Claude Julien's players have his back
Bruins snapped out of early-season doldrums by following coach's system
WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Twice during his NHL coaching career, the Boston Bruins' Claude Julien has been relieved of his duties.
No matter your profession, it can't be a good feeling to know an employer no longer wants you to work for him or her. Many times in professional sports, the coach is made the scapegoat, so when Julien learned fellow coaches Paul Maurice (Carolina Hurricanes) and Bruce Boudreau (Washington Capitals) both were fired Monday, Boston's bench boss expressed his thoughts.
"You're going to hear me repeat myself every time something like that happens," Julien said. "It's not a fun thing for those guys. It's a tough job. [Firing a coach] is probably the easiest thing to do, but it's not necessarily the main reason for the issues. Those guys are just like anybody else; they have families and they have responsibilities, and sometimes they're easy targets.
"You feel for them, but the one thing I know is that they are pretty good coaches, and I don't doubt that we'll see them back in the league soon."
Julien knows firsthand how it feels to land a job back behind an NHL bench shortly after being let go.
After he was fired by the Devils with only three games remaining in the 2006-07 season, it didn't take long for the Bruins to hire him, handing the reins to him on June 21, 2007. He's posted a 193-110-47 record in 349 games behind the Boston bench.
During his tenure, there has been speculation numerous times that his job was in jeopardy. That seemed to be the case last season if the team did not reach the conference finals, but after being down 2-0 to the Canadiens in the first round, Boston won that series in seven games, then swept the Philadelphia Flyers in the conference semifinals, beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference finals and hoisted the Stanley Cup by beating the Vancouver Canucks in seven games.
With that victory this past spring, Julien added his name to an elite club of recent championship leaders in Boston, joining Bill Belichick, Doc Rivers and Terry Francona.
Even so, it didn't take long for some to think Julien might be on shaky ground again after the Bruins began the 2011-12 season 3-7.
"That's the hockey world right there. It doesn't matter what happened last year," said Bruins forward Nathan Horton, who was one of the players struggling at the start of the season. "It definitely wasn't his fault that we were losing all those games. We weren't playing the system, and that's what happens when we don't play the right way. When we do play the right way, like last year, we win."
During that stretch, when the Bruins clearly were in the midst of a Stanley Cup hangover, Julien never deviated from his philosophies and coaching strategies.
"They understand we're not hopping on them for any wrong reason," Julien said. "It's pretty obvious that we've always been fair to these guys. It's not about nitpicking. It's about being a better team and trying to improve as a team. There's been a lot of confidence and trust between the players and coaching staff that we're all working to go in the right direction."
Sure, he tweaked his game plan a bit, but the bigger factor was that the players remained focused and stood by their coach despite speculation that Julien was on the hot seat.
"He's always been the same," Horton said. "He puts a system together that obviously works, and when we do it, we're successful at it. He hasn't changed too much. When you're losing, it's not as fun, but he definitely stays the same, and that is what's good about him. He definitely knows how to coach."
Brad Marchand can attest to that statement.
The Bruins forward is at his best when he's a pest on the ice, aggravating the opposition. Sometimes Marchand has a tendency to take his chirpiness too far, and when that has happened in the past, including this season, Julien hasn't been afraid to bench him.
"He wants me to be able to play my game, and he gives me the rope and leniency to play that way," Marchand said. "He knows when to reel me back in and when to calm me down. He's good at reading me and reading players. He wants us all to play the way we want to and the way we can, but within the system. We're able to do that and jell and play the way we need to."
The Bruins finally broke out of their funk and worked themselves out of the cellar, ripping off a 10-game winning streak. They now sit in second place in the Northeast Division with a home-and-home series coming up against the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs.
Julien is an honest coach. He doesn't play mind games with his players and he doesn't have that old-school mentality of "it's the coach's way or no way." Time and again, Julien will talk to his players and get their take on certain things, an exercise that always ends with a collaborative effort. Julien never leaves his players wondering where they stand.
"It's very good," Marchand said. "It's always tough when you're left guessing about how the coach is feeling or what he's thinking. [Julien] tells you straight up what he wants and what he needs. Then it's very easy to play and do what you have to do."
There are different ways Julien can get his point across. He's not the type to toss over the stick rack behind closed doors or embarrass his players publicly. When it comes to motivation, Julien usually takes the proper path.
"He can do it either way," Horton said. "He's a good talker, and he knows how to motivate everyone. Some guys are different, and he definitely knows how to treat his players and motivate them to do better."
From the moment he was told of his trade to Boston this past February, Bruins forward Chris Kelly quickly learned that Julien cares about his players off the ice, too. As soon as Kelly was officially a Bruin, Julien called to welcome him to the team.
"It was tough to get traded for the first time," Kelly said. "You ask any of the guys who have been traded for the first time, and they'll tell you it's tough."
Kelly's wife was pregnant with the couple's second child at the time he was traded to Boston.
"I was in Ottawa for so long, and [Julien] called and asked about my family. That meant a lot," Kelly said. "He's someone who cares, and not just me as a hockey player, but me as a person, too. If you go around the room, the guys will say the same thing."
When players feel that way about their coach, Kelly said, they will play that much harder, knowing that they're playing for someone who genuinely appreciates the effort.
"Like anything, if your boss cares about you and wants you to succeed and wants you to do well, you'll go that extra mile for him," Kelly said. "You'll put in the extra hours and get things done so he looks good and you look good."
This is the fifth season Claude Julien has been behind the Bruins' bench. It's obvious he won't be back there forever, but while he's the coach in Boston, especially with his current roster, hockey will thrive in this market.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.