Direct approach

Bruins have a guiding force in the no-nonsense Julien

CLAUDE JULIENNo gray areas CLAUDE JULIENNo gray areas
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / October 1, 2009

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WILMINGTON - About this time two seasons ago, before Claude Julien had even stepped behind the bench for his first game with his new employer, the first-year Bruins coach showed he had little patience for players with a propensity for freelancing.

The previous year, management had sacrificed Brad Boyes, one of the organization’s most natural goal scorers, to acquire the high-end blue line skill they projected in Dennis Wideman. The trouble was that along with the skill came risk - too much for Julien, who attempted to quiet down Wideman’s game during training camp.

“We tried to help him out,’’ Julien said. “At one point, you feel a little resistance and stubbornness. So then you take the next step. In other words, it was, ‘If you don’t want to be playing our way, understanding that we’re trying to make you a better player, then you’ll be watching.’ Sometimes it takes a guy just one game to understand that. Some players learn pretty quickly. He did.’’

So when the 2007-08 season opener rolled around, Wideman was watching from the press box of American Airlines Center in Dallas as the Bruins played the Stars.

The healthy scratch is just one tool that Julien, who coaches his third Black-and-Gold season opener tonight, has wielded since his arrival in Boston. Julien is a hard-driving, no-nonsense coach who emphasizes his on-ice practice points with a string of curses, but then eases off by pulling players aside for one-on-one chats. He’ll bust his players during practice but is generous in giving them Sundays off or excusing them from morning skates.

It’s black. And white. But never gray.

“Probably the most important hire a manager has to make,’’ general manager Peter Chiarelli said of identifying and landing the right man to stand behind the bench.

Seemingly all is well in Boston, where the Bruins are hoping to build on a dynamo of a 2008-09 regular season. The front office, benefiting from some of the wise decisions made by the previous regime (drafting David Krejci and Milan Lucic, locking up Tim Thomas), has hit on a string of positive personnel decisions. Thomas, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, is back between the pipes tonight. Zdeno Chara, last year’s Norris Trophy winner, will patrol the blue line, with Derek Morris, signed to a one-year, $3.3 million contract, as his mobile right-hand man.

But the team’s most important assets are Julien and his staff, who are expected, once again, to squeeze the best out of the players in uniform.

There’s assistant coach Doug Houda, a holdover from Dave Lewis’s staff, watching from the press box during games and relaying his observations to the bench. There’s goaltending coach Bob Essensa, also a Lewis survivor, helping Thomas reach peak form and preparing Tuukka Rask for the NHL. There’s assistant coach Geoff Ward, a Julien colleague from their days in the Edmonton organization, mapping out the power play. There’s assistant coach Craig Ramsay, inexplicably turfed by Tampa Bay following the 2006-07 season, serving as the defensive guru in good-cop fashion.

Overseeing the staff is Julien, whose abrupt firing in New Jersey in April 2007 led to a relationship with the Bruins that’s been more snug than a Back Bay parking spot. In his first season, Julien guided what was a 13th-place team to an eighth-place finish. Last season, he boosted the club seven more spots, finishing the regular season atop the Eastern Conference.

Though there have been a few misses (Andrew Alberts, Matt Lashoff, Brandon Bochenski), Julien has helped just about every lad who’s pulled on the spoked-B become a better player, leading to a Jack Adams Award and a multiyear extension.

Chara was already a force in Ottawa. But with more structure, he has become even more stingy on defense while adding an offensive presence, on the point with his booming slapper and at the far post with his soft hands. Marc Savard, once strictly an offensive player, has bought into Julien’s system to the extent that he’s tapped for penalty-killing duties and late-game faceoffs. Krejci and Lucic, both second-round picks, have hit accelerated growth curves in their development. Despite their disagreements, Julien wrung 36 goals out of Phil Kessel last season.

Given his initial slapstick routine on the Boston blue line, Wideman brought ridicule Chiarelli’s way. But after he was scratched against Dallas, Wideman appeared in all 81 remaining games in 2007-08, piling up 13 goals and 23 assists while averaging 25:09 of ice time per game. The following summer, Wideman signed a four-extension worth an annual $3.875 million.

“Claude’s a really good coach,’’ Wideman said. “Obviously, he won the Jack Adams and he’s done a great job of simplifying the game as a whole. But as much as I work with Claude, I’m working with Doug Houda and Rammer on a daily basis.’’

Now, the 26-year-old slots in as a No. 2/3 defenseman who can be counted on for big-time minutes and dependable production.

“I think we had a pretty good idea of what we had,’’ Julien said. “I think we knew what we had to do. I think Dennis probably didn’t realize how much he had. We had to pull it out of him.

“As skilled as he was, the mental part of it was that he loved taking risks. That had always been his makeup. It was hurting him more than helping him. There were times where you say, ‘Wow, that was a risky play.’

“Now, he’s making better decisions at picking those spots. A lot of times those plays end up working.’’

Among Julien’s current responsibilities is to turn around Morris. The former first-round pick’s game had declined so much while rusting in the Phoenix desert that some executives around the league view him as a bottom-pairing defenseman. But partly because of the coaching he’s expected to receive in Boston, the Bruins threw down money appropriate for a No. 2 defenseman, which is exactly what they think he can become.

Asked if he would have passed on Morris had a different coach been behind the bench, Chiarelli said, “That’s a hard question to answer, simply because this is the situation we have now. We have the Jack Adams winner in Claude. We have a great coaching staff here.’’

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