Thursday April 7th, 2016

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Despite Boston's dire situation in the standings, Thursday's game against the Detroit Red Wings is not a must-win for the Bruins.

But it might be for their embattled coach, Claude Julien.

Eight losses in their past 10 games have dropped his B's from top spot in the Atlantic Division into ninth place in the Eastern Conference, which is a lousy place to be with just two games remaining on the schedule. And as the team has stumbled toward a second straight playoff DNQ, the knives have come out in Boston.

Which makes me wonder: What exactly were people expecting of the Bruins? Was anyone honestly caught off guard by this team going down to the wire? Many writers,  myself included, picked them to miss the cut before the season started. The problems were obvious.

But Julien wasn't one of them.

Sure, you can question a decision or two made along the way. There are going to be the occasional missteps in an 82-game season. But there are no overarching issues here.

This isn't a case of a coach's message going stale. Granted, no bench boss is immune to that, not even the one with the most wins in franchise history. But given the turnover on this roster, just four players—Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask—have had to hear it for Julien's entire nine-year tenure behind the Boston bench. There may be occasional lulls, but there's no reason to believe he's lost the room.

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And maybe Julien's style isn't the easiest to execute night after night for 82 games. It demands a level of accountability in all three zones that can be a challenge for veterans, let alone for the kids that have been pressed into service ahead of their ready-date. But he's also shown the ability during the year to make adjustments, both in-game and in practice, that play to the strengths at hand, rather than rigidly holding to a system. Which is all you can really ask of a coach.

That might not be enough to dissuade those who are demanding a change. But remember, there are two sides to a dismissal. The firing is the easy part. It's the replacing where things get tricky. And taking an "Anybody But Julien" approach is courting disaster.

Who's out there that's a better fit for this group? Is there really an appetite in Boston to see Guy Boucher behind the bench? Or how about Marc Crawford or Mike Keenan? Do Todd Richards or Craig Berube really seem like an upgrade?

There are no stars-in-waiting in the AHL, either, and even if there were, they don't exactly come with a guarantee. For every Jon Cooper success story, there are two that don't quite live up to expectations. Ask fans in Vancouver how they feel now about Willie Desjardins. Or read about the frustrations in Detroit over the recent struggles of Jeff Blashill.

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Ultimately it wouldn't matter if the Bruins had Scotty Bowman in his prime calling the shots. Because changing the man behind the bench wouldn't address the real problem with this team.

It's not a lack of leadership that's diminished these B's to also-ran status. It's a lack of talent and the inability to execute.

Incompetent management of the salary cap has forced the Bruins to sacrifice several proven veteran players—including top-four defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton—over the past two seasons, creating massive holes in the roster that were inexpertly filled.

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You can argue that those were the proper moves given the team's pressing financial situation. You can even make the case that the picks and prospects acquired in return may wind up becoming the foundation to future success.

But for now, they're just a handful of magic beans. And they do nothing to help Julien win games.

Neither does the rapid aging of Zdeno Chara, whose struggles become more pronounced by the night. Or the routine mental errors made by defense corps that relies too heavily on inexperienced players like Colin Miller, Zach Trotman and Kevan Miller to cart the water once carried by Boychuk and Hamilton. Or the indecisiveness of forwards who suddenly are making poor puck decisions in transition or hesitating to shoot in prime scoring areas.

Those are physical and mental breakdowns. And no coach can control those.

No matter what happens over the final few days of the season, Julien does not deserve to be fired. What he deserves is the chance to work with talent commensurate to his standing as one of the absolute best coaches in the game.

In fact, he probably deserves an extension.

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The numbers game

• The Red Wings will secure their 25th consecutive playoff berth if they defeat the Bruins in any way on Thursday night.

• The Stars can clinch the Central Division title and top seed in the West if they beat the Avalanche and the Blues fail to get at least one point against the Blackhawks.

• Beat the rival Capitals and the Penguins will secure the second seed in the Metropolitan Division. The can also lock it up if they grab one point while the Islanders beat the Rangers or fall to them in a shootout.

Hot links

• At least the Bruins have this to cheer about: A pair of their prospects were named to the 2015-16 AHL All-Rookie team.

• Rapidly declining ratings have led Rogers Sportsnet to fire their head of hockey production just days before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's an unprecedented move that hints at more significant changes to come for the network's troubled hockey broadcasts.

• Jack Eichel scored an empty-net goal in Tuesday's 3–1 win over the Devils. Here's why it was important.

2016 Frozen Four preview

• Well, this sucks: The genius behind Columbus's game-day posters is leaving the team at the end of the season.

• It's not just the lack of scoring in the NHL that has Wayne Gretzky worried. It's the lack of creativity.

• The great Gary Santaniello profiles the great Jerry York. That's an awful lot of greatness.

• Canadians skating in this week's NCAA Frozen Four are thrilled they chose to play college hockey in the United States.

• What we've witnessed after thinking the absolute worst about Patrick Kane is the absolute best of Patrick Kane.

• A panel of NHL executives weigh in on two contentious trophy races.

• Eric Lindros is lending his support to a bill aimed at establishing concussion guidelines.


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