BROSSARD, Que. — The thrill and excitement of a new hockey season isn’t just for the fans and players — Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien feels it too.
On the eve of his 17th season opener as an NHL head coach, the 59-year-old Julien admits he gets the same rush every single year as puck drop approaches.
The Canadiens open their regular season Thursday at the Carolina Hurricanes.
Julien Excited for Season to Start
“It’s what keeps me going in this business,” said Julien after practice on Wednesday. “When you love what you do, when you’re excited to go to work, you always want to keep that up. The day I lose that feeling, that’s when I may step away from the game.
“We all know how much the players give during games. But don’t forget about us coaches. We show up early every day, earlier than the players, to prepare video. But we love it and keep doing it.”
The Canadiens enter the new season with one obvious goal – make the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Montreal missed the post-season last year by two points in a strong Eastern Conference, a rare outcome for a team with a 44-30-8 record (96 points).
Julien’s men had a strong pre-season too, going 5-2-0. The only two losses were against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Following the final roster cut on Tuesday, when forward Ryan Poehling was sent down to AHL Laval, Montreal’s team is finally taking shape.
The forward corps is the same as last year with the exception of Andrew Shaw, who was traded back to Chicago in the off-season, and Charles Hudon, who was demoted to Laval in training camp.
The top line of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher remains untouched. Jesperi Kotkaniemi is centring the third line between Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia.
But Montreal is younger and faster this season, with the addition of 20-year-olds Nick Suzuki and Cale Fleury.
A former Guelph Storm star, Suzuki is playing right wing on the second line with Max Domi and Artturi Lehkonen. Third-round draft pick Fleury, whose strong pre-season bumped Mike Reilly out of a starting job, is paired with Brett Kulak on defence.
“I’ve been talking to Phil (Danault),” said Suzuki, who led Guelph to the Memorial Cup tournament earlier this year. “He just told me ‘Keep working. You’ve made it this far so you just have to keep getting better every day to keep your spot.’ That’s really my mindset.
“I want to be comfortable in the room. I want to get along with everyone. So far I think I’ve done that. It’s great getting to know them each day.”
Improving the Power Play
A key area for Montreal is the power play, which ranked 30th last year (13 per cent) and was dreadful for most of the season. Julien blamed the power play, in part, for missing the playoffs last year and called it the team’s “No. 1 priority” of the off-season.
The man advantage looked better in pre-season. It was more cohesive and created more chances than many games last year. Zone entries and puck circulation improved as well.
But the result was the same. The Canadiens went a combined 3 for 22 on the power play in exhibition play — a 15 per-cent success rate.
Montreal practised their power play on Wednesday. Led by assistants Kirk Muller and Dominique Ducharme, both units worked on puck movement and spreading out penalty killers.
One unit has Drouin at the point, Jordan Weal and Shea Weber on the half-boards, Gallagher in the slot and Danault at the net.
The other unit is composed of Jeff Petry at the blue line, Tatar, Armia and Domi in the middle and Suzuki in the crease.
“It’s not so much about personnel, because the personnel is pretty much staying the same,” said Gallagher, who led Montreal with 33 goals last season. “We have the guys capable of doing it. It’s on us as players to execute and do things fast. Last year, our confidence slipped. We were second guessing ourselves and doing things slower.
“Simplify it, do things at a quick pace and we’ll start seeing results.”
The Canadiens play their first three games on the road. After Carolina, Montreal travels to Toronto on Saturday and Buffalo on Oct. 9.
The team’s home opener is Oct. 10 against the Detroit Red Wings.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2019.
Kelsey Patterson, The Canadian Press