretty, all of whom have become productive NHL players while Hamill washed out of the Bruins’ organization, was traded to Washington for Chris Bourque (Ray’s kid), and now plays professional hockey for the hockey club HPK in Finland. There is still hope for 18 year old Czech prospect David Pastrnak (#25, 2014), but he will not be able to help the Bruins turn their fortunes around this season.
Normally, it would be natural to blame the coach for a roster with a history of success to not be as motivated as they used to be, but it’s hard to blame Claude Julien for this. I’ve been critical of Julien before, and I think his system has its flaws, but you can’t put this season all on him. Claude didn’t trade Johnny Boychuk. Claude didn’t let Shawn Thornton take his talents to South Beach. Claude didn’t let Jarome Iginla leave and try to replace his production with minor league talent. Claude may have been frustrated with Seguin’s inconsistency on offense and liability on defense, but he wasn’t the one who thought Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, and Joe Morrow were a satisfactory return for a 21 year old sniper, either. Claude Julien may be on the hot seat in my mind someday, but it will not be this day. The B’s have bigger problems than the coach.
Right now, the Bruins are a mess, and Chiarelli, Julien, and Team President Cam Neely have their work cut out for them. Trades need to be made, and draft picks are not a good enough return. Players who can put the puck in the net should get a higher priority than they have been getting. If they can put more skill around the solid foundation of Chara, Bergeron, Hamilton, and Krejci, good things will happen, and Julien’s system is such that with good defensemen, either Rask or Subban can thrive. They might be able to turn it around this year, but I’m not holding my breath.
Every great team has to move on from the past. Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork are the only players that remain from the last Patriots team to win the Super Bowl. The Celtics just traded away the last remaining player from their championship contending days from 2008 to 2012, and are looking ahead to the future. David Ortiz is the last player remaining from the 2004 Red Sox, and they have been moving on from players from the 2007 and 2013 World Series squads left and right. Peter Chiarelli can fix this. He was captain of the hockey team at some school called Harvard, and is highly though of enough from his peers to be named to the front office of Team Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics, and now he has to use his Ivy League intelligence and hockey IQ to fix the Bruins team he built into a champion once already. The questions that remain are “when?” and “how?”