On Feb. 24, 2021, Claude Julien was fired by former general manager Marc Bergevin and promptly replaced by head coach Dominique Ducharme. It was a move perhaps not shocking at the time. The Montreal Canadiens had won one of their last six games leading up to Julien’s termination, and the 61-year-old had not exactly coached the team to a world-beating record, going 129-113-35 over four years with the club. Sometimes a new voice is needed, and that’s the thought Bergevin acted on when he decided to replace Julien.
“I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when. It just adds up night after night . . . It happens that you have a setback, and it’s hard to play the same way every single night, as you saw. Every team goes through [it], but I saw repetition that happened in the past . . . I just saw a pattern that I didn’t want to wait any much longer.”Marc Bergevin on Claude Julien firing in February, 2021
The “pattern” Bergevin saw (quote above) is somewhat puzzling. The Canadiens out-chanced opponents in 15 of their 18 games at even strength before Julien was fired. They had a 9-5-4 record and scored four or more goals in half those contests. For all intents and purposes, the team was playing decent hockey. Bergevin didn’t see it that way and replaced Julien with Ducharme — a decision that could affect Montreal’s future. Here’s why.
Canadiens Prospect Development
The average peak age in the NHL is now 24 years old. The league is getting younger and faster. It has never been more important to have a deep prospect pool than it is today. The Canadiens are not among the best in this area, but they do have some promising young players — Cole Caufield, Alexander Romanov, Ryan Poehling, Joshua Roy, Sean Farrell, Xavier Simoneau, and Kaiden Guhle, among others. With the way this season is going, the future is the only thing Canadiens fans have to look forward to.
Early years play a critical role in a prospect’s development. A single season can mean the difference between a prospect becoming a role player or star in this league. Good coaches find ways to play to their players’ strengths. They don’t try to change a player. They bring out the best in what that player already has. From watching the Canadiens this season, it’s clear Ducharme is not that coach.
The Canadiens are playing an awful brand of hockey under Ducharme this season. There’s no creativity. No chemistry. No structure. They’re boring to watch. The last time the team out-chanced its opponent was against the Calgary Flames over a month ago. They’re getting outplayed almost every single game. But who’s affected most by all this? The prospects. It’s hard to improve on a skill set when all the team does is chase the puck. There’s not much good in being called up to the big club if there’s no opportunity to play to one’s strengths. The perfect example: Caufield.
Heading into the 2021-22 season, Caufield was touted as a potential Calder Trophy candidate. Expectations were unfairly high for the 20-year-old after his playoff performance. It has been a roller coaster of mostly downs since that magical run. While fans have seen flashes of brilliance from No. 22, those moments have been few and far between. In 21 games this season, Caufield has put up a pedestrian six points. While there is still hope the Wisconsin native will develop into an elite goal scorer, these past few months have hindered his growth substantially. It took just half a season for Caufield’s star odds to go from 54% to 25% (per Hockey Prospecting), further emphasizing how important those early years are.
Sometimes prospect regression can be chalked up to a player not panning out as expected, but if the whole team is playing worse than usual, where does the issue really lie? To reference TSN 690’s Tony Marinaro, if an entire classroom is failing a test, the problem is not its students; it’s the teacher.
It makes you wonder whether having a head coach like Julien at the helm would have better suited Caufield’s (and other prospects’) growth. Let’s examine the numbers.
Julien vs. Ducharme: The Numbers
Numbers don’t lie. They are what they are and, while there are other intangibles to evaluate player performance, usually good teams have good underlying numbers, and bad teams have bad underlying numbers. Julien never got enough credit for what he was able to do in Montreal with the roster he had. The numbers are staggering compared to Ducharme’s.
A coach’s job is to develop a system to give their team the best chance to win, and one of the best ways to determine whether a system works is taking a look at expected goals — a model that determines how many goals a team should score based on the quality and quantity of chances that team generates. It’s a simple but effective way of evaluating whether a coach’s fundamentals are working both offensively and defensively. The charts above are sorted by expected goals for percentage (xGF%) at 5-on-5, which measures what percentage of goals the team should have scored based on chances for and against. There’s a stark contrast between Julien and Ducharme’s numbers.
From Feb. 14, 2017, until Feb. 24, 2021 (Julien’s tenure), the Canadiens ranked third in the league in expected goals at even strength. In other words, they generated and prevented chances better than almost any team in the NHL. Although Julien’s record did not reflect that, much of his results were out of his control. Montreal shot an abysmal 7.36% during the Julien regime, ranking 26th in the league. Shooting percentage and finishing ability are part of the game, but those aspects are dictated by skill, not coaching. The only thing a coach can do is help put their players in the best position to score. The rest is up to them. Unfortunately, the team was unable to capitalize under Julien, but the chances were there.
Time after time, Julien’s system emphasized sound defensive positioning and a relentless forecheck. Nearly every player he coached had an xGF% above 50%. He put players in a position to succeed and helped develop good habits, something that could have benefited prospects like Caufield early in their careers.
Instead, those prospects get Ducharme.
For a coach who claims to like offense, Ducharme’s system doesn’t exactly scream goal scoring. Under the 48-year-old head coach, the Canadiens are average defensively and bleak offensively. There’s no cohesiveness — as reflected in their 21st ranking in expected goals at even strength — and Montreal’s special teams are second-last in the league, behind the abysmal Arizona Coyotes. Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago play-by-play announcer Colby Cohen commented he had not seen a team play as passively as the Canadiens in a long time.
In fairness, Montreal’s roster looks more like an American Hockey League (AHL) squad these days. It’s hard to imagine any coach would make this club a playoff team.
With that said, even the healthy regulars have seen significant drops in individual performance. Per Natural Stat Trick, Brendan Gallagher has gone from averaging 2.22 points per 60 minutes played at even strength under Julien to 1.8 points per 60 minutes played under Ducharme. Jonathan Drouin from 1.68 points per 60 minutes to 1.43 points per 60 minutes. Jeff Petry from 0.93 points per 60 minutes to 0.66 points per 60 minutes. The list goes on.
Looking back, while the Stanley Cup run last season was fun, it was the worst good thing that could have happened to the Canadiens. From underlying numbers to individual performances, Montreal has not been a good hockey club under Ducharme. Players are not being put in situations to succeed. It’s one thing to lose, but to lose the way they have this season is hurting the team’s future. Habits are formed early in a young player’s career, and having the right guidance is key. Julien taught the right fundamentals during his time in Montreal. Ducharme has not.
Jeff Gorton has a large list of things to do, and, come the offseason, searching for a new head coach should be one of them. The Canadiens’ future depends on it.
Latest News & Highlights
Ryan graduated from the Ryerson School of Journalism in 2015 and contributes to the Montreal Canadiens section. He has also previously worked for STATS LLC as a Hockey Reporter and the Rant Media Network as a Copy Editor.