For reasons chronicled here for the better part of these last 15 years, no one's feeling good about the Bruins right now.
Randy Carlyle (Anaheim), Peter Laviolette (Carolina), and John Tortorella (Tampa Bay) are the last three coaches to win the Stanley Cup, and had any of them been named yesterday as the new caretaker of the Boston bench, it's a pretty safe bet there wouldn't have been a crush at the Causeway Street box office.
That's no knock on Messrs. Carlyle, Laviolette, and Tortorella. It's just an indication of how far the local NHL product has skidded. As of approximately 10:30 yesterday morning, it officially became Claude Julien's task to find a way for this quirky and troubled lot to get back in the win column on a consistent basis, and in doing so, win back some of the thousands of trampled souls who've had their hockey passion beaten out of them the last decade and a half.
General manager Peter Chiarelli has much the same task, but Julien's job is far easier in terms of attached risk. The former Habs coach, who was ordered off the job as Devils bench boss after only a 79-game tenure last season, only has to find a way to put some jump and order into a lineup that showed little of either in 2006-07.
Only? Yes, only. Julien can coach. He showed that in both Montreal and East Rutherford. He talked a lot about the importance of forechecking, especially the work and determination needed by the all-important first forechecker. Pushing the other team to the back wall, though hardly a novel concept, surely will be a good first step in attempting a hockey renaissance around here. It's a lot easier to play the game going forward instead of reverse.
"It's important that you read off of that first forecheck," noted Julien. "You have to establish a system that is comfortable and simple. We're not going to complicate the game or reinvent it."
At least for now, it sounds as if Julien's team will play the game the way it is meant to be played. Rarely did the Bruins play that way last season under Dave Lewis, who talked continually about wanting a team that was hard to play against, but only rarely got his team to do it. Their lack of execution, be it by faulty game plan or player indifference, is what got Lewis drop-kicked last Friday.
For his part, Chiarelli is certain Julien has the right message and, more importantly, will get it across.
"He demands execution," said Chiarelli, whose friendship with Julien, a journeyman defenseman who did not cobble together much of an NHL career (14 games), dates more than 20 years. "I've seen what he's done with his teams. He is very deliberate and demands that players do what he wants."
The heat here, though, is on Chiarelli, just beginning his second year as GM. If things don't work out for the coach, it's no big deal, because his coaching pedigree will land him another job.
Neither Chiarelli nor Julien, by the way, would reveal the length of terms on the new coach's deal. The Bruins don't want to say, in part due to the embarrassment of having to pay Lewis for three more years at around $800,000 per season. Meanwhile, Internet rumors have Julien signing for only one year, matching the deal Mike Keenan signed in the Hub of Hockey when he took over for Pat Burns early in the 2000-01 season.
Choosing Julien was a low-risk option. Had Chiarelli opted for either Scott Gordon (Providence) or Randy Cunneyworth (Rochester of the AHL), he would have handed his club's fate, along with his own, to a coach with no NHL résumé. That wasn't going to happen, not after team owner Jeremy Jacobs's stern warning that Chiarelli "better be right" with this surprising and expensive "do-over." No one knows if Jacobs really knows hockey. But no one questions whether he knows dough.
Mike Milbury, the popular choice among the media (especially here) to return as coach, had the profile and panache, but it should be clear to everyone by now the understated Chiarelli prefers understated coaches. Milbury is a lot of things, and none of them understated, and in the end that made the ex-Bruins defenseman a nonstarter.
"Very good bench management . . . an organized guy," said Chiarelli, listing some of Julien's virtues. "He's not a screamer. I know a lot of you are looking for a screamer . . . he's not."
Be it delivered by velvet hand or with a behind-closed-doors billy club, Julien will have to get the job done, or the next casualty will be Chiarelli. Without question. The GM now is under the coach's thumb just as much as the players. The former Harvard captain was put on the job a year ago to rebuild the house, and in year No. 1, the roof all but caved in. The most important task of a GM is to know who can coach and who can play. Thus far, Chiarelli's record is, shall we say, spotty.
Lewis and top aide Marc Habscheid have been turfed. Key players added to the roster late in the season, including Dennis Wideman, Aaron Ward, Andrew Ference, Chuck Kobasew, and Brandon Bochenski, failed to provide the kick necessary for the club to shake its second-half doldrums. Captain Zdeno Chara, brought in for $37.5 million over five years, some nights looked horribly out of synch and often was almost comically miscast as the sole point man on a one-of-a-kind power play that scored points only for ingenuity. The novelty wore very thin.
Julien, if the players buy in quickly to his uptempo forechecking mandate, should be able to untangle many of the knots. As poorly as it played last season, it is not a roster devoid of talent. If Julien succeeds -- which he couldn't ultimately in New Jersey -- then Chiarelli will be OK. He'll live to see at least that third year of his four-year deal.
But as of 10:30 yesterday morning, the clock officially began ticking on Chiarelli's time here. One arduous, unsatisfactory year behind him, he has used his one mulligan -- one that not every new GM gets.
If this is the wrong coach, then the GM goes, too, which is as straightforward as that forecheck soon to be seen at an NHL rink near you.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.