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by: Ty Anderson on Tue, 03/14/2017 - 10:39pm
Let me finally say it: I was wrong. So very, incredibly wrong.
As a multi-year Claude Julien apologist, I found every reason in the book for the Bruins not to fire Julien as the team’s coach. Even when the Bruins jumped out to a hot start under Cassidy, I had to wait and hold my breath. Maybe it was just the high of a new coach. Maybe they caught their opponents on some off nights. I just wasn't sold.
But after 11 wins in 14 games since the switch to Bruce Cassidy -- a run that the Black and Gold have not been on since Mar. to Apr. 2014 when they were in the midst of their Presidents’ Trophy run -- I can no longer deny the fact that Cassidy was absolutely the fix that this team needed.
Nobody with an ounce of objectivity in their bones can deny that this was the right move.
For 10 years, Julien did his job and did it very well. He didn’t deserve to be shown the gate after the 2015 season, as his track record to that point was more than successful. Julien had guided the Bruins to countless playoff runs and two Stanley Cup Finals. The argument could have been made for Julien to be dismissed after last year’s collapse -- the club’s second in as many years -- but without much of an established coaching market (there wasn’t a Mike Babcock walking through that door), the Black and Gold were probably wise to stand pat with their bench boss of a decade and see if things could fix themselves. And even when they didn’t when things were at their worst early, I said that Julien’s job should have been safe and that the team should have instead pursued a big trade to upgrade what I perceived as a mediocre-at-best roster. Hey, have I mentioned that I was extraordinarily wrong?
But as the ugly, no-show losses mounted for a third straight season, and as the team seemed stuck in the mud -- the Bruins would regularly win two, but lose three, and the cycle just seemed to repeat again and again to the point where this team was obviously set up for another ninth-place finish by the end of Game 82 -- it became time for Julien to go and bring a new voice into the room.
Even if I didn’t believe it at first.
A month of Cassidy-led hockey has changed my narrative from ‘How could they fire Claude?’ to ‘How the hell did they not fire Claude sooner?’ and honestly that’s a pretty incredible accomplishment for a guy that had not coached an NHL squad since Dec. 2003. Two games under Cassidy led me to walk into the WEEI studio for an episode of Saturday Skate and simply say, "This might work."
Of course, there is some recency bias that works against Julien (the last three years) and for Cassidy (just 14 games), but this turnaround has been nothing short of incredible for the Bruins. Yet, at the same time, it’s anything but.
The obvious counter to the Bruins’ luck under Cassidy versus under Julien is… well… luck.
The Bruins have scored 53 goals on 433 shots under Cassidy (a 12.2 shooting percentage) versus the 141 goals they had on a league-high 1,899 shots under Julien (a 7.4 shooting percentage). It’s a goal every eight shots under Cassidy versus a goal every 13 shots during Julien’s 55-game run. So maybe the luck -- which was frequently listed as an argument against firing Julien -- has finally turned as many said it was going to… just under a different coach. That improved shooting luck has also come with an improvement in the team’s goaltending tandem, which has allowed just 30 goals on a league-low 375 shots against since the coaching switch, led by Tuukka Rask’s resurgence and three wins in as many games from backup netminder Anton Khudobin.
And Rask is far from the only star player positively affected by the coaching change.
Since the switch to Cassidy, David Krejci has recorded 13 points in 14 games (he had 34 points in 55 games before the move). David Backes has 11 points in 14 games (he had 22 points in 47 games before Julien was fired). Brad Marchand, who in Claude’s defense has been excellent since Day 1 and Julien is actually owed a great deal of credit in turning No. 63 into the player he is today, has 12 goals and 19 points in 14 games. Patrice Bergeron has four goals and 17 points. Be it usage, understanding their situation, or simply waking up as a result of losing their coach of several years in the case of many, the numbers show that the Bruins’ best players have truly been their best under Cassidy.
“I just want the guys to make sure that they play confident, solid hockey and believe in themselves,” Cassidy said early into his tenure behind the bench. “And play to a standard. We’re trying to set a standard where we’re one of the better teams in the National Hockey League. They’ve been there before, the leadership group here. That’s where we’re striving to get through in the end.”
