The Bruins have dropped back-to-back games to non-playoff teams, resulting in calls for coach Claude Julien’s job. But Julien has continuously put the Bruins in a position to win, and firing him now could be a big mistake.
Claude Julien has been here before. When the Bruins missed the post-season in 2014-15, there were calls for his job. Again, narrowly missing the playoffs in 2015-16, it was believed he was on the hot seat. And now, with Boston dropping back-to-back games to opponents who are deeper in the lottery hunt than they are in the mix for post-season play, the talk of the Bruins showing Julien the door has started to heat up again.
It’s not hard to understand the argument from a pure wins and losses standpoint, which is what the game boils down to at its very core. The Bruins are 48 games into their season and only barely holding on to the second spot in the Atlantic Division. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators are nipping at Boston’s heels and faring better than the Bruins when it comes to points percentage.
And looking at recent results, the argument stands. Boston has lost to the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators, New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings — five non-playoff teams — in their past 10 games. Winnable games are turning into head-shaking losses and none have been quite as confounding as the Bruins squandering a three-goal lead heading into the second period against the Red Wings on Wednesday.
Despite back-to-back defeats, which have been paired with poor performances, the Bruins would do well to take a deep breath, look at the bigger picture and keep moving forward with Julien at the helm.
While the results have left much to be desired, Boston has been anything but poor in terms of putting themselves in the best position to win games. The hockey world has come to learn over the past few seasons the importance of controlling play and grinding teams down with puck possession, and it’s by those metrics that the Bruins have been almost inarguably one of the league’s strongest teams.
Consider that this season, no team has been as outright dominant in the possession game at 5-on-5 as the Bruins. They currently boast a 55.3 percent Corsi For percentage, sitting even ahead of the same Los Angeles Kings who have built a reputation of being the league’s most savvy possession team. When breaking it down game by game, too, the Bruins have been incredible in terms of winning the possession battle. In 39 of the team’s 48 outings, Bruins have completed the game with a possession rate over 50 percent at 5-on-5. They’ve been remarkably strong at owning play at even strength.
So, what’s gone wrong? Well, you can start with the team’s shooting percentage, which is downright atrocious. As of Thursday, Boston sits 29th in the league with an abysmal 6.17 shooting percentage at 5-on-5 through 48 games. The only team who’s fared worse is the Florida Panthers, and that’s by a mere seven-hundredths of a percent. To put that into context, when it comes to shooting percentage, only five teams in the past five seasons have finished with a shooting percentage lower than the Bruins’ current rate.
One need look no further than Patrice Bergeron for an idea of how poorly things have gone in Boston when it comes to actually finding the back of the net. Bergeron, a 10 percent shooter throughout his career, is on pace to fire more shots on goal this season than in any campaign prior. At his average shooting percentage, one would expect him to net close to 30 goals. Instead, he’s 45 games through his season with 10 markers to his name and is shooting at 6 percent. Bergeron’s struggle has been indicative of the roster’s trouble as a whole.
Julien’s detractors may posit that possession doesn’t exactly mean the team is getting scoring chances, and that a number of these pucks could be fired from the outside or low-scoring areas. And while that’s somewhat true — Boston is averaging only 7.4 scoring chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, good for 22nd in the league — it’s not as though they’re allowing enough chances against that it should be coming back to bite them as hard as it has. The Bruins are allowing 6.62 scoring chances against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and the only team with a better mark is the Minnesota Wild. The difference between the Wild and Bruins in scoring chances for? Little more than half a chance per 60 minutes, yet Minnesota has nine more points in the standings with five games in hand.
Patience is often difficult to have in situations such as the one facing Boston, but there’s no reason to believe this won’t right itself over the back half of the season. There’s even recent evidence to suggest the Bruins are playing in a way that still makes them as much a Stanley Cup contender as any other club. Both the 2011-12 and 2013-14 Kings had great possession numbers — 54.7 and 56.8, respectively — with 5-on-5 shooting percentages that either were the league-worst mark or close to it. Both seasons, the Kings turned things around come playoff time and proceeded to win the whole thing. The same went for scoring chances, too, as the Kings were among the leaders in scoring chance percentage at 5-on-5 in both of their Stanley Cup years. That’s the same company the Bruins are keeping, sitting seventh in the league at 52.8 percent.
Of course, there’s no guarantee the Bruins’ fortunes are going to change. The Kings have continued to remain near the top of the league in underlying numbers only to narrowly miss the post-season in 2014-15 before getting ousted in the first round this past season. In a game where a single bounce can decide who wins and who loses, sometimes all you can do is put yourself in the best position to have that bounce go your way. Right now, though, those bounces aren’t happening for Boston.
None of this is to mention that Julien has done an admirable job with a roster that boasts a mixture of high-end talent and questionable depth. Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and David Krejci are a stellar group of top forwards, but a bottom-six that consists of Riley Nash, Jimmy Hayes, Austin Czarnik and Tim Schaller isn’t all that inspiring. Defensively, the team is still working to get back from the loss of Dougie Hamilton, even with Brandon Carlo looking increasingly like a future top-pairing guy. And it’s hard to fault Julien for being stuck with backups who have won one of 11 games when Tuukka Rask has gotten the night off. That’s simply not his fault.
All this is to say that firing Julien isn’t the answer. It wasn’t in 2014-15, wasn’t in 2015-16 and it’s not now. If there’s a change to be made and the Bruins are set on getting a new voice behind the bench, let that come in the off-season, because Julien’s coaching chops have earned him the right to see this one through given the job he’s done with a roster that could be much worse off without him. If the Bruins are going to get out of this hole, it will be Julien who leads them out of it, and if this Boston team wants to make noise going forward, keeping Julien at the helm is the way to do it.
(All advanced stats via Corsica)
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.