Firing Claude Julien was management’s only remaining play

Milan Lucic out. Matt Beleskey in.

Loui Eriksson out. David Backes in.

Dougie Hamilton out. Brandon Carlo in.

Reilly Smith out. Jimmy Hayes in.

Now, Claude Julien out. Bruce Cassidy in.

Bruins president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney, the two men atop the hockey operations masthead, continue to execute their overhaul. The latest casualty in the organizational teardown is the coach who led the Bruins to seven straight postseason appearances and one Stanley Cup.

Julien maintained the respect of his players and his coaching peers. He helped to oversee the transition to a quicker pace of defensive play. David Pastrnak has developed into a top-line threat, while fellow 20-year-old Carlo could be a long-term top-two defenseman.

But this year, with some of his most valuable assets traded for futures, let go for nothing, or swapped for lesser pieces, Julien’s team is plunging down the Eastern Conference standings to their current position. They are one point out of the playoff picture, one point behind No. 8 Philadelphia. 

The decision is about four things. First, the Bruins hope it will provide a short-term jolt to their sleepwalking players. Second, it is a business decision, signaling to a dissatisfied customer base that the current state of play is unacceptable. Third, it gives Cassidy, always intended to be Julien’s successor, a running start to 2017-18.

Fourth, and most critical, it is management’s only play. The trade market is frozen. The next wave of prospects won’t arrive until next year. A streak of questionable decisions has locked them into their roster. Firing Julien is the last card Neely and Sweeney had left.

Bruins fire Claude Julien, but he won't be unemployed for long

By the time you read this, there’s a legitimate chance Claude Julien already has been contacted by a National Hockey League team regarding future employment opportunities.

That’s how much respect circulates around the league for the veteran coach, who Tuesday morning was informed by Boston Bruins management that he’d been relieved of his duties in this, his 10th year on the job.

If you are Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, for example, you must feel you’ve hit the jackpot in your search for an experienced bench boss, given the rich cache of them that have become available in the past couple of months. With a 2011 Stanley Cup ring to his credit, Julien, 56, joins Gerrard Gallant (Florida Panthers), Jack Capuano (New York Islanders) and Ken Hitchcock (St. Louis Blues) as respected coaches who were handed their walking papers this season.

Where Vegas might have the advantage over other teams is that McPhee would ideally like a new coach in place by the end of March, giving him a head start over some other franchises that might be looking to make a change at season’s end. The New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers are all among the teams that, depending on if they sink or swim down the stretch in their hopes to snatch a playoff berth, could be in the market for a new coach come the spring.

With no disrespect to the other candidates mentioned, Julien’s body of work should put him at or near the top of any team’s wish list. As such, he should be able to pick his next destination in regards to teams that have an opening.

Julien’s impressive resume speaks for itself: he is Boston’s all-time coaching wins leader with 419 career victories, compiling a 419-246-94 record and .614 winning percentage in 759 games with the club. He led the Bruins to the 2011 Cup; brought them to the final two years later where they bowed out to the champion Chicago Blackhawks in six games; guided them to the Presidents Trophy in 2014 for the team that finished the regular season with the most points; and steered Boston into the playoffs in seven of his nine-plus seasons in Boston.

Should the Jets miss the playoffs, do they look at those accomplishments and decide it’s time to part ways with Paul Maurice? Under the same scenario, is that an idea teams like the Islanders (Doug Weight) Panthers (Tom Rowe), Canucks (Willie Desjardins) and Flyers (Dave Hakstol), among others, would contemplate?

This much is certain: The Ottawa Senators were very interested in bringing Julien to the nation’s capital last summer before the Bruins, after some deep contemplation, decided to retain him.

Despite Julien’s success with the Bruins for almost a decade, the organization has kicked around the idea of letting him go at various times during his tenure dating all the way back to November of 2010.

At that time, then-Boston general manager Chiarelli was being pressured from above to cut the cord with Julien, who was in the fourth season as Bruins coach. Chiarelli said no. He stayed the course. He believed in Julien, even when many didn’t.

Seven months later, Chiarelli’s belief in Julien was rewarded with a Stanley Cup triumph, thanks to a Game 7 victory over the Canucks in the final.

“He has also adapted. He has changed. He has improved,” Chiarelli said at the time.

“He’s just like a player. And he listens to people. All the while, he maintains his principles. He maintains the foundation of his game. I think you’ve seen the lineup switches, the in-game switches.”

When the Bruins fired Chiarelli in the summer of 2015, there was an expectation that the same fate would be in store for Julien. But incoming GM Don Sweeney decided to stay the course and stick with Julien, despite the fact that the Bruins had the type of hybrid roster that reflected management’s indecision between winning now and going all-in on a complete rebuild.

If you believe Julien had outlasted his shelf life in Boston, that’s a legitimate argument. But the fact that he remains one of the top coaches in the game is indisputable.

With the team having missed the playoffs last season, the Bruins are in danger of doing the same in 2016-17, sporting a 26-23-6 record for 58 points through 55 games. Assistant coach Bruce Cassidy now takes over a team that is tied for third with the Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division.

Given the influx of young players either already with the Bruins or poised to help the parent club in the next couple of seasons, Cassidy would seem like the natural successor to Julien in Boston. As bench boss of Boston’s American Hockey League affiliate in Providence, he compiled a 207-128-45 record and coached prospects Noel Acciari, Tommy Cross, Brian Ferlin, Torey Krug, Colin Miller, Kevan Miller, Joe Morrow, David Pastrnak, Tyler Randell, Ryan Spooner, Malcolm Subban and Frank Vatrano.

As for Julien, who won gold as an assistant coach for Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and 2014 Olympics in Sochi, he won’t have to wait long before his phone starts ringing courtesy of interested employers.

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