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Claude Julien: From scapegoat to best ever?

Posted by Adam Kaufman  June 10, 2013 02:26 AM

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“I’ve been here six years and I think I’ve been fired five times.”

Those were the words of Bruins head coach Claude Julien following his team’s shocking sweep of the heavily-favored Penguins to advance Boston to the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three years.

You have to give Julien credit for having a sense of humor, even if his arithmetic is a little off. It’s been way more than five times. He’s the NHL’s Tom Coughlin.

It’s time, though, that the man who does nothing but win in the face of controversy receives the credit he deserves.

Admittedly, I wasn’t sold until the B’s unseated the Pens in the Eastern Conference finals. I wrote following the Bruins’ historic Game 7 comeback win over the Maple Leafs that Julien should have been fired had that game gone the other way, and I still believe he would’ve been. The loss would have been the bellwether for a team that was underprepared, had potentially stopped listening to its coach, and which needed – cliché alert! – a new voice in the dressing room. I know now that those words were misguided.

Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli joined “Salk and Holley” on WEEI following his club’s first round survival and was asked what-if questions about the future of Julien. For instance, suppose the B’s were in the midst of exit meetings, and not preparing for the Rangers?

“I feel strongly about our coach,” he said. “As long as I’m here, his job is safe.”

A fascinating statement, since the Bruins have taken a Patriots-like mentality when it comes to the contracts of upper management. How long either Chiarelli or Julien remain signed is an absolute mystery, though Julien did ink a multi-year extension in the summer of 2012.

A few days after the Chiarelli interview, team president Cam Neely made his weekly appearance with “Felger and Massarotti” on 98.5 The Sports Hub, and he deflected questions as to whether he shared his GM’s feelings, saying only that he was happy with how the year had gone to that point.

It would have been easy and seemingly justified to fire Julien following another abrupt playoff exit. After guiding the Bruins to three division titles and to the postseason in each of his six seasons in Boston, one championship sandwiched between an epic 2010 collapse and an opening-round defeat may have brought his leadership into question. It’d be fair to ask if that memorable series of victories in 2011 to secure the first Cup in 39 years was mere lightning in a bottle for a team that otherwise didn’t play to its potential?

Then you dig deeper and look at a 2010 team that was entirely or partially missing key cogs David Krejci, Marco Sturm, Marc Savard, Dennis Seidenberg and reigning Vezina trophy winner Tim Thomas. That’s no excuse to not win one game in four chances, but it’s worth mentioning.

Or, 2012, when Krejci was again likely playing through injury after taking a pane of glass to the head and neck, and his Bruins were grinding through seven hard-fought games vs. the Capitals, each decided by one goal with four claimed in overtime. Even the most casual fan knows that series could have gone the other way. Unfortunately for us locals, it didn’t.

Consider the total package. For all the ranting and raving fans and media alike do over Julien’s defense-first system or his unrelenting desire to roll four lines, it works. Players have committed to “doing the little things,” “buying into the structure,” and “paying the price.” They genuinely seem to enjoy playing for their coach, and have come to appreciate their roles on a roster littered with depth. Few teams boast fourth lines that could win their squad a playoff series, but Julien’s does. Ask the Rangers.

In 456 regular season games with the Bruins, Julien’s record is 256-144-56, a points-percentage of .623. Only the colorfully-dressed Don Cherry – 231-105-64 (.658) – shows a better mark in that area among B’s coaches who have lasted longer than three seasons or coached more than 200 games. As for wins, Julien trails just Art Ross (361-277-90), whose total required an additional decade on the bench.

No Bruins coach in franchise history has more playoff victories. In fact, only Red Wings boss Mike Babcock has more NHL postseason wins than Julien since he arrived in Boston in 2007-08, an edge of 51 to 48, but the man barking orders to the B’s possesses a better playoff winning percentage at .608 (48-31) to Babcock’s .593 (51-35).

All of those facts are nice, but only one really matters. The Bruins have won six Stanley Cup titles, driven by the leadership of Cy Denneny, Ross, Cooney Weiland, Harry Sinden, Tom Johnson – all Hall of Famers – and Julien. No B’s coach in 88 seasons has ever been to the top of the mountain twice.

Julien’s just four wins away.

If the Bruins upset the regular season champion Blackhawks, Claude Julien is instantly Terry Francona and one ring away from drawing local comparisons to Bill Belichick. He would belong in the conversation of the city’s immortal figures, those forever revered and for whom drinks will always be free.

More than that, however, he would become arguably the greatest Bruins coach of all-time.

The career minor league player who got his first taste of NHL coaching experience in 2002-03 at 42 years of age has – after mixed success in Montreal and a raw deal in New Jersey – matured like a fine wine before our very eyes while we were too busy complaining about his sometimes stubborn approach. That strategy, mind you, has thus far garnered him a Jack Adams Award and the ability to drink from Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Alas, coaching is a What Have You Done for Me Lately line of work, so it is little surprise that Julien has gone from fired to borderline untouchable twice in a span of three postseasons.

As Chiarelli frustratingly noted in that WEEI interview, likely wondering why the topic won’t just go away, “His record speaks for itself. It’s easy to dissect anybody’s record and find negative points, but this guy has won a Cup, he’s been in the playoffs every year, we’ve been in the second round I don’t know how many times, and he’s got the second most [playoff] wins [since 2007-08]. It’s unfair. I know it comes with the territory, but I feel strongly about Claude and his staff.”

Maybe it’s time the rest of us do, too.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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