Raise your hand if you had Ken Hitchcock & Claude Julien getting fired during this season.
Anyone? Okay, good. Glad we’ve established that.
Monday, the Bruins fired their coach of the last decade, Claude Julien. There is a pile of evidence that he didn’t deserve this, and we’ll get to that. It is important to point out that the Bruins Owner and CEO both issued statements where both spoke of their “confidence in the team’s direction.” That’s where this piece begins…The Jacobs family believes the team is heading up. The moves the Bruins have made indicate something, very much the opposite.
Let’s go WAY back. Before Julien was fired, before Hamilton & Seguin traded, heck, even before the 2015 draft. Let’s go back to, yes, the Kessel trade. In 2009, the Bruins traded Kessel to the Leafs and received two 1st round picks (’10,’11) and a 2010 2nd rd pick. Let’s remember this was the same team that traded Joe Thornton too (are we seeing a trend here?) Kessel gone, those picks turned into Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight. Both 1st rd picks turned into bonafide NHL players, neither are still with the Bruins. In 2013, Seguin was shipped to Dallas, citing “player issues,” in a 7 player trade. The Bruins received Joe Morrow, Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith and Matt Fraser. Only one of those players remains on the Bruins roster today, with the key piece (Eriksson) lost for nothing to free agency. Smith was traded to Florida with Savard’s contract for Jimmy Hayes. In 2015, the Bruins traded the other key piece of the Kessel deal, Dougie Hamilton for a 1st rd pick (Senyshyn) and two 2nd rd picks (Forsbacka-Karlsson & Lauzon).
The players in red are those the Bruins traded, dark green represents players currently on the Bruins roster, with light green representing prospects in the system. The return for Kessel, had the Bruins kept the pieces, was an NHL superstar (Seguin) and a top pairing D, which is excellent. However, the mismanagement of those assets have left the Bruins with 2 current players and 3 prospects, none of which project to be impact players.
Moving towards the 2015 draft, the Bruins had 3 consecutive 1st rd picks (13, 14, 15), an unprecedented amount of 1st rd picks. In what was considered a deep draft, the Bruins failed in their attempt to trade into the top 3. However, 3 picks in the first 15 is an incredible opportunity to change the future of your team.
Rhys Jessop tweeted what every hockey follower was thinking, Boston had the opportunity to build their team on the back of 3 players. Given what we know now, the Bruins could’ve drafted any 3 of Mat Barzal, Travis Konecny, Thomas Chabot, Kyle Connor & Colin White. All 5 of those players project to be impact NHL players with Konecny already playing with the Flyers and Kyle Connor seeing time with both the Jets and Moose. Barzal, Chabot and White were arguably the 3 best players of the 2017 World Junior tournament aside from 2016 Boston pick, Charlie McAvoy. Questions will always remain of “what could’ve been” in that 2015 draft, especially if the 3 players drafted do not make an impact in a Bruins uniform.
Evaluating the Bruins current roster and future implications, its bleak. A position of strength is the plethora of defensive prospects the Bruins have. Chara, who will likely retire after next season has slowed down considerably. The Bruins future on the back end is likely a combo of Krug, Carlo, McAvoy, Zboril & Lauzon. Two are contributing NHLers, with McAvoy all but a lock to succeed. The Bruins are set on the backend for the future, little argument there.
The Bruins up front, are in some trouble. Krejci is 30, Bergeron is 31 and Marchand is 28. Recent trends have told us NHLers tend to slow down in their 30s, meaning 2/3 of Boston’s mainstays up front are past their prime with Marchand in the middle of his. All three are absolutely serviceable, with Bergeron and Marchand being their most important. Frank Vatrano has been a solid contributor this year, as has David Pastrnak. Those two, along with Marchand will likely lead the team once Bergeron and Krejci decline. Prospect wise, the cupboards are pretty bare. Senyshyn, Debrusk, Forsbacka-Karlsson, Bjork and Czarnik represent the future, a big step down.
