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What is Claude Julien’s coaching style? An analysis of his impact with the Boston Bruins

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The off-season has given the Canadiens’ new coach a chance to stamp his authority on the team.

New York Rangers v Montreal Canadiens - Game Five Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

When Michel Therrien was relieved of his duties on Valentine’s Day, the fanbase was largely overwhelmed with joy borne of relief. There was certainly a prevalent belief that Therrien had exhausted his coaching acumen, and action was required to prevent a mid-to-late-season tailspin similar to that which had occurred the year previous.

It also helped that his replacement, Claude Julien, brought more to the table than the departing Therrien on just about every level. After a false-start first foray into the NHL with the Canadiens, the Blind River, Ontario native had forged a name and a reputation with the Boston Bruins, replete with a Stanley Cup victory in 2011.

When the Boston Bruins let their long-time coach go on February 7, the general consensus was that Julien was unlikely to remain unemployed for long, and that a perfect replacement for the floundering Therrien had landed in Marc Bergevin’s lap.

That said, Julien had a rather limited ability last season to stamp his hallmarks on what was still largely Therrien’s team. The new man was brought in not to mould the team in his image, but to steer a listless vessel safely into port, which was successfully accomplished with a division title.

Now, with a full off-season almost behind us, there is no question that when the HMCS Montreal Canadiens sets sail into the 2017-18 season, the ship will better reflect the natures of its helmsman — and will be judged accordingly.

A structurally sound defence

So what are Julien’s tendencies? Well, the description most commonly bandied about is that he’s a defensive coach. However, “defensive” has become a general blanket term essentially used to describe the style of any coach whose team doesn’t play like the 1980s Edmonton Oilers. Therrien was also called a defensive coach, despite not really being similar to Julien in style or system.

Julien’s coaching style does prioritize defence first, but while his predecessor sought defensive prowess in passivity and cautiousness, Julien creates defence through solid structures and systems.

For example, when we look at the shots-allowed heatmaps for the Bruins’ defence corps from 2015-16 (Julien’s last full season), the pattern for all six individuals is quite constant. From Zdeno Chara to Adam McQuaid, all Boston blue-liners suppressed shots from the crease region while yielding the slot and the points.

Shots allowed while player on-ice during the 2015-16 season. Heatmap values are relative to league average.

In contrast, the Montreal defence corps from Therrien’s last full campaign show more random patterns. Depending on the player, weaknesses can be found at the left side of the crease, right side of the crease, right faceoff dot, low slot, high slot, or left point, without a single player possessing all five.

The extrapolation here is that the absence of a standardized system forced Therrien’s players to rely on their own abilities and intuitions, generating more variable defensive structures.

Shots allowed while player on-ice during the 2015-16 season. Heatmap values are relative to league average.

A high-reward offence

Offensively, the biggest knock on Therrien’s modus operandi was that he failed to nurture sustained offensive-zone pressure and puck possession. In contrast, Julien’s Bruins were one of the better possession teams in the NHL dating back to the 2012 lockout.

An interesting feature is that Therrien’s teams showed little correlation between shot attempts and actual goal-scoring, whereas Julien’s lined up much better. Looking at where on the ice each coach prefers shots to be taken from possibly reveals the reason for this phenomenon.

Since the 2013-14 season, Therrien’s Canadiens generated above-league-average shot volumes from the periphery of the offensive zone and the crease, with less activity directed from the slot. This reconciles well with Therrien’s general fall-back offensive philosophy: pucks on net and hope for rebounds and tips.

In contrast, Julien’s teams work from the points and the slot, with the crease-front being a relative afterthought. This creates some dissonance with the mental image of the Big Bad Bruins, but while Julien’s players certainly don’t shy away from crashing the crease, they don’t go there to score goals.

Locations of shots taken by Boston and Montreal per season from 2013-16. Heatmap values are relative to league average.

This trend extends down to individual players. We commonly think of Brad Marchand and Brendan Gallagher as of a similar mold, but whereas Gallagher’s shot volume, as expected, largely came from the top of the crease, Marchand’s heatmap indicates that the Bruins winger shot from the crease-area, the slot, and even the left faceoff circle.

Likewise, Alex Galchenyuk and Tomas Plekanec primarily shot from closer in than their Bruins counterparts, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, and even the prototypical power forward Milan Lucic shot from further away in his last season with the Bruins (2014-15) than Max Pacioretty did in his last full season under Therrien.

We’ve stressed the importance of the slot and offensive-zone puck movement for generating offence before, and also noted that the Habs, despite their shot-attempt volumes, were simply inefficient in generating and converting higher-quality scoring chances. Julien’s slot-oriented style appears to be the remedy to this problem, and just in time, as the Canadiens, with the addition of Jonathan Drouin, easily have their deepest offensive group since the lockout going into the 2017-18 season.

A goaltender is a coach’s best friend

If Julien applies what he utilized in Boston next year with the Canadiens, then he will have solved two issues — defensive puck-chasing and offensive spray-and-pray — frustrating fans since 2013-14. So why did Julien’s Bruins over the last few years develop a reputation as a team that was past its prime?

The short answer: Tuukka Rask.

When Carey Price was lost for the majority of the 2015-16 season, the Canadiens saw their save-percentage numbers for both scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances plummet to near the bottom of the league. As a consequence, the team went from 100+ points to 82.

Julien dealt with Mike Condon-esque numbers for 2014-15 and 2015-16, with Rask and his backups ranking in the bottom third both years. Despite this, the Bruins remained in playoff contention, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference each season.

Julien doesn’t have Rask anymore, so Habs fans should be looking with eager anticipation at Boston’s 2013-14 season, where elite goaltending helped direct the team to 117 points. If not for Price and Daniel Briere, that Bruins team would have likely made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

A reason for optimism?

In Boston, Julien suffered from a lack of true offensive firepower and subpar goaltending, yet still managed to keep the Bruins in the mix year after year through strong tactics and structure. Heading into the 2017-18 season, the stars seem to have aligned for the Montreal bench boss, who now works with a deep and talented forward corps stacked with goal-scorers, and has the best goaltender in the world anchoring his defence.

Julien was given some leeway in his first season back in Montreal for some questionable decisions during the stretch run and the first playoff round versus the New York Rangers. Now, with a roster seemingly tailor-made for his strategic preferences, the onus will be on the coach to mould the Canadiens into a team that can challenge for the Stanley Cup like his Bruins squads of the past.

(A stick tap to Micah Blake McCurdy for visualizations, and Natural Stat Trick for scoring chance data.)