Profiles in Excellence: Claude Julien

Claude Julien
Rank #42 – 19 Points

Coaching Experience:
Montreal Canadiens, 2002-2006
New Jersey Devils, 2006-2007
Boston Bruins, 2007-present

Accomplishments:
Regular Season W-L-T-OL: 298-189-10-69
Playoff W-L: 37-30
Jack Adams Award: 2008-2009
Atlantic Division Title: 2006-2007
Northeast Division Titles: 2008-2009, 2010-2011
Playoff Appearances: 2004, 2008-2011
Stanley Cup Final: 2011
Stanley Cup Victory: 2011

When Jacques Lemaire announced his retirement as head coach of the New Jersey Devils in April 2011 he also yielded his mantle of being the best defensive coach in the NHL today to Claude Julien the head coach of the Boston Bruins.

Lemaire and Julien were the top two defensive coaches in the NHL during the past two seasons. Lemaire’s Devils had a 2.27 GAA and Julien’s Bruins have allowed only 2.41 goals per game. No other NHL coach comes close to matching these figures.

But to become the best defensive coach in the NHL today, Claude Julien has had to endure a long apprenticeship; with some nasty hits and cross-checks along the way.

Julien was a career minor league defenseman who had two brief cups of coffee with the Quebec Nordiques in the 1980s. When his playing career ended in the 1990s Claude took up coaching in junior hockey before working his way up to the minors: coaching the Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL from 2000 to 2003.

Midway through the 2002/03 NHL season the Montreal Canadiens hired him to replace Michel Therrien as head coach. Julien had mixed results. He failed to reach the playoffs in 2003; took the Habs to a second round loss in 2004; and was fired as head coach midway through the 2005/06 Season.

Julien went to New Jersey and was doing seemingly well (the Devils would win the Atlantic Division title that season) when he was abruptly fired as head coach with three games left in the 2006/07 regular season. (Devils GM Lou Lamoriello felt that Julien had not made the Devils ready for the Stanley Cup playoffs—shades of Robbie Ftorek in 2000).

He was not unemployed for long. The Boston Bruins hired him and he has remained there ever since; leading the team to two Northeast Division titles; four playoff appearances; and their first Stanley Cup win since 1972.

His greatest regular season as a coach was in 2008/09. The Bruins were the second best team in the NHL that season and had the best defense in the NHL. Julien won the Jack Adams Trophy that season for his sterling effort.

His teams win games with pure defense and great goaltending. Julien has coached two Vezina trophy winners: Martin Brodeur in 2007 and Tim Thomas in 2009 and 2011. Thomas and fellow net-minder Manny Fernandez combined to win the Jennings Trophy in 2009. Defenseman Zdeno Chara won the Norris Trophy in 2009 and earned All-Star honors in 2011 for Claude Julien.

It’s his work with Tim Thomas that merits further attention. Whereas Claude Julien inherited goaltending legend Martin Brodeur when he coached the New Jersey Devils, Tim Thomas has played a major role in Claude Julien’s success with Boston. Thomas was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in 1994 but spent nearly a decade playing in the minors and Europe before being signed as a 31-year old free agent by the Bruins in 2005.

Tim Thomas was already the starting goalie for the Bruins when Julien arrived but it took Claude Julien’s defensive systems and the acquisition of veteran blue-liners Zdeno Chara, Tomas Kaberle, Andrew Ference, and the young Adam McQuaid to give Thomas the defensive support he needed to excel between the pipes.

Under Claude Julien, Tim Thomas has had career years and has gotten the recognition he richly deserves for his stalwart presence in the nets. When Thomas was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs it was the culmination of the long years of hard effort in the minors and Europe; and the patience and dedication to make the most of his opportunities under Claude Julien.

Before the 2010/11 season Julien’s major weaknesses were in power-play offense and, to a lesser extent, penalty-killing and overall offense.

With the exception of the 2008/09 season his teams have always finished near the bottom of the NHL in power-play offense; and have finished in the top ten in penalty-killing only twice in eight seasons. That’s why Julien was second to Jacques Lemaire as a defensive coach because Lemaire’s teams always excelled in penalty-killing whereas Julien’s teams did not.

Even though the Bruins finished third during the 2009/10 Season in penalty-killing one of the main reasons why they lost four straight games to the Flyers during the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs was their inability to contain the Flyers power-play offense. Time and again the Bruins—renowned for their on-ice discipline—committed penalties and failed to stop the Flyers power-play.

Another Achilles Heel to Julien’s teams was their weakness on offense. Julien’s teams have cracked the top ten in offense only once. Indeed the Bruins finished next-to-last in offense during the 2009/10 Season.

Until 2011 Claude Julien was snake-bit in playoff competition: never going beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In 2004 he was beaten by John Tortorella’s Tampa Bay Lightning. In 2009 he lost to the Carolina Hurricanes and in 2010 he fell to Peter Laviolette’s Flyers.