Here’s where the big problem is, the contracts:
Bergeron and Krejci are stomach able because both are great skaters and players with that trait tend to experience less of a drop-off. However, Backes & Beleskey are two contracts that may impede the Bruins from resigning key pieces such as Pastrnak, Vatrano and their young D corps. Both of these contracts were signed in free agency, where players are notoriously overpaid. Kevan Miller’s contract is an issue because he will take up a position on the blue line, thus, taking one away from one of the younger, better D prospects.
Looking at the Bruins roster, it is not difficult to see why the Bruins are where they are. The team is in an awkward stage where over half of their core is over the hill, and they are trying to capitalize on a final cup run (signing Backes), before the younger players come up. In a league that has moved to speed and skill, Boston is one of the slowest teams, yet Julien’s system kept them highly effective. If you look at the underlying numbers, the Bruins are very much in the top echelon, and they suggest the team is primed for an upswing. With the help of Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey), noted chart extraordinaire, here is the evidence that the underperforming (in wins) Bruins Is not Julien’s fault.
At the time of Julien’s firing, Boston led the NHL in CF% and xGF%. Generally, those two numbers are predictors of a very successful team. It is interesting to note the two categories where the Bruins fall short, GF% and PDO. With the Bruins xGF% at 56.2, but their actual at 46.5, that is very easily explained by their comically low shooting percentage. Their lack of wins? Well, you find me a team with sub.900 SV% (0.899) and I’ll show you a team who shouldn’t be close to the playoffs. For context, the other teams with sub .900 SV% are Winnipeg, Philadelphia, Carolina, Colorado and St. Louis (oh look, Hitchcock was fired from here). The fact Boston was holding down a playoff spot with that goaltending is remarkable.
Looking at the Bruins shot-share, its amazing both ways. Their rates for are consistently over 55, with nearly every game since January 1 at over 65! The rates against are equally impressive with Boston allowing less than 55 attempts in every game since November, with the average around 50 for the season. That’s incredible, especially considering the pace the team plays at.
Individually, it is even more impressive. Julien has every one of his D with a positive shot share, 5 of 7 with a share difference of +10 or more(C. Miller, Carlo, Chara, Krug, McQuaid). That’s borderline magic, considering Carlo is a rookie Dman, and they RARELY have positive shot share in their rookie/sophmore years. All but two Boston forwards have positive shot share (Hayes & Schaller), with all but three above 5. Bergeron is +27, Riley Nash is +13, and most impressively, Backed is +10. Consider, a player at 32 (decline), had a career shot share of +1.3 under Ken Hitchcock (noted possession coach), that his share improved to +10 under a new coach. Backes didn’t become a better hockey player (players don’t at 32), Julien’s system is possession driven and that is a proven driver of success.
So where do we conclude? Well, given how Boston’s front office has mismanaged assets, made undesirable signings that will handcuff the team and very clearly, couldn’t see that SH% and SV% as the reason for their lack of wins, I’m not sure they’re fully aware of the kind of coach they just fired. Julien had the Bruins in the playoff spot, despite the team’s bad luck. Not only that, he had his team tops in the NHL in most categories that predict success, despite the undisputed fact that the team is on the downswing. One of two things will happen here:
- The PDO will improve, the system will remain the same, and the team will start winning based purely on luck.
- Without Julien’s system, players will be exposed, the PDO may rise, but not enough to combat the falling shot share numbers and xGF%.
The team was going in a great direction under Julien, if anything, Neely and Sweeney need to step aside. With little known about where this team sees itself, their asset management and drafting better improve in short order if the franchise wants to avoid an extended playoff absence. Bottom line: Julien should still be behind the bench in Boston and I’d suspect, it won’t be long before another NHL team scoops him up. If you’re going to fire someone, you better have someone better waiting, the Bruins don’t have someone better. One has to wonder, with unrest growing in Montreal, do the Habs consider bringing in Julien…? FWIW, I would.
By the way, the Bruins firing Julien and holding the press conference DURING the New England Patriots Super Bowl parade was rather convenient, no? It almost seems like they hoped reporters wouldn’t show, thereby allowing the front office to skate by without answering tough questions. Not a good look.