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Fire the coach? Blame the players

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 27, 2010 09:33 AM

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If I am Peter Chiarelli, this is what I do: I walk into the locker room and I tell the players, in no uncertain terms, that this season is entirely up to them. I tell them Claude Julien will be the coach here for years to come. I tell them that the management of the Bruins will continue to treat this team like a Stanley Cup contender, that help should be coming at some point in the next month.

And then I watch the next three weeks to see if my team has any pride at all.

Let’s make something clear here: nobody seems to be clamoring for Julien to be fired and nobody should be. Somewhere along the line, particularly in the topsy-turvy world of the NHL, firing the coach became some kind of elixir, even at the most peculiar times. In 2000, the first-place New Jersey Devils fired coach Robbie Ftorek and replaced him with Larry Robinson with eight games to play, then went on to win the Stanley Cup. No-nonsense Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello tried the same stunt seven years later and lost in the second round, as good an indication as any that coaching changes can be as predictable as coin flips. The coach he fired then? Claude Julien.

And before anyone issues the reminder that the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins dismissed their coach before turning things around last season, let’s draw a clear distinction between those Penguins and these B’s. Pittsburgh has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Bruins do not. There is talent and there is talent, and the Bruins have more of the former than they do of the latter.

Philosophically, here’s the problem some of us have with firing a coach: it lets the players off the hook. It excuses their poor performance. It teaches the younger ones, especially, that the solution for substandard play is to transplant the brain when the real issue seems to rest with the heart. It gives them a new start when they really do not deserve one, when they should instead be taught to clean up the mess they have made.

With Julien, in particular, the Bruins don’t seem to have many choices. For starters, the B’s are still paying Dave Lewis. Over the summer, they signed Julien to a multi-year extension that does not begin until next season. Another firing by Chiarelli would require him to stand in Jeremy Jacobs’s office and explain why the Bruins pay coaches like the Red Sox pay shortstops, which would put the heat squarely on the trousers of the Bruins GM.

Beyond that, there is the issue of the players, many of whom are underperforming in what has suddenly become a maddening season. In the last year or so, the Bruins have signed Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask, Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, and David Krejci, not to mention Julien, to contract extensions. They have a great deal invested in this team. A major shakeup of any kind would be tantamount to a admission of guilt, to a confession that the Bruins have made critical evaluation mistakes.

So we ask: Isn’t it possible that Bruins players have grown a little too comfortable and complacent? Isn’t it possible that they have lost their edge now that they have been handed their money? Isn’t it possible that the Bruins are acting like they have accomplished something when they really have accomplished nothing at all?

Admittedly, injuries have been an enormous part of the problem here. Since the earliest stages of this season, the Bruins have been operating at something less than full capacity. Savard has played in only half the games. Lucic has played in even fewer. During the recent West Coast swing, the Bruins played without Savard, Krejci and Patrice Bergeron, depriving them of the center on their top three lines. The power play stinks. The team has failed to protect leads in the third period. On a disturbing eight occasions this season, the Bruins have lost by three goals or more; last year, they did not suffer a loss of such magnitude until Feb. 10 and finished with just two such defeats overall.

Speaking yesterday on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Bruins vice president Cam Neely effectively dismissed any and all talk of a Julien dismissal, saying "it was a little early’’ for such conjecture. Neely spoke of a Bruins team that lacks confidence and needs its morale rebuilt. The Bruins now have nine games remaining before the Olympics break – the first coming on Friday at Buffalo – and the annual NHL trading deadline is just three days after the Olympics conclude.

Translation: Before he can make any determination on what kind of acquisitions to make, Chiarelli needs to see what kind of character this team has. And he needs to find out now.

Last year, for all intents and purposes, the Bruins coasted through the regular season. They subsequently dusted the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs before spanking the Carolina Hurricanes by a 4-1 score in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. In retrospect, maybe that was a bad way for the Bruins to start the playoffs because they really haven’t been the same team since. The Bruins fell asleep in Games 2, 3 and 4 of the Carolina series and woke up briefly in Games 5 and 6, which cannot help but make you wonder where the problem with this team resides.

As we all know, you don’t learn about character and heart during the good times.

You learn during the bad times.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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