Claude Julien has been the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens since Valentine’s Day 2017, hired shortly after being let go by the Boston Bruins. The Habs have missed the playoffs in two of the last three seasons while Julien has been at the helm. Known for his defense-first system and his reluctance to trust rookies with bigger minutes aside from Nick Suzuki, is it time for general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin to look for a new head coach?
The Canadiens will soon have more young players in the lineup who will need ice time to develop at the NHL level. Could a different coach be better equipped to help these players and the team be successful? Here’s a look at five coaches who could replace Julien.
Dominique (Dom) Ducharme
Dominique Ducharme is already an assistant coach with the Canadiens. Before he joined the team, he was the head coach and GM of the QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltigeurs from 2016 to 2018 and, more notably, head coach of the Halifax Mooseheads where he won a Memorial Cup in 2013 during in his second season. During his time in Halifax, he coached future NHLers Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Martin Frk, and former Habs prospect Zachary Fucale, (from ‘Stu Cowan: Dominique Ducharme a head-coach-in-waiting with Canadiens,’ Montreal Gazette, 04/28/2018).
He was also the coach of Canada’s World Junior Championship (WJC) team for two years when they won silver in 2017 and gold in 2018.
Ducharme comes with a winning pedigree and is more offensive-minded than Julien. This could be beneficial to the Habs moving forward as they have acquired more offensive players like Cole Caufield, Max Domi, Drouin, and Suzuki. You could see some players flourish with a less defensive-minded system than what Julien uses.
It could be similar to how Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak broke out of their shell when Julien left Boston. Under Julien, neither player scored more than 70 points in a season. After Bruce Cassidy replaced him, both Marchand and Pastrnak have scored at least 80 points each season. The downside could be more pressure on the Montreal defense and goalie Carey Price.
Joel Bouchard is the head coach of the Laval Rocket, the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate. He was general manager and head coach of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada where he earned a 145-99 record (regulation and overtime/shootout) and reached the President’s Cup Final in 2017 and 2018. He was also GM of Team Canada at the WJC who won silver in 2017 and gold in 2018.
Bouchard not only has a winning record like Ducharme, but he knows how to create a winning culture. This season in Laval, Bouchard showed his ability to work with the young players to get their games either back on track or where it should be at this point in their careers. He worked with Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling, and Cale Fleury when they were sent to Laval to improve the details of their game that were affecting their play in the NHL.
“He’s a very talented player, he has things I can’t teach. He has things he has to work on, and we’ll work on them together. He listens well during video sessions, but I also give him an opportunity to express himself.”Bouchard on Kotkaniemi, (from ‘Prospect diagnosis: an assessment of the Canadiens’ top AHL pipeline players,’ The Athletic, 04/16/2020).
Bouchard works very well with young players letting them learn from their mistakes while teaching them the finer points of their game. Kotkaniemi, Poehling, and Fleury all have improved in Laval, becoming more consistent in their play.
Under Bouchard, Kotkaniemi is a point-per-game player, scoring 11 points in 11 games, while Poehling and Fleury have shown more consistent play away from the puck. The downside is that the Rocket would no longer benefit from his ability to ensure that Habs prospects are NHL-ready when they get the chance.
Julien has been the head coach of Sherbrooke Phoenix of the QMJHL for the past seven seasons. In each of those seasons the team improved their record and made the playoffs four times. In 2020, the Phoenix finished in the number one position in the CHL with a record of 51-12 before the season was canceled. The team was awarded the Luc Robitaille Trophy for the best goals-for average in the QMJHL. He is another offensive-minded coach who could fit well with the younger offensive-minded players that are with the Canadiens or coming in the near future.
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Julien recently won the coach of the year award in the QMJHL. However, his success in Sherbrooke was a long time coming and it shows he can work with a rebuilding team. His slower path to success may not be a factor of his coaching but the talent on the team. Habs fans may not be as patient in Montreal.
He would be an interesting hire but a long shot with no experience in the pro circuit. However, his work with Sherbrooke through their rebuild could be an asset for the Canadiens and allow the team to succeed with a younger lineup.
Boucher has six years of experience behind the bench with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Ottawa Senators. He won the coach of the year and the President’s Cup with the Rimouski Oceanic. Already experienced in the Montreal organization when he became head coach of the then-AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs, he was named AHL coach of the year in 2009 and was hired by the Lightning in 2010. Boucher led the team to the Eastern Conference Final (ECF) in his first season but was eventually fired two seasons later.
Boucher was out of the NHL for three seasons before being hired by the Senators. Once again in his first season as head coach, he led the team to the ECF in 2017, losing in double overtime to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then, like in Tampa, the team missed the playoffs the next season and he was fired 64 games into the next season.
“In this rebuild playing the kids is crucial,” said Dorion. “The development of our young kids is essential for this team to have success moving forward.”Pierre Dorion on the firing of Boucher (from ‘Head coach Guy Boucher has been fired by the Ottawa Senators,’ Ottawa Sun, 03/01/2019)
Boucher has the most experience on this list but it seems he can’t hold the locker room for more than a year. It was obvious in Ottawa they felt he wasn’t the best coach for a rebuild. With the Habs in a “reset” and the team getting younger, it would be interesting to see if he could prove Ottawa wrong and have success with Montreal — when his team makes the playoffs they tend to go deep.
Vincent is the head coach of the Manitoba Moose, the AHL affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets. He has been with the organization since 2011, starting as an assistant coach with the Jets before being promoted to head coach of the Moose in 2016. Vincent won the most outstanding coach award in the AHL in the 2017-18 season.
Vincent also had great success as coach and GM of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, winning over 300 games. He also won the top GM award in 2007 and the top coach award in 2008, when he led an Eagles team with more than 10 rookies to fourth place in the division.
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It’s obvious he can win with a young team and has success at all levels of coaching, but one should wonder why he hasn’t got an NHL head coaching job yet. Maybe it could be just a lack of opportunity or the Jets organization wants to keep him. Either way, Vincent could be a good fit in Montreal.
Who is the Best Candidate?
All the candidates on this list have different levels of experience and success, but all have the resources to be successful as the head coach of the Canadiens. As of right now, Ducharme or Bouchard would have the inside track as both are already employed by the Habs and are accustomed to the high pressure of a coaching job with the franchise.
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As the team gets younger, it would benefit the Habs to change directions with its coach and go for a younger, more modern one. Julien has a good pedigree and tremendous success but he’s part of the old-school style of coaching, where defense comes first. In today’s fast-paced game, it could be best to let the offensive guys break free under a new coach with a new style.