In his second year, he guided them to the top seed in the East and the club’s first playoff series win in a decade en route to winning the Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year. They also came out flat in the second round and ultimately fell in overtime in Game 7 to sixth-seeded Carolina.
Last year, he got Boston back to the second round despite a string of injuries and underachieving performances from many of his players. It was also on his watch that so many of those players regressed in a frustrating season that culminated in the ignominy of blowing a 3-0 lead in the second round to Philadelphia.
It’s been a mixed bag of results for the Bruins since Julien took over in 2007. There’s no denying that he’s helped raise the club out of the depths of the Mike Sullivan and Dave Lewis disasters and restored the Bruins to prominence in the Boston sports scene. But it’s also true that he’s helped raise expectations for the franchise to levels unseen in many years.
How will Julien handle the pressure of those expectations this season as he enters the first year of the multi-year extension he signed last summer? Will it be a return to the Midas touch he showed for so much of the 2008-09 season, or were last year’s disappointments the signs of further problems to come?
General manager Peter Chiarelli showed his support for Julien’s abilities with the extension last summer, and remained unwavering through the midseason struggles and postseason collapse.
"I think you saw our coaching staff – Claude and his staff – make adjustments this year," said Chiarelli after the season. "I think you saw a heavier pinch. I think you saw a more aggressive forecheck, and it’s something that I liked when I saw it. I’ve had discussions with Claude and I think he’s of a proactive mind and will continue to evolve that style of play."
Julien also retained the support of his players, even at the darkest moments of last season.
"It’s not his fault," said Patrice Bergeron, defending Julien in January when the vultures started circling as Bruins were mired in a 10-game losing streak, their longest winless stretch since 1924-25. "He led us to a playoff spot in his first year when no one thought we could do it. We finished first last year. He’s been awesome since he’s been here, so it’s not him."
But the coach is the one to bear the burden of failure. Julien might not have as long a leash this season if the Bruins suffer through anything approaching last year’s midseason swoon, which also witnessed a 10-game winless streak at home as the club did not win on Garden ice between Dec. 30 and March 4.
Chiarelli praised Julien’s adjustments last season that helped the team rally late in the year for a playoff spot. Julien will have to continue to adapt and loosen the reins on his defensive system to get the most out of the new weapons at his disposal like Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin.
Seguin, in particular, could be the determining factor in his new coach’s fate. Julien, with a background coaching in the junior and AHL ranks, came to Boston with a reputation for working well with young players. But his approach did not mesh well with the highest profile youngster during his tenure, eventually leading to a messy divorce between the Bruins and Phil Kessel.
Seguin is the first piece of the bountiful return from that trade with Toronto, and the Bruins need him to develop into the franchise forward he’s projected to be. Early returns from this summer’s development camp indicate Seguin has the kind of attitude and work ethic to thrive in Julien’s system.
Julien has also succeeded in getting through to key veterans. Despite this summer’s endless trade rumors, there’s no denying Marc Savard has transformed his game under Julien’s tutelage, shedding his image as selfish stat-hog and becoming a dependable two-way player who could even be trusted on the penalty kill.
Still, all coaches have a limited shelf life. Since Julien was hired in 2007 there have been 33 head coaching changes in the league. Only five coaches have been with their current team longer than Julien has been in Boston. And Julien himself has dealt with the cold reality of coaching life twice himself, as he was fired by both Montreal and New Jersey before landing in Boston. Those dismissals both came while his teams had winning records, with the Devils actually in first place in the Atlantic Division at the time of his departure.
Sometimes change is needed. The message can become stale when delivered by the same voice for too long. The coaches that buck the odds and enjoy long and successful stints with one club have to be masters at adapting, often reinventing themselves to keep their message fresh and stay ahead of the competition. Julien is cognizant of that need for constant evolution.
"I think you learn all the time," said Julien last year. "I’m still learning. I’m a better coach today than I was two years ago and so on and so forth. … You always improve year after year."
The Bruins are counting on continued improvement from Julien to bring the best out of a team that should compete with the elite of the East. The NHL isn’t a very forgiving place for those who don’t.
NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.
Friday, Aug. 27: Will Johnny Boychuk thrive in a full-time role over the course of a full season?
Sunday, Aug. 29: How will the travel to Europe to start the season affect the club?