If I could ask Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien one question today, I would love to know his rational behind his line combinations?
Maybe it is not completely fair to so blatantly question the man. He has a Stanley Cup ring, has more wins behind the Bruins bench than any man in history, save one, and his team is currently ranked fifth in the NHL. None of this, however, eases my curiosity of what goes through Julien’s head when he is putting together his lineup?
I have always had my issues with Julien’s defense first, “win the game 1-0” system. Julien’s complete lack of offensive attack at times, especially when the Bruins are in need of a goal, just does not fit my taste. Julien, however, has been able to prove the system works, so I have learned to live with it, given the Bruins success in recent year. Although, Julien’s strategy has never led to him burying a player who is arguably one of the top five to 10 forwards in NHL history on his third line when he was down by one to a division rival with first place on the line, as was the case Saturday night in Montreal.
The Hall of Fame pedigree Jaromir Jagr brought with him when he was acquired by Boston last week needs no mention. He was already the Bruins leading goal scorer when he arrived in Boston, and Jagr added to that total when he scored the only goal in a 1-0 Bruins win over the New Jersey Devils in his debut. Needless to say, that led to mild outrage when Jagr ended up on a line with fourth line grinders Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille late in the first period on Saturday night, after starting the night with Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand, who Jagr was paired with against New Jersey.
The Czech winger was supposed to come to Boston to help turn around the Bruins’ ailing offense. Even if he has been on the ice for every single second of power play time the Bruins have had since he was acquired, why even bother to trade for a guy like Jagr if he is going to be buried in the line up?
When judging Julien’s lineup, it is important the Black-and-Gold faithful do not fall in love with the Jagr name and think just because of his pedigree that he should be on the ice as much as possible. Though still extremely effective and proved earlier this year when with Dallas he is capable of playing top line minutes, at 41-year old Jagr is not the player he used to be. As of Saturday night, he had been with the organization all of four days, playing in just his second game with all of one practice under his belt. Even players of his caliber need time to adjust to new surroundings. He has also never been a player with the defensive mindset Julien usually likes out of his forwards. It was Jagr’s threat as a defensive liability that supposedly let to his demotion on Saturday night.
The issue with Julien and what he does with his lines, however, goes beyond Jagr’s demotion and Saturday night’s debacle in Montreal. With the Jagr acquisition and top center Patrice Bergeron out indefinitely with what has been termed a “moderate” concussion, what is going to be Julien’s best look nightly if he wants to extend his season well into June?
More frustrating than Jagr’s demotion is Julien’s refusal to break up the trio of Nathan Horton, David Krejci and Milan Lucic. Despite having struggled for much of their time since last year’s playoffs, Julien has without explanation kept the Krejci, Lucic, Horton trio together all season, except for a period and a half of a game in March. Krejci has put together a fine season, being tied for the team lead in assists with 21, tied for second in points with 30, and was leading the team in power play points prior to Jagr’s arrival. The 26-year old pivot’s totals are even more impressive considering how his line mates have struggled.
Lucic’s 17 assists this season are respectable, as are Horton’s 12 goals, but both have been known to disappear for long lengths of time. A former 30-goal scorer, Lucic has just one goal in his past 22 games, with that one tally coming on March 25 after a draught of more than a month without a goal. Horton has not struggled as much as Lucic, but he was mired in a stretch of two goals in seventeen games before a recent four-game scoring streak. And while the duo is third and fourth amongst Bruins forwards in power play time on ice, neither has managed a power play tally all year.
Players do go into slumps and there is something to be said for a coach letting a player try and play through a slump, but how can breaking up of the Krejci, Horton, Lucic line be a bad idea at this point? With how the younger Czech has played this season, how could a coach not be tempted to see what would happen pairing Krejci with Jagr, especially when in need of offense late in the game in Montreal? Lucic and Horton are players who can turn the tide of a game for the Bruins, but right now they are weighing the team down and their complacency needs to be shaken.
None of this matters, however, if Bergeron is out for any sort of extended period. While the Bruins are deep at center, Bergeron and his talents at both ends of the ice cannot be easily covered for or replaced by Julien. Last year’s Selke Award winner as top defensive forward is amongst the league’s best two-way centers. His 61.5% face off percentage leads the league, while his +23 rating is fourth best in the NHL. Bergeron is also the best penalty killing forward on the league’s best penalty kill.
Bergeron’s absence also means Boston is without its leading scorer and takes the trio of Bergeron, Marchand and Seguin, who have been the Bruins top line this season, out of the equation.
The attempted experiment to move Seguin to center in Bergeron’s absence seems to have failed after lasting all of three and a half periods, but reinforcements are on the way as Chris Kelly has been practicing with the team and upgraded to day-to-day after recovering from a broken tibia. If his fourth concussion in the past five years ends Bergeron’s season, however, it will likely end the Bruins championship hopes with it.
Bergeron, along with Zdeno Chara, is a player that cannot be replaced.
Without a healthy Bergeron, all bets are off. With a healthy Bergeron, the Bruins have the depth and the talent to put together a formidable offense that could be amongst the league’s best when paired right and playing to their potential.
Marchand-Bergeron (or Rich Peverley)-Seguin
Horton-Kelly-Peverley (or Kaspars Daugavins, Jordan Caron or Paille)
Shawn Thornton-Campbell-Paille (or Jay Pandolfo)
Why is Julien so stubborn and scared of change when putting together his lines, especially when his team is struggling?
About the Author
Written by Matt Preston
I'm no Heminway or Haggerty, but keeping the dream alive, even if I'm pretty sure my Nana is my only follower. Self-deprecation is key, grammar is optional.