Monday, January 16, 2006

The end of Claude Julien

TSN's Bob McKenzie predicted the end for two coaches last week, and on that front, he was bang on.

One of the week's firings he foresaw — that of New York Islanders bench boss Steve Stirling — went as planned. The other — that of second-year Boston Bruins coach Mike Sullivan — is still waiting in the wings.

One move that did happen, however, that no one predicted, was Montreal Canadiens GM Bob Gainey pulling the plug on his coach, Claude Julien. 'A shocker' read the headlines. Here, too, I'll defer to McKenzie:
The old truth is that any general manager, in this case Bob Gainey, who didn't hire the head coach, in this case Julien, is more inclined to make a change when things are not going so well.
When Gainey came to the Habs in May of 2003, he joined a team that was in disarray, one that had just missed the playoffs, fired it's coach midseason and promoted the coach of its minor-league club, Julien, to the top job. Even then, I recall whispers about the rookie coach's job security.

Gainey is, flat out, one of the league's brilliant hockey minds. He coached the Minnesota North Stars in the early '90s, leading the club to it's first and only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, then moved upstairs to build a Dallas Stars team that would win the Cup in 1999. If anyone knows a good coach, it's Gainey.

Aside from Julien's triumph in the first round of the 2004 playoffs when his club defeated a hapless and, yes, overrated Bruins team, his tenure hasn't exactly wowed anyone. Without a lightning quick 7-2 start out of the gate, the Habs would be mired in the Eastern Conference basement.

The team has looked terrible the past two months, disorganized and disinterested. The Habs have also struggled on the penalty kill this season, a surefire sign that the club's systems were in need of retooling. Perhaps Julien's most grevious error, however, was his handling of netminder Jose Theodore. Always a streaky player, Theodore's play was never fully allowed to pick back up before Julien began to start Cristobal Huet. You have to know Gainey was cringing up in the box as a 30-year-old career backup was starting rather than the team's star.

One also has to remember that Julien hardly has the pedigree of a top-flight NHL head coach. A career minor leaguer as a player, Julien really only had 3.5 seasons in the junior and minor leagues as a head coach before moving to the top job. That's not nearly enough for a team aspiring to be one of the Eastern Conference's best.

In truth, Gainey has his work cut out for him in that department, and I don't mean as a coach. The Habs defence core needs another top-three defenceman badly, as the pairing of Craig Rivet and Andrei Markov has had to shoulder far too much of the burden, both offensively and in the defensive zone. Rivet has performed admirably, but he's 31-years-old and hasn't been used in an offensive role since his days in junior hockey with the Kingston Frontenacs.

My guess is Julien catches on as an assistant coach somewhere for a few years, puts his head down and works to get back to a top job. He's far too hardworking and dedicated not to get another shot at the NHL. It says here, he'll last longer in that posting.

As for the Canadiens, they're the most likely candidate to end Canadians' hopes to have all six Canadian clubs in the playoffs. With Gainey behind the bench, however, I wouldn't bet on it.

UPDATE Well, it didn't take long for players to talk a little sour about their former coach.
Habs forward Alexei Kovalev said Gainey's style and insistence on moving the puck forward at all times was a welcome change from former coach Claude Julien.

"I don't know what Claude was telling the defence, but it looked like they were confused out there and didn't know what to do," Kovalev said. "But the simplest thing is what we've talked about, just move the puck up the ice and move everything forward.
I don't know what Claude was telling the defence either, but, then again, I wasn't at as many practices as Rafael.

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