"We're all accountable here."
Those were the words of Bruins president Cam Neely in a tepid vote of confidence for coach Claude Julien, issued during a 98.5 The Sports Hub interview on Dec. 21, the day after the Bruins suffered their fourth loss in five games, and the seething Spoked-Believers were calling for an immediate end of Julien's reign of terror.
Neely was right then, and he still is. But accountability is not just about assigning blame in bad times. It's also about passing out plaudits when they're deserved. Time to give Claude some credit, Bruins fans.
If you ripped him for the team's demise in December then you have to praise him for a 33-game resurgence that has propelled the Bruins to the second spot in the Eastern Conference -- two points back of conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers -- entering tonight's tilt in Montreal with the Canadiens. Otherwise it's hockey hypocrisy.
The Bruins status in the standings is a far cry from 77 (now there is a magic number) days ago in December, when they were in eighth place in the East, their Stanley Cup aspirations circling the drain. Since that time they've gone 21-8-4, including a seven-game winning streak and the first 6-0-0 road trip since the days of Orr and Esposito.
The Bruins front office may believe that with the additions of defenseman Tomas Kaberle and third-line forwards Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley the team is, apropos of the month, a Final Four team, but it's not like someone handed Julien the 1984 Edmonton Oilers. This is not a team where you can just lace 'em up and let 'em go
The coach makes a difference here, and he has.
Players win games and coaches are in a no-win situation, that's always been the case.
Was it Julien's fault that Nathan Horton went into the witness protection program for two months, or that Marc Savard wasn't sufficiently recovered from his concussion effects to be a reliable playmaking presence before his season came to a career-threatening end?
If so, then he should get credit for the return of Milan Lucic's spunk and scoring touch or the emergence of fan favorite Brad Marchand as a second-line forward. Name another system in the NHL under which defenseman Adam McQuaid could be tied for the league lead in plus/minus. McQuaid is one of five Bruins ranked in the top 10 in the league in plus/minus.
Look, Julien is not Scotty Bowman or Toe Blake, but he's not some clueless clod either. In three-plus seasons as the Bruins bench boss, Julien has coached and coaxed the team to points in 63 percent of his regular-season games. Only Don Cherry and Tom Johnson have posted higher points percentages among those who spent three or more seasons behind the Black and Gold bench.
If the standard is winning the Stanley Cup then Julien falls short, along with every coach since Johnson. Julien hasn't advanced the team to the conference finals, which makes him no different than any other Bruins coach post-1992.
He has advanced them to the second round twice in three seasons, which makes him different from quite a few, considering the team reached round two twice from 1993 to 2007, the season before Julien took over. They don't hand out trophies or hang banners (at least not in the new Garden) for making it to the conference semifinals, but before you can run the Boston Marathon you have to be able to finish a 5K.
For a certain segment of the fanbase, Julien is always going to be judged unfavorably no matter what his results because of his approach, which is more conservative than the Tea Party. You can count on death, taxes and Julien rolling out four lines. He believes the best offense is defense, defense and more defense.
It's not always appealing to watch, and the jury is out whether young, talented offensive-minded players can succeed under his system, which in the new NHL might ultimately spell Julien's demise. Phil Kessel, a top-five pick, chafed under its constraints and rookie Tyler Seguin, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, has become a press-box fixture when he's not riding shotgun on the fourth line.
And as any Bruins observer can recite, the power play is 0 for its last 12.
But there is a certain hooded coach in Foxborough who taught us a long time ago that you judge a coach by the results and not necessarily the approach. I'm not saying that Julien deserves to be compared to Bill Belichick because there is no comparison. But the 2001 Patriots weren't exactly an aesthetic masterpiece. Win something first, then worry about style points.
Then there is the matter of last spring's epic collapse against the Flyers. The 3-0 series lead and 3-0 Game 7 leads squandered. That series and his firing in New Jersey prior to the 2007 playoffs are the most often-cited reasons for Julien being unfit. Unpredictable Devils impresario Lou Lamoriello also fired Robbie Ftorek in 2000 with eight games left in the season, so Julien was not the only one he pink-slipped prior to the postseason.
As for the Flyers series, where was the Grady Little moment? It wasn't the ill-fated line change in Game 7 that resulted in a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty. That was a Savard/Vladimir Sobotka production.
Julien can't be blamed for the fact that he lost his best player, David Krejci, in the series in Game 3 and that Philadelphia added the firepower of Simon Gagne, who returned from a broken toe, in Game 4. Those health-related happenings changed the series -- and history. Gagne scored the game-winners in Game 4 and Game 7.
That's all in the past, like the December skein. Julien will be judged from here on out on what happens this spring. That's fair.
But to not give him credit for the Bruins' current success isn't.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.