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Cracking the Hockey Hall of Fame as an NHL coach is no easy task

The Hockey Hall of Fame isn't a welcoming place for coaches, especially those without a dynasty on their resume.

Even the staunchest of Boston cynics—and we grow ‘em deep, and we grow ‘em real—wouldn’t have expected the disposed Claude Julien, after his decade long run as Bruins bench boss, to turn up as coach of the Montreal Canadiens. If you’re a Bostonian, you now think it’s inevitable that the B’s, surging under Julien replacement Bruce Cassidy (9-3-0 through Saturday), will now make the playoffs simply for the purpose of getting a Julien-based comeuppance. 

Of course, it likely won’t go that way, and the Bruins are going to still have a devil of a time getting into the postseason tourney, but one thing Julien’s ouster did spark was debate as to whether he was a Hall of Fame coach. 

The Hall loves centers; it loves defenseman; wings certainly do all right. But there are three groups that have a much harder time getting in. Like if you’re a Soviet player from before Soviet players started appearing in the NHL. Or if you’re a goalie. It’s easier to beat one of their number on an unscreened slap shot from the blue line than it is for a keeper himself, even an all-world keeper, to make the Hall. And then there are coaches. 

Julien’s candidacy to date is illuminating, and I’ll say first off, that based on what he’s done so far, there is no sodding way Claude Julien is a Hall of Fame coach. But then again, this isn’t particularly damning, and there’s still a lot of game to be played, so to speak, with how Julien’s Hall resume might finish up. 

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He’s a good coach, has a system, loves his system, is positively in thrall to his system, which consists of defense first. There was a joke in Boston about why Julien would send out third line pluggers for the shootout, guys that you knew were never going to score. They might not hit the net. They did like to hit the high glass, though. And the punchline was that they were out there for defensive purposes, in case the goalie got some notion to go on the attack. 

Julien loves his layers of backcheckers. His goalies are not as good as their stats suggest, because they field so many shots from the perimeter, jacking their save percentages. If Julien could win a game 0-0, he would love to do so. Julien is counted on by Team Canada for international tournaments, where he makes invaluable assistant coach contributions and is a trusted right hand man; he won a Cup with the Bruins, took them to another final, and was a master of saving his job from the ever-stoked furnace of firing. But Hall of Fame? Come on—that’s not going to get it done.

How impactful is an NHL coach? We see, so often—like with last year’s Stanley Cup-winning Penguins—that one of the best things about a coach is that you can fire him and slot in somebody—almost anybody—to get a rise out of the team. This rise can lead you to a Cup. If you’ve ever played hockey, you know that nothing motivates a hockey player like fear. There is a kind of Puritanical, old New England-type conscience in every hockey player, like he has descended from the Mathers and the Hawthornes of yore. Make him feel like he has screwed up, and the hockey player, most often, will come through for you. He will feel guilt, he will fear for his job, and he will put his hindquarters on the line to make amends. 

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In this sense, a hockey coach is a sort of despot-cum-pawn, who can be forgiven for having an identity crisis as a result. What coaches matter most in sports? Football coaches, at all levels. Managers in baseball? Not a ton. NBA coaches? Not much—players have all the power. College basketball coaches are institutions unto themselves, the lords of the fiefdom. College hockey coaches have impressive sway, and manage to seem far more ethical than college basketball coaches. College football coaches have the taint of devil’s minions about them, with a lot of power. When we think of the prototypical NHL Hall of Fame coach, we perhaps think of Scotty Bowman. But how good was Scotty Bowman? Can we tell? We tend to forget that he led some upstart St. Louis Blues teams in the early expansion era to the Finals, where they played the part of sacrificial lamb for the established franchises. 

But then Bowman turns up in Montreal, and hey-hey-hey, what do we have here, but a roster stocked for a dynasty. In this way, he was a bit like Joe Torre, a relative ho-hummer who then met the perfect roster. From there it was on to an inglorious stint in Buffalo, before having another Cup with the Penguins and the Super Mario squad, ending up in Detroit, with another roster fit to do the dynasty thing. 

So how good was he? Well, he didn’t louse up anything. Could you or I have coached that Canadiens team to a Cup or two? I’ll say yep, we sure could have. Maybe we would have landed a Jack Adams award as coach of the year between us. 

But if you want to make the Hall as a hockey coach, the dynastic route is the way to go. It’s the way Joel Quenneville of the Blackhawks already has a punched ticket. Now, you might quibble and say that coaches fall into the Hall’s “Builder” category, which can only welcome in, at most, two people per year, while there are four potential player spots. But considering how greater the player-to-builder ratio is, it’s a generous allotment. And if you’re a coach who is not getting in, it’s not because every year was so jam-packed with candidates. Fit the Hall’s prescriptive demands, and your tie-and-jacket wearing self will get the call.

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But that’s a doozy of an order. Who else in today’s NHL is likely to be enshrined? Innovating—that is, overhauling the game—is another way to join the immortals, but there’s not much in the way of innovation in today’s league. 

There’s playing safe, packing it in, doing what everyone else does better than anyone else does it. This isn’t the stuff for the would-be Socrateses out there who just happen to diagram bold and innovative concepts on grease boards between periods. I guess Mike Babcock could have a shot, if he brings a Cup to Toronto, but that can feel somewhat like bringing the Atlantic to Dubuque, though they’re starting to get there. 

So we’re really talking one guy in all of the twenty-first century thus far. Actually, if Monsieur Julien guides the Canadiens to a Cup this spring, you can start chiseling his plaque. That’s just how these things go. A lot of right time, right place. And a Cup in Canada counts for more than a garden variety Blackhawks Cup, at this point. National events are more freighted.

Bruins fan, cynics that they are, will say they had seen it coming all along, and will pine for the days of a shake-up when you could have fired your despot/pawn of a coach, and imported the likes of a problem-solver like Claude Julien with his love of layers, and his pluggers pinging the glass during the shootout.