The Montreal Canadiens are suffering their first real setback of the season, losing four of their last six games. With the shortened season, an extended losing streak could be detrimental to a team, and as we know, the Canadiens suffered two very long eight-game losing skids last season. In the offseason, general manager Marc Bergevin filled all the holes in the lineup and finally gave head coach Claude Julien a team he should be able to work with.
With the right team on the ice, there is only one thing to look at when the team struggles, and that’s the coaching. The Canadiens can’t sit back with the shortened season and wait too long for the team to figure things out.
Bergevin Built the Team For the Coach
In the offseason, Bergevin started filling most of the holes he had in his team, and he acquired a steady backup goalie for Carey Price by trading for Jake Allen. He bolstered the defence by adding Joel Edmundson, and he added scoring by signing Tyler Toffoli and trading Max Domi for a power forward in Josh Anderson. This offseason, Bergevin went out and spent to the cap, which is what the media and fans have been wanting for over the past three seasons and, in doing so, got players that can fit easily into the type of system Julien likes to run.
For the first 10 games of the season, everything went according to plan. (from ‘Jack Todd: Bergevin’s off-season gambles paying off handsomely — so far,’ Montreal Gazette, 01/24/2021) Allen is playing excellent, Edmundson is proving he’s a much better defender than critics thought, and Toffoli and Anderson lead the team in goals. The team was leading the league in goals scored, shots and was top five in shooting percentage. Even last year’s struggling power play (PP) was off to a hot start. The players fit into Julien’s system and it was working until they hit the proverbial wall.
Canadiens Back to Their Old Ways
The last five games have been a struggle for the team, and scoring is way down from what it was in the first 10 games, with only 11 goals in their last six. They also don’t look like the same team from the start of the season, instead looking more like the team they were last season, struggling to find a way to score, trouble clearing the puck from the defensive zone, and they seem to lose steam as soon as they get down in a game. The difference between the start of the season and the last six games is night and day. The only way to change this is for the coaching staff to find a way to change things and get back to basics.
The slump can be seen in two ways: either the team is not buying into the system, or the other teams have figured out a way to stop the Canadiens’ momentum. The latter is the real answer; in the last five games, the opposing teams have just found a way to shut the Canadiens’ high-speed transition by clogging the neutral zone and taking away time and speed. This isn’t something that can be easily fixed by the players playing within a set system. This is where the head coach and his staff need to step in and find a way to change the team’s style to keep the opposing team guessing and allowing their system to work.
Julien Struggles to Adjust on the Fly
Since Julien arrived in 2017, it hasn’t been hard to figure out his coaching style and preferences; he is a 200-foot-game type coach and relies heavily on a defence-first system. The former Stanley Cup-winning coach has a great pedigree and is near the top of the wins column for active coaches, and he is on his second stint with the Canadiens, which in all honesty, hasn’t looked great. (from ‘Boston Wins Game 7 on Road for First Cup Since ’72,’ New York Times, 06/16/2011) The team has failed to make the playoffs three times and has only won one playoff series — a play-in series due to COVID-19 — while Julien has been the head coach.
In his defence, he hasn’t had a great team to work with. The Canadiens were in a rebuild — or reset — and had many holes in the lineup until this season. The one thing that has remained consistent with Julien is his inability to change things on the fly. He seems to set a plan in motion, and no matter how badly that plan turns out, he stays with it and doesn’t adjust; this has been proven time and time again over the last few seasons.
Last season the team had two eight-game losing streaks. With this season shortened to 56 games, they can’t afford to have one eight-game losing streak, let alone two. To ensure this doesn’t happen again, Julien will have to learn to change things up as the games go on and keep the team at the top of their game.
Bergevin Can’t Sit Back if the Struggles Get Out of Control
It will be essential this season for Bergevin to keep an eye on the situation, and he can’t afford to hesitate if things start to spiral out of control. He can be loyal to a fault when it comes to his management team. When he first hired Michel Therrien, he stuck with him even though the coach lost the room. The same can be said about Sylvian Lefebvre; he struggled as a Laval Rocket coach in the AHL, but Bergevin stuck with him, even though it hurt players’ development.
Bergevin seems to be doing the same with Julien; even after two long losing streaks and a dismal 24th place in the league, Bergevin stuck by his head coach. He even went out this offseason and built a team specifically for the coach’s system. If this system doesn’t work or Julien proves he can’t keep this team in the win column, then Bergevin has no choice but to act quickly and make a change. There is no reason for this Canadiens team not to make the playoffs; therefore, if the struggles continue, removing the head coach is the only logical conclusion.
Having said all this, I will remind the reader that this losing streak was only two games, and they have only struggled for six. The issue is not the wins and losses; it’s the way the team has played. They need to get back to the first 10 games’ style or they will find themselves outside looking in at the end of the season. Julien’s leash should be short. This isn’t the season the general manager should just wait and see — he has to act quickly to succeed.
Trege Wilson lives in Nova Scotia and is a member of the RCN. He is a life long Habs fan and is creator and co-host of the popular Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered.