Bruins coach Claude Julien defying expectations

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here he is.

Some people had him fired last summer. A Las Vegas betting site had him listed as the likeliest coach to get axed first this season. And he was asked at a media briefing three games into the season about his job security.

Well guess what, folks, Claude Julien not only made it to the Winter Classic, the league's biggest regular-season stage, but he's a Jack Adams Award candidate right now to boot.

Surprised? Don't be. The 55-year-old from Orleans, Ontario, is a blue-collar battler if there ever was one.

"He's resilient," former Bruins winger Gregory Campbell said over the phone this week from Columbus.

"All you have to do is look at Boston's record -- not only in the past five years, but over all the time Claude has been there, they're a contending team," added Campbell, who spent five years with the Bruins before signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets last summer. "That's real difficult in this day and age to compete year in and year out. I know when I left Boston that there was talk he could be in hot water, but I certainly didn't think that was from anything Claude wasn't doing. He prepared his players every day, he's adamant about being professional. And he's fair, too."

It's worth remembering that Julien was rumored to be on the chopping block had the Bruins lost to the rival Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs. But Boston rallied back from a 2-0 series deficit and went on to win the Cup.

His job security became an issue again last offseason after the team missed the playoffs and the general manager who hired him in 2007, Peter Chiarelli, was fired.

The Bruins' season ended in April, Don Sweeney was named general manager on May 20, and Julien had to wait until June 5 for an announcement that he would return as coach.

Bruins star Patrice Bergeron remembers chatting with Sweeney last summer, but the head coach wasn't a topic of conversation.

"I think he knew what I thought of Claude anyway, that I love playing for him and I've learned so much from him," Bergeron said Tuesday night. "So he didn't need to ask me the question. I think he just needed time to figure out things is all."

It wasn't ideal for Julien as other coaching jobs around the league were filling up, but Julien also understood that Sweeney needed to size up the organization before making that call.

"Through it all, I had a sense that it was going in the right direction," Julien said this week. "Nobody had confirmed anything, but my feeling was it was going in the right direction. At that time, there's nothing you can do about it. So you have to respect the new GM as far as giving him time to figure things out. That's what I did. Whether it took longer than expected or not, at the end of the day you got a contract and you have to honor it. Had they decided to go the other way, that's part of the business. The only thing I was hoping for was that it wasn't too late where you've missed out on other opportunities. It all turned out well where we made the decision to go forward as a group. And I'm still here."

He is indeed still here.

He's got two more years on his contract after this season. I've spoken with a few teams over the past year that were hoping Julien would become available. They're going to have to wait. But that interest from other clubs also underlines the respect that Julien has earned throughout the league.

Veteran head coach Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues got to work with Julien on Canada's Olympic staff in Sochi in 2014 and came away so impressed.

"Claude is the glue on a staff, he has such a great feel for the balance between humor and focus; he made coaching with him fun," Hitchcock said via text message Wednesday. "He has so much compassion for coaches or players that are having success. He makes you want to do it forever because he is so happy for you.

"He has a great feel for who is going and who is not and what changes are needed."

In the meantime, Julien's ninth NHL season in Boston forges ahead with the Bruins defying preseason expectations so far and, one could argue, Julien doing some of his best coaching yet, finding a way to mesh fresh new faces with the veteran core on a team-in-transition that most people picked to miss the playoffs.

It's a script Julien actually believed was there for him and his staff before the puck dropped in October. It's why when he was asked following his team's 0-3-0 start about his job security, the head coach wasn't bothered at all.

"To be honest, you get to a stage in your career where you just go and do your job. You're used to the pressure and the media and the social media and all that stuff," said Julien. "You stay away from that. You focus on your job.

"I was actually excited about this challenge this year. Because it reminded me of my first year here when I came in with Peter, the Bruins hadn't made the playoffs the year before, we had some young players ... somehow we made the playoffs. I see this year in a similar way as far as the challenge at hand, a lot of new faces, some young guys inserted in the lineup, and not only do you have to win but you have to teach and be patient and at the same time you got to keep them accountable. It's finding that balance. I told our coaches before the season, 'This will be a great challenge for us.'"

Bergeron, who has spent nearly a decade now with Julien as his head coach, says no one should be surprised.

"He always finds a way to get the best out of each player, it's really his strong suit to recognize if the team lacks confidence, or has too much confidence, up and down, he has a good pulse for the feeling out of the dressing room," said Bergeron. "And he's really fair. It's easy to play for a coach like that. You want to give him all you've got."

Added Campbell: "He's very approachable. One of his best attributes, too, is that he knows his players well. He knows how to get the best out of guys."

Which for Campbell, when he arrived in Boston in 2010, meant a true opportunity to contribute as a bottom-six winger.

"I just go back to my first year in Boston and not really knowing much about the team or Claude but hearing that he was a four-line coach and I think at that time, I don't think there was so much emphasis around the league on playing four lines," said Campbell. "For me personally, I was going there to fill a role on the fourth line. It turned out to be a big role and I think Claude was one of the first guys that realized in order to be successful you have to be able to rely on your depth throughout the season if you're going to make a run in the playoffs. For me it was great, he gave me an opportunity to shine in a role that otherwise normally doesn't present that opportunity.

"I learned a lot from Claude. I've had a lot of coaches in my career and I have to say, I'd put Claude up there as one of the best for sure. He's been able to hang in there and he's definitely a smart hockey mind, for sure."