The summer of 2010 was a long one for Julien and the Bruins. There was much to think about; much to ponder and brood but when autumn came and the 2010/11 season began Julien and the Bruins retooled themselves dramatically.

In 2009/10 the Bruins finished 29th in offense.  In 2010/11 the Bruins were eighth in the NHL in offense due to the solid work from Milan Lucic, Patrick Bergeron, Nathan Horton, and Brad Marchand. Their efforts were complemented by David Krejci’s superb playmaking skills.

Gargantuan defenseman Zdeno Chara led the NHL in the plus-minus factor (and teammates Adam McQuaid, Horton, Lucic, and Marchand also finished in the top twenty in that category as well).

The Bruins also improved their transition game, finishing fourth in the NHL in short-handed offense thanks to Marchand and Bergeron.

(When Patrice Bergeron scored the third goal in game seven of the Stanley Cup finals against Vancouver while the Bruins were short-handed it was not a fluke occurrence. The Bruins scored three short-handed goals during the finals).

But the biggest surprise came when Boston (noted for its on-ice discipline) did a 180 degree turnaround in their on-ice demeanor. Whereas the season before they finished 20th in team penalty-minutes now they became nastier, finishing eighth in the NHL in penalty minutes. Claude Julien got the Bruins to play with greater emotional and physical ferocity.

Never was this more evident than in their four regular season meetings with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Bruins went 3-1 in their match-ups; shutting down the Flyers offense and out-hitting the Broad Street Bullies.

Never was revenge most sweet than in the second round of the 2011 playoffs when they swept the Flyers in four games; chewing them up and spitting them out, outscoring the Flyers 20-7 in four games.

It was the conference finals that gave Boston its biggest scare of the 2011 playoffs.

They faced a very young and raw Tampa Bay Lightning team led by its equally young and raw head coach Guy Boucher.

The Bruins were taken to the very limit and had to win game seven by a 1-0 margin with the winning goal coming in the third period.

And yet their game seven win should be seen as a triumph for Claude Julien and the Bruins. The Bruins were able to assert their defensive skills and force the Lightning (who won games with a high octane offense) to engage in a battle of the defenses—which played directly to the Bruins’ collective strength. In such a contest the Lightning could not win. And so Claude Julien earned his first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals as a head coach.

The Bruins lost the first two games against Vancouver even though they allowed only four goals in two games. The Bruins were playing tentatively, allowing Vancouver to press the action in their zone; even worse the Canucks seemed to be winning psychologically as well: Alexandre Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron in game one and not being disciplined; Canuck goalie Roberto Luongo dissing Tim Thomas (a Vezina Trophy candidate) in the press.

The tinderbox was full; what was needed was the spark to ignite it.

It came in game three when Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome flattened Nathan Horton with a late hit early in the match in Boston. The sight of Nathan Horton (in restraints) being taken away on a stretcher and knocked permanently out of the series galvanized the Bruins; made them look deep into themselves and re-elicited their inner hockey talents which had been lying dormant in games one and two.

Their backs to the wall the Bruins returned to the controlled rage and physical play that got them to the Stanley Cup finals in the first place.

The Bruins won four of the remaining five games (their sole loss was a 1-0 thriller in game five) outscoring the Canucks 21-4 in the process. Tim Thomas stoned the Canucks in games four and seven (Thomas had four shutouts and the lowest GAA during the 2011 playoffs). Shorn of Nathan Horton’s scoring talents, the Bruins rallied with a brilliant collective offensive effort.

Tim Thomas wasn’t the only defensive star. Zdeno Chara led all players with a +16 rating in the playoffs. Boston held the Canucks (who had the best power-play offense in the NHL) to only two power-play goals throughout the series while the Bruins (who had one of the weakest power-play units during the regular season) scored six power-play goals themselves.

When the final buzzer sounded in game seven with the Bruins earning a convincing 4-0 win, it exorcised the demons of their 2010 playoff loss forever; the Bruins were shriven and justified by their collective faith in themselves.

As for Claude Julien, by leading the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup title he did what Bep Guidolin, Don Cherry, Terry O’Reilly and Mike Milbury could not do (they had led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals in 1974, 1977-1978, 1988, and 1990 respectively). He had ended the Bruins’ 39 year drought.

The Bruins are a mixture of savvy veterans and bright young talents. It will be interesting to see how they will fare in the seasons to come but the ingredients and attitudes for future greatness are there and they have the right coach to lead them.

Claude Julien got the Bruins to vault to greatness and in so doing elevated himself into greatness as well.

Boston got off to a slow start last October and for a time were in the Northeast Division basement but in the their last seventeen games the Bruins have gone 14-2-1 with a ten-game winning streak and have regained the Northeast Division lead (during the last week the Bruins earned tough wins over divisional rival Toronto and the Penguins).

Right now the Bruins have the best defense in the NHL and are in the top five in offense and penalty-killing. This is a young, vibrant team blessed with enormous upside and all the potential in the world to dominate the NHL standings and the playoffs for years to come.

…And they have the right coach to lead them.

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