Time Is Running Out for Montreal Canadiens and Claude Julien

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin received nearly universal praise for his work during the offseason. Bergevin addressed several issues to help build on the team’s surprising success in the playoff bubble when they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games to advance to the first round of the playoffs before losing in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Canadiens have been on a downward slide since their loss to the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 4. Their record since then is 2-4-1, and their scoring seems to have dried up. There is still time for the organization to get back on track and climb the Scotia North Division standings. However, that time is finite.

Marc Bergevin Montreal Canadiens
Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The question Bergevin faces now is whether head coach Claude Julien can fix the issues before he must step in and make drastic changes. Several issues have plagued the Canadiens in these last seven games, many of which point to the coach.

The Canadiens’ Issues

The (Lack of) Power Play

The first one is a major disappointment. Associate coach Kirk Muller has been in charge of the power play (PP) this season, and in the first nine games, the Habs had a respectable 23.7% success rate, good for 13th in the NHL. In the seven games since then, the PP has been converting an appalling 7.1% of the time, ranked 27th in that time. This isn’t a result of injuries to key players. The team is healthy. No, it’s an indication that the Scotia North Division has adjusted to the Canadiens’ system, which is a coaching issue that Julien stepped in to rectify yet.

The (Lack of) Discipline

Another serious issue is the team’s lack of discipline. This is a shared responsibility. The players are the ones taking the penalties, but the lack of adjustments to the system or linemates hasn’t helped the players find a better position or helped them avoid the situations that force them to take risks, like being behind the play or being out of position and unable to adjust.

The Canadiens, as of Monday, have taken the second most minor penalties in the NHL and are third for most penalty minutes. With a 19th ranked penalty kill (PK) of 77.9% led by captain Shea Weber, that isn’t a recipe for success. While the PK does need refining, more disciplined play at 5v5 would have a larger impact to unburden the PK. It would also give the Habs more time at 5v5, an area where they thrive, and allow their vaunted depth to be put to good use; rolling four lines, build momentum and generating offence, something the team has lacked since their first loss to the Senators.

Shea Weber Montreal Canadiens
Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Overtime Pain

Finally, their approach to overtime. With the 3v3 system, most teams and coaches prefer to use their top offensive threats to capitalize on the added space and time allowed with fewer players on the ice. Julien, however, prefers to employ his defensively gifted veterans to match up against the opposition’s top offensive players.

At 5v5 that is an excellent tactical decision, however, as the opposition’s top players are able to build speed and create space, this strategy continually falls flat. Teams that have success in today’s overtime take risks while Julien relies on his “safe” players and plays not to lose. Nick Suzuki mentioned as much after the OT loss to the Senators on Sunday.

When asked if this fear of losing is seeping into the team’s psyche, Julien said:

His comments describe his aversion to risk and how he strategizes playing “not to lose.” It’s an indication that the coaching staff has a way to go to adjust their strategy to earn that second point in OT.

A New Skipper

Bergevin has a reputation for being loyal to his coaching staff. When the Canadiens had stretches of poor play last season, there was no urgency to make changes to the staff or roster. However, after this offseason, he has built a playoff team, and the pressure is building to right the ship. While there is time for the coaching staff to make adjustments, the clock is ticking.  

If the alarm goes off, the Canadiens will need a coach who will embrace the newest systems and even create new ways to use his lineup. They will also need coach who can work with and develop young players. So, who would be a good candidate to fill the role?

Dominique Ducharme

Dominique Ducharme has been considered the heir apparent to Montreal’s bench since his arrival three seasons ago. His experience in the QMJHL, his Memorial Cup win in 2013 with Jonathan Drouin and the Halifax Mooseheads, as well as his time as Canada’s head coach for the World Junior Championships (WJC) winning a silver medal in 2017 and a gold medal in 2018, gives him a strong pedigree.

Montreal Canadiens Jonathan Drouin
Montreal Canadiens Jonathan Drouin (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Ducharme has been known to use the latest systems. With Team Canada at the WJC, he employed the same special teams system that NHL teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs have begun to use. He is also a francophone, which is important in the league’s only francophone market. While he doesn’t have experience as an NHL coach, he knows the players well. He also doesn’t have to deal with any quarantine protocols to become the new head coach.

Gerard Gallant

The top candidate for any coaching job should begin with the unemployed Gerard Gallant. In nine seasons as an NHL head coach he won 270 games for a .550 winning percentage, and he led the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. He also won back-to-back QMJHL Championships, including one Memorial Cup in 2011 with the Saint John Sea Dogs.

He spent time as an assistant coach in Montreal, so he knows he’ll be in the fishbowl. His proven ability to adapt his systems on the fly, to work with young players and also to motivate veterans would be welcome in the Habs’ locker room. 

Gerard Gallant Vegas Golden Knights
Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights head coach (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

His ability to speak in French is limited. Normally, this would disqualify him from the position, yet, when winning is placed above all else in a shortened season, even fans would likely overlook this deficiency.

Finally, the PEI native has an advantage over other coaches outside of the Habs’ system: he is in Canada and would not have to undergo the Canadian Federal Government mandated 14-day quarantine to join the team.

André Tourigny

In his 15 years of coaching in the QMJHL and OHL, André Tourigny has coached many young players. He has also been the head coach for Team Canada at several levels, culminating in a silver medal at the 2021 WJC. The Nicolet, Quebec-native also won Coach of the Year honours in the QMJHL in 2006, in the OHL in 2019 and 2020, as well as CHL Coach of the Year in 2020. 

Tourigny was a defensive coach for Patrick Roy’s Colorado Avalanche, then as a special teams coach with the Ottawa Senators. Since that time, he has been the head coach of the Ottawa 67s of the OHL, developing young players and implementing new systems that rely on mobile defensemen. He is also a francophone and doesn’t need a 14-day quarantine, which could make for a clean transition if Bergevin decides a change behind the bench is needed.

Andre Tourigny Ottawa 67's
Andre Tourigny, Ottawa 67’s (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

There are several names not mentioned here, and many of them would be considered by Bergevin if or when he begins a talent search. The ones who can fill the most immediate requirements such as experience, language, ability to develop youth, develop new strategies and display an ability to adjust on the fly will likely be selected.

As of Tuesday, the Canadiens and Julien have time to right the ship. However, in a shortened season, that time running out and a new coach may be necessary to get the Habs back to winning games and cementing a playoff spot this season.

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