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Kalman: MacLean Firing Proves Bruins Were Wise to Lock Up Julien

BOSTON (CBS) - Eighteen months after he was voted by NHL broadcasters as the best coach in the League, Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean is unemployed.

The Senators gave him a pink slip Monday after an 11-11-5 start.

MacLean's firing again proves what a volatile and fickle career coaching can be. His dismissal also reinforces how wise the Bruins were when they extended coach Claude Julien's contract earlier this season.

As team president Cam Neely revealed after the announcement of the extension, Julien was in the last year of his prior extension. Had the Bruins let Julien play out the 2014-15 season with another extension, he would've become a free agent next summer.

Imagine what the Senators would've done to lure Julien, who has won more than 400 NHL games and the Stanley Cup, to Ottawa. Julien grew up in nearby Orleans and spends much of his offseason back in that area. Without his ties to the area, Julien would've been atop many teams' free-agent shopping lists, along with Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. After all, the list of players headed toward unrestricted free agency lacks for the star power those two coaches could bring to a franchise. A coach with Julien's winning resume and ties to Ottawa would've been the apple of the Senators' eye had the Bruins not taken their coach off the market.

Although there's still a faction of the Bruins' fan base and media horde that have issues with Julien's coaching philosophies, there should be more appreciation for the success he has brought the Bruins.

Of Julien's 444 NHL wins, 325 have come with the Bruins. His 325-177-66 record with Boston computes to a .633 winning percentage. There are certainly moves Julien makes that can cause an observer to scratch one's head. In a little more than a week 2014 first-round pick David Pastrnak went from being a player Julien said would be wasted on a fourth line to playing on a fourth line to being a healthy scratch to being sent to Providence of the American Hockey League.

Despite the inconsistency between what Julien said one day after practice and what he actually did with Pastrnak on the West Coast Trip (and a line completed by Matt Fraser and Chris Kelly could not be considered anything but a fourth line), Julien's clearly not in much control of his roster these days.

Julien was not at fault for general manager Peter Chiarelli's inability to replace Jarome Iginla as the first-line right winger and instead try to force the likes of Seth Griffith, Loui Eriksson and Simon Gagne into that spot. Julien couldn't do anything about Reilly Smith and Torey Krug's late arrivals to training camp or the salary-cap crunch that forced the Bruins to trade Boychuk days before the start of the regular season. And Julien couldn't do much more than he did to try to get prospects like Alexander Khokhlachev, Ryan Spooner and David Warsofsky didn't thrust themselves into NHL jobs in training camp the Chiarelli had predicted.

Usually when the topic is injured players, Julien often talks about just being concerned with the players he has available. Well, the same goes for players that are sent to the minors, called up, traded away or acquired. In the parlance of a former local football coach, Chiarelli does the grocery shopping and Julien makes the dinner. And you know what? More often than not Julien makes the dinners that are more delicious than expected considering his lesser quality ingredients.

Look at this season to start. The Bruins started out with an open spot where Iginla once resided, had to sign Gagne because no one from their system was able to win a job and since the start of the regular season have lost 78 man games to injury through 28 games. Nineteen of those man games lost have belonged to Zdeno Chara, 17 to David Krejci. Most of those games have overlapped in the schedule.

Most of the players that have stayed healthy have underachieved. And star goaltender Tuukka Rask even struggled for the first month of the season. Still the Bruins sit 15-12-1 and in a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. This season isn't an anomaly. You can look back through the years, when the Bruins lost Patrice Bergeron, Marc Savard and others to injury, the Bruins kept winning.

Some take issue with Julien's handling of struggling players. They want him to cut guys' minutes, they want him to bench them and maybe even send them to the press box. With salaries what they are and the salary-cap ceiling where it is, losing players mentally over the allocation of playing time just isn't worth it. Loyalty is Julien's way of getting the most out of his players and getting them all to fight for the common cause. He understands that for the most part he's stuck with the players making more than $4 million with no-trade clauses in their contract. The risk of alienating a player who's going to be around for the long haul, whether Julien likes it or not, is too great for him to go around benching guys unless it's an extreme situation like Milan Lucic's struggles in 2013.
Much more often than not this approach has paid off.

Paul MacLean
Paul MacLean with the Ottawa Senators (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Often a coach is only as good as his players' collective talents can make him look. In Ottawa, MacLean was clearly put in a precarious position as the payroll was reduced and the talent level dropped with it. However, there are ways to implement a system, cajole more out of lesser players and get players to rally together as a team that can lead to overachieving. That's a skill Julien clearly has.

If you're going to make a coaching change, you don't want it to be a lateral move. You want to upgrade. That's the task Ottawa now has. Will they be able to find someone better than the coach who just two seasons ago was considered the best in his profession? Most of the candidates are unproven at the NHL level, and we've seen so many would-be geniuses come and go in a flash in recent seasons. Guy Boucher expired quickly in Tampa Bay. Dallas Eakins seems always one inch away from the axe in Edmonton. When Scott Gordon let the Bruins organization, it was seen as a major loss. Gordon hasn't been hired to be a head coach since his stint with the New York Islanders ended. Not too long ago Cory Clouston was the boy wonder in Ottawa.

Julien's a great coach and the Bruins recognize that. But I'd say the reason they keep him behind the bench is 90 percent because he's a great coach and he provides organizational stability. The other 10 percent relates to the alternatives. Picking the next Julien out of the pool of NHL assistants, AHL head coaches and unemployed NHL retreads is a gamble that's not worth taking.

Ottawa has decided to play coaching roulette. As the Bruins try to find their identity and Chiarelli continues to shop for the right pieces of the puzzle, at least the Bruins know they have a sure thing behind their bench.


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