It has been nearly two years since the Montreal Canadiens fired head coach Dominique Ducharme. Ever since, there has been discussion among fans and media alike that it was his coaching that caused Cole Caufield to have a massive slump in his rookie year with some rabid fans going as far as to say that this cost the young Habs star a Calder Trophy as the top rookie of 2021-22.
Credit where credit is due, Ducharme did what no Canadiens coach had done in three decades: coached a lineup in a Stanley Cup Final. Unfortunately, they were up against the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the strongest teams ever constructed in the Salary Cap era, who beat the Canadiens to win their second consecutive Cup
In a recent interview on The Sick Podcast with Tony Marinaro, the former Montreal head coach covered many topics. He spoke about his interactions with Canadiens sniper Caufield while he was also questioned about his time with the controversial 2018 Team Canada World Junior club that has caused Hockey Canada to be investigated, and he discussed his new role as assistant coach with the Vegas Golden Knights. Ducharme was asked what led to his dismissal, and he said:
“Going to the Final was great. It was a fantastic experience. But coming back [in 2021-22] the expectations were, well now, ‘they’re going to be challenging again, right?’ Once it started going south a bit, with the injuries and many things, I would’ve for sure tried [to] find a way to release the pressure on the players and even on myself, and enjoy the game more.”-Dominique Ducharme
As anyone else would after spending time reflecting on events that didn’t end well, Ducharme admitted, “I would have changed a few things, tried to do it differently.” One thing he reflected on was his impact on Caufield.
Canadiens’ Sniper in a Slump Under Ducharme
Ducharme doesn’t believe he was to blame for Caufield’s slump in the first half of 2021-22. He instead points to some standard reasons that could account for it such as the Stanley Cup Final hangover, explaining how the shortened offseason didn’t allow them to properly recover and train before the 2021-22 season began. He points also to players who didn’t seem to grasp his system and even demand trades, coupled with a nearly non-stop parade of long-term injuries, including the loss of important leadership pieces in Carey Price and captain Shea Weber, as well as having months where there were as many as 16 players on the COVID protocol list at once, including Caufield.
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There was also the fact that Caufield was in his rookie season. Ducharme mentioned that despite having been to a Cup Final, Caufield still lacked the necessary experience for how to approach and prepare for an NHL season. There is no question that there needs to be an adjustment by any young player making the leap from amateur to the professional game.
One clear thing Caufield was lacking in was confidence. It may have been because he wasn’t placed in a favourable role, an offensive-minded one that gives him top-six ice time as well as being used on the top power play. Unfortunately, at that time, he was being used on a fourth line without time on the power play while Ducharme was giving it to American Hockey League (AHL) veteran Laurent Dauphin. It didn’t help Caufield with his confidence or ability to build consistency as he was shuttled back and forth from the NHL to the AHL.
In reality, yes, this could have been in part due to chemistry. Not just with other players but also with a coach as some players respond better to different styles, and in this case, Ducharme didn’t seem capable of making an impact on the youngster. Even if that is all it was, general manager (GM) Kent Hughes was correct in making a coaching change as Caufield’s development is crucial to any future team’s success.
The Proof is in the Canadiens’ Performances
In the first half of the 2021-22 season under Ducharme, Montreal limped into last place in the NHL, winning very few games and losing by four goals or more 10 times. They were playing lifeless hockey where the players seemed either confused about the team’s systems or just indifferent to playing it.
Under Ducharme, the Canadiens were last in both goals for per game (GF/G) at 2.2, as well as goals against per game (GA/G) at 3.98. That is a combination that leads to poor results, which led to a record of 8-30-7 and dead last in the NHL. Once Martin St. Louis took over as head coach, the team took an immediate and drastic 180-degree turn. Increasing their offense to 3.16 GF/G, improving their defense to an average of 3.48 GA/G, improving their possession stats and taking more shots.
For Caufield, the system installed under Ducharme didn’t fit with his abilities as the then-21-year-old averaged fewer than two shots per game. With St. Louis, he more than doubled it to just over 3.5 shots per game. Why is that important? It shows that he is using his best asset more, which in turn allows him more chances to score. He went from one goal in 30 games with the outgoing coach to 22 goals in 37 games under the new one. That is more than just someone in need of adjusting to the NHL style; that’s a player who felt an immediate boost of confidence thanks to the new coaching approach, but also his increased use in an offensive role, which he is best suited.
In the end, this is a debate that will likely continue for years to come. Ducharme has been clear that he doesn’t feel he was the main factor in the difficulties Caufield had with his performance. However, it is abundantly clear that the young winger has had immediate and consistent success under his new coach, success that came about immediately after his arrival. While it could be a simple fact of Caufield has better chemistry with St. Louis, the dramatic overnight improvement and a massive leap in production look damning to Ducharme.