Having lived the Julien experience firsthand this season as the club’s assistant coach (Cassidy ran the defense and the power play as an assistant this season, two bright spots for the team under Julien), it seemed as if Cassidy knew how to fix what was wrong from the second he stepped into the spotlight.
He instantly changed the fluidity of the club’s practices and put a greater emphasis on the club working hard in practice so that they were never quite overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of a game, something that has been an issue for the club in March and April in back-to-back seasons. He realized where to put certain players to maximize their value to the team -- such as putting a natural center where he belongs or allowing an offensive-minded defender to be just that -- and he encouraged all of his players to play to their strengths in the attacking zone versus a uniformed style for all 20 skaters.
It’s the long way of saying that Cassidy has helped this team’s core regain some of the swagger that made them a formidable presence in the Eastern Conference for over half a decade and was seemingly buried by week after week of simply sticking to the at times frustrating process under Julien.
“I think this team is capable. They’re very capable of winning every night. Every time we’ve faced off – and we’ve been in every game,” Cassidy said of the Black and Gold last week. “I think the Anaheim game could have gone either way and you know, I don’t want to revisit every one, but I want them to feel that way – that when they go out there, they can win every night. You know, we’ve talked about playing to our standard and when we do, we feel like we can beat any team in the league. So I don’t want the guys to be cocky, but I do want them to be confident. You have to be.”
But let’s throw stats out the window for a moment.
Can’t we all agree that this team just looks better under Cassidy than they did at any point under Julien’s leadership this season? Because they do, and it’s honestly not even close.
Look at Saturday against the Flyers. The Bruins were straight-up horrendous for much of that game they had every reason to let that game slip out of their fingers. But they instead scored the game-winning goal with just five seconds left in the game. Why do I have the weird feeling it happens the other way around and against the Bruins if Julien is coaching a pack-it-in, let’s grab a point and get the hell out of here style to finish the third period? And what about Monday in Vancouver? Down by a goal through two periods of play, the Bruins tied the game up less than a minute into the third period and took control of what finished as a 6-3 final for the club. That does not happen under Claude. And while I know I’m dabbling in the dangerous game of hypotheticals and immeasurables, the 55 games of Julien I saw this season were more than enough to spell out these endings.
On top of simply winning games that they’re supposed to win, which was probably the biggest issue for the B’s over these last two seasons, the Bruins have improved in their period-to-period game, and have rarely ‘left points’ on the board with the soul-crushing losses that had become the norm in town. The closest they have are defeats at the hands of the Ducks and Rangers. Both were games where the B’s had their chances late and/or surrendered the game-winning goal in the third period. But those defeats have not spiraled into a losing streak of any sort, and this team truly seems to apply lessons on a game to game basis and grow from their shortcomings or brushes with near-defeat. When tied after two periods of play under Cassidy, the Bruins are 3-1-0. Under Julien, they were 3-5-1.
Above all else, you just never feel like the Bruins are out of a game. Or that a bad goal, bad penalty call, or reversed call (and yes, there’s been a few) is going to completely derail the group.
Those are just a few of the subtle improvements making a massive difference for the Bruins, who seem to control their own fate at this very moment, for the last 14 games.
“We want to keep improving and keep getting better,” B’s captain Zdeno Chara said. “You’ve got to be able to handle games and situations where it’s going to be tight and it’s going to be close. You’ve just got to make sure that we are the team that stays with our system and our game. At times, you have to be patient and that’s part of getting smarter and trying as a team and individually as a player.”
“Winning has made them feel better about themselves, more confident. I see a group that’s energetic when they come to the rink. I see a group that’s resilient,” said Cassidy. “They certainly had some of these qualities, during the first part of the year. You just see more of it now, and I think winning lends itself to those character traits of the group. We need to keep building on that. In game, you’ve got to be able to get through the rough stretches. I think that was some of our problems earlier in the year.”
And my problem earlier in the year, as it turns out, was not seeing the problem earlier in the year.