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.