The hysteria surrounding Claude Julien and his job security as the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens had reached a fever pitch leading up to general manager Marc Bergevin’s decision this week to make a change behind the bench, appointing Dominique Ducharme interim head coach and Alexandre Burrows assistant coach, replacing Julien and Kirk Muller.
With that out of the way, the attention now turns to the players and how they will respond to this major shakeup, a result of their poor performances over the past few weeks. Bergevin’s offseason additions have more than pulled their weight since the start of the season, but it’s the leaders and longest-serving members of the franchise who have to look at themselves in the mirror because the Habs’ turnaround will start with them. Here are three veterans who need to step up for their new rookie NHL head coach.
Bergevin was adamant during his press conference on Wednesday that every one of his players have to be better.
“I was clear. The bar is high. I have confidence in them, but all players who wear the Montreal Canadiens uniform must give more. I said that everyone here, to a man, needs to be better, needs to raise his game, every single guy. That was my message. That’s what needs to be done,” Bergevin said.
That required improvement begins with Montreal’s franchise player, Carey Price. So far this season, the star netminder has been a shadow of his former self. It’s a good thing that backup goalie Jake Allen has come as advertised so far because who knows where the Canadiens would be without him.
In 12 games, Price has a 5-4-3 record with a 3.13 goals-against-average and a .888 save percentage, both well below his career averages and simply not good enough. He doesn’t seem confident in his crease, just not sharp in any facet of his game and hasn’t been able to instill confidence in his teammates.
Interestingly, he has been better at turning away high danger chances than the easier shots that he usually stops in his sleep. Price has made a career of making the big save at the right moment regardless of how the rest of his game went. He’s usually lethal with the lead, but not this year. Case and point, on Tuesday against the Ottawa Senators, the Habs erased a two-goal deficit to take a 4-3 lead in the third period only to see Price let a weak backhand from Brady Tkachuk slip past him not long after. His season in a nutshell. He’s made some big saves, but not enough little ones.
Price may not be as invincible as he once was, but he’s still the backbone of this team as well as one of the most respected players in the league and needs to start playing like it.
While most are making Price the scapegoat for the Habs’ woes, it’s getting harder to ignore the captain’s poor play recently. After an impressive playoff bubble performance this summer, the pairing of Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot has hit the proverbial wall in 2020-21.
Granted they are defending the likes of Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid night after night, but they have become quite a liability in their zone, mostly because they struggle to transition to offense from their own end which means they get pinned there and bad penalties or goals against are often the result.
Hopefully, Ducharme sees fit to split them up in short order. Although rookie Alexander Romanov may not be ready to be Weber’s partner on a full-time basis, it’s worth giving him a look to try and get the team’s pillar on defense out of his funk.
This is where Bergevin’s inability to add a puck-moving defenseman to the roster rears its ugly head because that’s exactly what Weber needs and hasn’t had since arriving in Montreal, especially as the twilight of his career approaches.
Even though Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson have been the Canadiens’ best duo so far, they need Weber to get back to his “Man Mountain” ways to stabilize the entire blue line which has been giving up far too many high-quality scoring chances.
“We’re losing as a team right now. Guys are going to have to be responsible, do their jobs and get this thing turned around,” Weber explained.
While Weber isn’t wrong, the Habs won’t be winning many games if their two most important players and their two highest-paid ones continue to struggle.
The Canadiens’ four centremen have combined to score a total of eight goals this season and none of them belong to Phillip Danault who hasn’t put the puck in the back of the net in over a year despite playing on one of the most effective lines in the league over the past few years alongside Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar. Could his failed offseason contract negotiations that were made public along with his status as a pending unrestricted free agent be sources of distraction? Highly likely, but still not an excuse.
This goes without saying, but given Montreal’s youth and inexperience down the middle, Danault must contribute more offensively. If he can’t, he needs to be moved away from Gallagher and Tatar into more of a bottom-six role. Perhaps joining forces with the likes of Paul Byron, Arturri Lehkonen or Joel Armia would reinvigorate them all.
Until that happens, Danault and his line have to get their mojo back.
“We have to be good for our team. We have to be consistent night after night. Hopefully, Dom’s going to be able to rely on us. That’s the goal. Build that trust. I think he puts a lot of trust in us, to begin with, and we don’t want to let him down. As a line, we know how effective we can be,” Gallagher implored.
Julien and Muller are the ones who ultimately paid the price for the Canadiens not living up to expectations through the first quarter of the season. Meanwhile, Bergevin’s seat has never been hotter and it’s time for the players to do some soul searching, respond to the adversity, and show their GM that he was right to set lofty goals for them.
Melissa has been covering the Montreal Canadiens for The Hockey Writers since March of 2020. She is also THW’s Social Media Community Manager and a co-host of Chicks & Sticks, a weekly show produced by THW. In 2006, she spearheaded the social media initiatives for Tennis Canada and Rogers Cup and was the primary person responsible for their upkeep for over 10 years. She has written articles for multiple tennis websites and interviewed the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. While her career in sports started in tennis, her first love has always been hockey. She has a journalism degree from Concordia University.