Haggerty: Julien to Habs a stunner, but we'll see if it makes them better

Haggerty: Julien to Habs a stunner, but we'll see if it makes them better

It’s an Original Six twist right out of the Boston-vs.-Montreal playbook: The Habs canning head coach Michel Therrien on Tuesday and hiring Claude Julien just a week after the B’s bench boss was turfed in Boston.

One thing is for certain: The Bruins-Canadiens rivalry, one that’s taken turns over the years alternating between bitter blood feud and one holding the upper hand over the other, is about to get hot again.

Can you imagine the kind of blood-boiling, frothing-at-the-mouth vengeance that the proud, distinguished Julien must be feeling toward the Bruins for him to eschew all the NHL gigs waiting for him this offseason, and instead sign right on with the Canadiens in midseason?

It’s surprising on one level that the B's allowed Julien to take the job in Montreal. But that would have been a shabby move to block a well-respected coach like Julien from moving on, especially after last week’s embarrassing display of firing him during the Patriots' Super Bowl celebration.

Not to mention, it’s about time the Bruins stopped operating out of fear of what might happen negatively when they make hockey decisions.

They should be confident they made the right move after watching the team play an energized, aggressive brand of hockey under interim head coach Bruce Cassidy, and needn’t fear Julien bringing his conservative, defensive-minded system to Montreal given that they view it as a relic of the NHL past. Instead the Canadiens should be concerned that they’ve hired someone who's finding it increasingly difficult to thrive in an NHL that’s trending toward speed, youth, skill and an aggressive, high-risk style that's heavy on offense.

The Habs, on the other hand, are delighted at their good fortune welcoming back a French-Canadian coach who already understands the demands of the job after guiding Montreal from 2003-06, and one who certainly wants to stick it to a Bruins team that kicked him to the curb. His Francophone background checks off all the boxes demanded by the fan base and region, and his resume has grown to legendary proportions since first getting fired by the Habs more than 10 years ago.

"Claude Julien is an experienced and well-respected coach with a good knowledge of the Montreal market,” Habs owner Geoff Molson said in a statement. “Claude has been very successful as an NHL coach and he won the Stanley Cup. Today we hired the best available coach, and one of the league's best. I am convinced that he has the capabilities to get our team back on the winning track.”

The one issue Julien will have in Montreal that he did in Boston was getting the best out of young players. People like Alex Galchenyuk, Nathan Beaulieu and Brendan Gallagher are key to the Canadiens' sustained success in the NHL’s salary-cap world. Julien's inability to properly integrate the young players into the Bruins lineup was part of what cost him his job in Boston, and the noticeable uptick from Jimmy Hayes, Ryan Spooner and Frank Vatrano since his firing is noteworthy.

The simple fact is, Julien never trusted Vatrano, Spooner and Hayes enough defensively to put them together as a forward line, yet they’ve been good and productive in the three games as a skilled third line under Cassidy. Julien also would have never installed a 21-year-old rookie like Peter Cehlarik on the power play immediately upon his arrival from the AHL. Cassidy did that in his first two NHL games, and was rewarded with a pair of assists in Sunday night's shutout win over, ironically, the Canadiens.

Julien instead will have veteran players like Shea Weber, Alexei Emelin, Tomas Plekanec and Carey Price who can help him put his defensive structure in place. Montreal fans should expect things to get conservative and veteran-heavy with a grind-it-out philosophy that appeared to finally wear out the players in Boston after 10 years.

No matter what happens, there will be second-guessers and hot-take artists who will crucify the Bruins if Julien rides into Montreal and rights the Habs ship with a team that’s been in first place nearly all season in the Atlantic Division. The Claude Fan Club will wring their its hands and say that the Bruins never should have fired the best coach they’ve ever had, even as the evidence mounted a head-coaching change was absolutely necessary. Just because someone is a good coach doesn’t make them a good fit for the personnel on a particular team, which is absolutely the situation that developed in Boston over the last couple of seasons.

So bon voyage to Claude Julien, as he steps over the line into enemy territory, and casts a dark, foreboding cloud over his 10 glorious years in Boston.

Above all else, it makes for a great story.

The hatred will be palpable on the ice as the Bruins and Habs suddenly have a ton to play for -- beyond even the standings -- the next time they meet. It’s just a shame they don’t play again over the final few months of this regular season, to see just exactly how that would all play out.

Instead everybody will have to hope that somehow, someway these two teams wind up facing each other in the playoffs where the drama, the high emotions and the cold, cold dish of possible revenge would make for some damned good postseason hockey.

For now, though, Julien has officially severed his ties with the Bruins. And the Black and Gold should feel good about what they saw from their own team in Cassidy's three games headed into the bye week.  

Morning Skate: Another setback for Flyers top pick Nolan Patrick

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Morning Skate: Another setback for Flyers top pick Nolan Patrick

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, while wondering what Melissa McCarthy is going to do now that Spicey is gone.

*The debut for Philadelphia Flyers top pick Nolan Patrick has been scratched due to “an infection in his face.” Boy, this kid can’t get healthy, can he?

*Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is 100 percent sure that the Winged Wheels will be making a return to the playoffs this season.

*PHT writer and FOH (Friend of Haggs) Jason Brough has hope returning to the city of Houston that they might get an NHL franchise one of these days.

*Travis Yost delves into shooting percentage and some of the nuances when properly trying to break it down statistically.

*There are new season ticket charges for Habs fans in Montreal, and boy are they pissed off about it. Feels like the kind of thing that could push them to riot in the streets or flood 911 emergency lines if the Canadiens aren’t too careful about it.

*Young Blues defenseman Colton Parayko signs a five-year deal with St. Louis to avoid salary arbitration while the D-man taken exactly one pick before him by the Bruins in the draft, Matt Grzelcyk, is going to be hard-pressed to move past the AHL level this season.

*For something completely different: What would Ivan Drago have been doing with his life after his showdown with Rocky in Mother Russia?

 

 

Vaakanainen lives up to skating reputation in first camp with Bruins

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Vaakanainen lives up to skating reputation in first camp with Bruins

Urho Vaakanainen was billed as a smooth-skating, solid defenseman when the Bruins selected him in the middle of the first round in last month’s draft.

That’s exactly what the 18-year-old D-man put on display at his first chance to participate in Bruins Development Camp earlier this month as one of the younger players taking his first paces with the B’s organization.

Vaakanainen skated with ease and smoothness and didn’t have much in the way of panic when he was breaking the puck out of the zone during workouts. To be sure, it was clear that many of the tools are there for the Finnish prospect. Bruins assistant GM Scott Bradley had likened him to Hall of Famer Paul Coffey for his skating ability in the days after he was drafted last month in Chicago, and Bruins player development coordinator Jamie Langenbrunner used the equally impressive Devils player comparison of Scott Niedermayer when discussing Boston’s top pick.

The bottom line is that Vaakanainen would appear to be well-suited to an evolving hockey league where the skating game is arguably the most important quality and it’s pretty much a prerequisite for success if you’re going to be a D-man in the NHL.

“I think it’s the effortlessness that he skates with, it’s smooth," Langenbrunner said. "I think Scott [Bradley] had mentioned to me yesterday, Scott Niedermayer. That’s obviously high praise with a guy that is effortless and can skate

"[All] around the rink,” said Langenbrunner. “He seems to have a little bit of those tendencies that kind of floats on his skates a little bit. That’s something that I don’t believe you can really teach. Some guys have that and some guys, it’s a little more work.

“You’re talking about a 17-year-old kid that played in the Finnish Elite League. For him to put up huge offensive numbers, I think would be pretty tough. I think now, going into his second year there is a little more confidence. Obviously, you hear more growth. You’ll see maybe a little more of an uptick there. He’s a smooth skater. He sees the ice well, he’s got good size, and he can make plays. So, I think as the confidence grows, numbers will grow just if you’re making the right plays over and over again.”

Clearly, there is some polish still to come to Vaakanainen’s offensive game after watching him in drills with his fellow prospects at development camp. That’s reflected in the two goals and six points in 41 games for JYP in the Finnish Elite League last season as well, a level of production that caused some to question just how top-end he’ll be offensively in the NHL when he does mature into his 6-foot, 183-pound body.

Vaakanainen showed a decent, accurate shot from the point and some solid instincts when it comes to making plays with the puck, but it’s also clear he doesn’t have quite the same level of pure offensive as Charlie McAvoy. The good stick, solid defensive instincts and strength for his size were all there as advertised. The skating game will cover up a lot of the things that Vaakanainen still needs to work on.

Some of the young player’s lessons can be learned and improved with greater offensive experience afforded him when he returns to Finland for the upcoming season. Some of that may mean a modestly effective offensive player in Vaakanainen once he’s met his NHL potential. It’s simply too early to tell and a lot could be learned based on his level of improvement in Europe this season and the preview everybody will get when he plays in the World Juniors for Team Finland around the holidays.  

For his part, Vaakanainen had a great week at development camp learning the streets of Boston, meeting his fellow Bruins prospects and officially making a good first impression in his first action as a first-round pick.

“As the camp went on you felt so much better and relaxed, and I had so much fun,” said Vaakanainen, who actually stayed with Langenbrunner and his family at his house after the draft. “You’ll learn new things and you get to know all the new people that are in the Bruins organization. It’s going to help me in the future to know everybody.

“I think maybe they want to see more of my offensive game because there hasn’t been so much of that the last couple of years. The role might be bigger now and more offensive, so it’s coming. Of course, you have to work hard for that, but when you play more minutes it absolutely helps to get more comfortable with what you’re doing.”

The bottom line with this pick hasn’t really changed even as Vaakanainen showed what he could do in a week of practices at Warrior Ice Arena. The Finnish teenager is a fine D-man prospect who looks like he’ll going to enjoy a solid 10-year career once he actually cracks the NHL roster and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The one thing we’ll all see over the next few years is whether or not the Bruins could have done better for themselves with the No. 18 pick in a draft class with an admittedly shallow talent pool as compared to the past couple of seasons.