Julien, McLellan draw on minor-league experiences for NHL success

Next Sunday in Montreal, Claude Julien and Todd McLellan will be behind the benches at the All-Star Game thanks to their respective teams having the top two records in the NHL.

Yes … the ASG is little more than a glorified scrimmage, and coaching it is nothing more than ceremonial.

Julien and McLellan, though, may consider their experiences in southern Ontario and south Texas in 2003 as a key in their careers that helped them get to this point.

Now coach of the Boston Bruins, Julien was guiding Montreal’s top farm team in Hamilton before moving up to replace Michel Therrien behind the Canadiens’ bench. The Bulldogs eventually went on to play for the AHL championship, but fell in seven games to the McLellan-led Houston Aeros.

“There's no doubt it was an incredible year,” he said. “And I guess as great as it was to go to Montreal, you always have a little bit of regret not having the opportunity to finish your job.”

Julien was replaced in 2006 by Guy Carbonneau, and then led the New Jersey Devils to a 107-point season the following season. In a shocking move, though, he was replaced in the postseason by general manager Lou Lamoriello, who said the team was not ready to challenge for the Cup.

Sweet retribution going back to Montreal as coach of the league’s top team – and the Canadiens’ most-hated rival? Not for Julien.

“There's no animosity there at all,” he said. “For me, it's a pleasure to go back. Not just to Montreal, but also to represent the Bruins and the fact that I'm probably going to be hooking up there with some of the players that I've coached.”

In 2007-08, Julien’s Bruins posted 41 wins and 94 points despite a spate of injuries – most notably Patrice Bergeron’s concussion that wiped out all but 10 games – but were ousted in the first round.

“We've had a lot of guys grow through adversity last year. We've had some young players put into situations that they normally wouldn't have been going through had there not been injuries last year,” he said.

McLellan went on to become Mike Babcock’s right-hand man with the Detroit Red Wings, winning the Stanley Cup last season over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yet it was that championship experience with Houston that McLellan draws upon today.

“It was the first opportunity to win a championship as a head coach,” he said. “Certainly it's something that I revert back to on a daily basis here in San Jose about some of those experiences and how we handled ourselves.”

Come spring, Julien and McLellan will have their eyes on a bigger prize.

For Boston, history speaks for itself, but so does the futility. An Original Six team, the Bruins haven’t won the Cup since beating the New York Rangers in 1972 – the NHL’s third-longest championship drought ahead of Toronto Maple Leafs (1967) and Chicago Blackhawks (1961).

With Marc Savard, Phil Kessel and Michael Ryder handling the bulk of the offense, and Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez providing solid goaltending night in and night out, the Bruins (33-7-4) lead the league with 70 points.

“Most people don't remember how you start, they remember how you finish,” Julien said. “We've got another task ahead of us, and probably a tougher one, and we look forward to the challenge.”

San Jose had been a somewhat trendy pick earlier in the decade to win it all, but despite averaging 48 wins over the last three seasons under Ron Wilson, the Sharks were unable to move past the second round.

Exit Wilson for Toronto. Enter McLellan, who helped the Sharks begin 2008-09 with 13 wins in 15 games.

“We've had a really good start. We've harnessed some of the early season energy, and we're able to get out of the gate quickly. Our confidence grew, and now it's about maintaining our game,” McLellan said.

Coming off their first regulation loss since Valentine’s Day, San Jose next faces the defending Stanley Cup champions on Saturday night – and McLellan still thinks the Red Wings have what it takes to win their fifth Cup in 12 years.

“Right now I still believe Detroit is the team to beat,” he said. “Are the Sharks playing better than them? I don't necessarily agree with that.”

San Jose will travel to face Boston for only time in the regular season on Feb. 10.

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