The nightmare continues for the Montreal Canadiens and their fans — this time, a hellish 7-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. This is coming off the heels of a full week off to regroup after losing 7-2 vs. the Edmonton Oilers and 6-3 vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets, meaning that they have now allowed five goals or more in 20 of their first 45 games. At this point of the season, they have the 30th-ranked NHL offense and league-worst defense. Even if getting the top pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft is their priority, the embarrassing losses cannot continue.
Well, it can’t be that bad, right? What does it feel like for Canadiens fans watching this? Do they think everyone looks like Wayne Gretzky in comparison? Well…
What can be done to at least keep a ship above water after taking on so much damage? Here are some steps that general manager Kent Hughes must have been contemplating while watching the Canadiens’ last game.
Hughes begins by firing his head coach. To be clear, this debacle of a season doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of head coach Dominique Ducharme. The players deserve ample blame for their inconsistencies on the ice with work ethic and employment of the system. That being said, Ducharme hasn’t helped his cause, either, by being far too rigid in wanting to stick to his system — one that is clearly not working. When asked if he plans to tweak his system to get better execution from his lineup he said:
“We always look to tweak things and get things better, working on every phase of our game,” the coach said. “But what I find is there are a few things that we need to do better. It’s more in the style of play than in the structure.”-Dominique Ducharme (Stu Cowan, Canadiens Notebook: Caufield Refreshed After a Trip to Wisconsin, The Montreal Gazette, 09 Feb 2022)
Worst of all, he seemed to have lost the room. Regardless of the system he wants to employ, the players aren’t applying themselves. I know his record in the regular season (23-46-14 with a win percentage of .361) is weak, but he may not have had the ideal situation to walk into. Being the former assistant, the players may have just seen him as an extension of Claude Julien, and based on the system Ducharme has mentioned he wants, it isn’t that far removed from the system Julien employed. However, Ducharme didn’t publicly say he thought they’d quit, and to be honest, he likely wouldn’t.
But, the players have quit — look no further than Jeff Petry who has already asked to be traded. With all of that against him, adding in the non-stop parade of long-term injuries, the loss of his captain and starting goaltender, and the constant roster moves from having as many as 16 players on the COVID protocol list at once, it’s no wonder Ducharme hasn’t been able to find any consistency from his lineup, let alone success. But professional sports is a results-oriented business, and he hasn’t been able to find positive results.
Protect the Canadiens’ Youth
Players such as Cole Caufield, Cayden Primeau, and Ryan Poehling are seen as part of the future for the Canadiens. Allowing them to become discouraged or distracted by the downward spiral the NHL club is on may stunt their development. They will need to be placed in American Hockey League with the Laval Rocket to give them bigger roles and more playing time in a better atmosphere.
In Poehling’s case, he may not need to go to Laval. However, if he is to stay, he will need a specific role. Place him in his projected third-line role, give him the playing time at 5-on-5 and on the penalty-killing units to let him learn. The coaching staff would need to realize that with a lost season it’s not detrimental to the team to let him make mistakes and allow him to continue to play. They would need to take on a sort of mentorship role as opposed to a win-first mentality.
With Caufield and Primeau, they need what Laval provides, stability. There, they would be placed in roles they are growing into. In Caufield’s case, he is a top-six offensive threat with power-play time. It would let him build his confidence on a team looking to compete for the playoffs. For Primeau, he would be able to refine his game and gain experience without being needlessly shelled every night then wondering when the coach will pull him from the net.
Laval is prepping to challenge for the playoffs — give them all the experience of a playoff race and the added bonus of possibly a deep run and allow them to take a full offseason to prepare to compete for NHL jobs next .
Hughes Needs to Play “Let’s Make a Deal”
It seems it will take a trade of someone with sway in the dressing room before it sinks in that things will need to change. But then, the realization will set in and they’ll know he’s merely the first to go.
Players will need to realize that they are playing for more than pride — they are playing for jobs as Chris Wideman pointed out in his media availability the day after the Habs lost to New Jersey.
The players know the team is selling this season, but they may not truly realize that fact until teammates, friends, are traded away. However, don’t just sell to sell — general manager Kent Hughes needs to get the best possible value in return, but he needs to send a message and kick off his plan.
We must be brutally honest, none of this will save the season. That ship has sailed, as the 2021-22 edition of the Canadiens is a lost cause. The race for the bottom will continue despite these changes, and the Habs need that to happen to get the best possible prospect they can, because that is the biggest positive that can be salvaged from what has happened. Even though they are diving for the bottom, management can’t allow complacency and a defeatist culture to settle into the room, it is bad for the players and makes the product on the ice painful to watch, and that will affect the team’s profitability.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 28 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist to guide him in informing his readers and his goal of being a trusted source of information and entertainment.