SHOWDOWN IN MONTREAL
The Boston Bruins face a tough schedule heading into to the second half of the season. There’s no doubt that there will be a lot of emotion on the ice in Wednesday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. The Bruins and Canadiens hold what is considered to be one of the NHL’s greatest rivalries. This also marks the first time that coach Claude Julien will return to Boston to face his former team. For the past decade, Julien sat behind the Bruins bench and coached a team that made two Stanley Cup appearances in 2011 and 2013. To say Julien didn’t have an impact on the Bruins organization would be foolish. Coming into the first of many meetings between the two clubs, there’s a level of respect from both the players and Coach Bruce Cassidy. For some, like Patrice Bergeron, playing against his former mentor will carry some extra emotion:
” It’s going to be special. He’s been great for my career and for the organization. It’s going to be a special moment”
“..There’s a mutual respect for the player-coach relationship that they have..”
These last forty games are crucial for the Boston Bruins as they continue to push for a playoff spot. As for Montreal, a time for desperation calls for desperate play. Under Claude Julien, the Canadiens have been playing inconsistent and lackluster. They currently have a 2% chance of a clinching a playoff spot. There’s no question that the recent surge of young players has propelled the Bruins into second place with a +30 in the Atlantic division. Under Cassidy, there’s a great chance that the black and gold will emerge as one of the top contenders for the Stanley Cup. In this week’s match-up against the Habs, all eyes will be on the bench as one curiosity arises. Just how would this young Bruins team be under Julien? Also, would he be able to put all his trust into a first-year player?
In the last few years, the NHL has morphed into a game more focused on speed and less on strength. Things change and to be competitive means adjusting to a different style. For the upper brass management (as well as fans), Claude Julien just wasn’t able to adapt productively. With personnel changes and the league’s expansion, the Bruins were two steps behind. Consequently rumors of tension between some players and Julien began to surface.
Both the media and Bruins fans were starting to believe this “myth” that Julien simply didn’t like the young players. It didn’t help that player Ryan Spooner made a remark that Claude didn’t like him. There were even whispers that Tuukka Rask didn’t exactly see eye to eye with Claude. If you take a look at the stats and what some of the young players had to say about Claude, you get a different story. Julien helped develop a lot of players such as Milan Lucic Patrice Bergeron, Dougie Hamilton, David Pastrnak, and Ryan Spooner. The difference between Cassidy and Julien is the way he developed them; you had to earn your ice time. The old school thought would have Julien put more pressure and trust onto a veteran rather than a first-year player.
So just how was Claude with his young players? If you break down some numbers of those coached by Julien, they aren’t as bad as many fans would remember. And keep in mind, many of these players were under the age of twenty-two. In his rookie year, Brad Marchand scored twenty goals. Pastrnak also scored twenty-two goals at the age of twenty years old. Also, as a 19-year-old, Tyler Seguin scored twenty-nine goals, and 22-year-old Milan Lucic netted thirty. Many of these players credit Julien for helping them develop their playing style. A young David Pastrnak had a breakout year while playing under Julien in 2016. At one point he was second in the league behind Sidney Crosby in goal scoring and garnered high praise from Claude:
“He’s been our best forward since the beginning of the year. He’s coming into his own..”
Interestingly enough, a lot of these young players worked closely with former Providence head coach Bruce Cassidy. For David Pastrnak, it was Cassidy and assistant coach Jay Pandolfo who worked closely with the young Czech forward for three years. As a side note, Claude Julien coached in the AHL and was even a successful Junior coach.
While Julien and Cassidy may have similar backgrounds, their approach in working with young talent has produced different results. For Julien, limiting playing time for a young player was part of the learning curve and development process. However, Cassidy had a different plan; speed drills, picking up the pace and attacking the net more on the offensive end. As the NHL began to change and after the Bruins missed the playoffs in 2015 while under Julien, both general manager Don Sweeney and President of the Boston Bruins Cam Neely knew that it was time to move on and hire a new voice.
CHANGING OF THE GUARDS
The firing of the long-tenured coach drew a mixed response from players and the organization as well as hardcore fans. Many of whom immediately called for the firing of Neely and Sweeney. By the time Julien was let go from the Boston Bruins, the team record of 26-23 left them with little chance of clinching a playoff spot in the 2016-2017 season. As the interim head coach, Cassidy had his work cut out for him. At that point in the season, the Bruins were one point outside the Eastern Conference With a quick change-up in styles, the black and gold managed to clinch a spot. Cassidy’s playing style was what the Bruins needed as they headed into a playoff series against the Ottawa Senators.
Fans got the see a first glimpse of an astounding performance by first-year player Sean Kuraly and newly signed prospect Charlie McAvoy. Those who were unsure of how this team would be without Claude got to see a new resilient team that didn’t give up easily. In a hard-fought series, the Bruins made it difficult for the Senators to earn a spot in the playoffs. Even though the Boston lost, there was no question that given the short amount of time that Cassidy had coached the team there was something special about the upcoming group of “young guns”.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND HIS SUNDANCE KIDS
Bruce Cassidy had to deal with an onslaught of injuries affecting the team at the beginning of the season. With a tough task ahead of him, Cassidy continued to put trust in his young players while looking to his veterans for guidance. Sure, there have been a few hiccups and learning opportunities on the bench. However, the Bruins had managed to stay afloat in the standings. As the team started to become healthy, things started to rapidly change. For fans, one of the biggest stories in the NHL is how the recent youth movement propelled the Bruins into playoff contention.
Seeing this team jump twenty spots in the standings, one would have to think again how this team would fare Julien. In my opinion he would have a hard time extending his leash, continue his dump and chase game, with little emphasis on speed- a strategy that would not work for this year’s Bruins team. In order to be competitive in this sport you have to be willing to change. One look at the standings in the Atlantic Division, it’s not hard to tell which team will rise up to the top. Under Julien, the once powerful Canadiens are looking to miss the playoffs this year. With their recent 4-3 loss to the Bruins, Montreal continues to sputter down in the division, while the Bruins continue to shut down their opponents.
It’s clear Cassidy is the perfect fit for this young Boston team. He is currently 42-18-8 with the Bruins, keeping the focus on speed and puck control. Don Sweeney’s plan has come to full fruition. Signing young prospects, developing them in Providence and hiring a young coach that isn’t afraid to take chances. Sometimes change is good, and as the Bruins continue to be tested and pushed in the second half of the season, Cassidy and his Sundance Kids will no doubt be fighting to the end.
Follow Liz Rizzo on Twitter: @pastagrl88