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Boston Bruins shield themselves from blame by firing Claude Julien

And now that shield is gone.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Boston Bruins - Game Three Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney faced the heat from the local press on Tuesday after firing Claude Julien, and painted a picture of a franchise’s vision and a coach’s vision not in alignment.

What were those visions? Sweeney wasn’t entirely clear. But he and interim coach Bruce Cassidy were clear about their intentions: to change the philosophy and style of the Bruins in the middle of the season and with the playoffs within their grasp.

It’s an ambitious plan, and one that leaves the spotlight squarely on Sweeney’s management decisions now.

“This is an opportunity for a new set of eyes to come in, a new voice for our players to start to hear,” Sweeney said. “And hopefully their ears perked up."

It’s not like the Bruins players haven’t bought in to Julien’s tried-and-true system, which emphasizes creating scoring chances off of shutting down the opponents’ chances.

And for the most part, that system is still working the way it should: the Bruins lead the NHL in Shot Attempt Percentage (SAT%) at 55.87 percent, meaning they out-shoot their opposition better than anyone else in the league.

And, yet, they rank 22nd in goals-for per game (2.56). Those two things don’t add up, and how much of that is on coaching? Julien seemed a bit exasperated about this a few weeks ago.

“Probably the only thing that we can’t do for them: We can’t shoot,” Julien said. “I’m not pointing blame for the sake of pointing blame, but when we talk about creating scoring chances, that’s what we (the coaches) do: We need to give these players a certain style of play that will create scoring chances.

“If the individuals aren’t hitting the net and aren’t scoring, I don’t know that we can do much about it. We harp on it. We harp on them to hit the net. We show clips. But at one point, responsibilities have to be shared.”

Firing a coach when your team’s problems are this perplexing can serve two purposes: it can serve as a wake-up call to your players and a chance to change their play style.

Julien spent 10 years behind the Boston bench. As Cassidy mentioned in his press conference, most of the players in Boston have never played for another NHL coach. Veterans on the team likely feel a heavy sense of guilt and responsibility for Julien’s dismissal. That can drive a team to work harder.

But so can systems and habits. Both Sweeney and Cassidy emphasized that one of the first changes they’ll implement is harder practices and faster pace in games and during drills. On one hand, that could be a good thing. Perhaps faster play, faster transitions out of their own zone will lead to better scoring chances.

On the other hand ...

... exactly. There’s not much that can be changed in-season, so this is the standard post-firing line. And, really, how much better could the Bruins be implementing their system? They’re suppressing and creating better than any team in the league. Pucks just aren’t going in.

So, it’s hard to buy the voice thing Sweeney is selling. It’s easier to buy the underlying message he was dealing under the table: Claude didn’t like the roster he was given.

Just weeks ago, Julien said that his players don’t have enough talent to take nights off. In recent weeks, as the heat grew, Julien seemed more and more defensive about not being the lone fault for the Bruins’ struggles. And it’s hard to argue with him.

The truth is that the Bruins are trying to contend with a youth movement wave cresting above them. Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy are set to anchor the Bruins’ blue line together as soon as next season. Ryan Spooner is fourth on the team in points and 10th among Bruins forwards in shifts per game. Julien has stuck with veterans like Matt Beleskey and David Backes even when younger players have pushed their way to the NHL level.

This isn’t abnormal (just ask Rangers fans about Alain Vigneault’s limited use of Pavel Buchnevich), but it’s not great if your general manager is trying to move the team toward youth a bit.

Cassidy was asked about what has changed about the NHL in the years since he’s joined the coaching ranks, and he had an interesting answer that may prove why Sweeney made this move now.

“It used to be that everyone said [the NHL is] not a developmental league,” Cassidy said. “I think now there’s a lot more developing going on on the fly. [More] younger guys, and the hard salary cap forces you to move guys up in the lineup maybe sooner than they’re ready for compared to previous years.

“So there’s more teaching involved as a result if you have younger players. They’re not ready-made players on on most teams; you have to get them ready to learn on the fly. It’s important as coaches that we recognize that and we don’t forget that some of these players are young and don’t have as much seasoning as they might’ve had years ago.”

“On the fly” certainly seems to reflect many things about the Bruins these days. From firing Julien in January just a point back of the playoffs to pushing youth into a playoff team, Sweeney is assuming the challenging task of simultaneous rebuilding and contending.

Claude Julien is a faultless casualty of that process, and now the players and management in Boston must prove that cost was worth it.