Out with the Old, In with the New Old Coach
February 24, 2021
By Grant McCagg
Claude Julien has coached his last game with the Montreal Canadiens.
I DMed Brian Wilde last night on Twitter halfway through the game versus Ottawa and said I hoped that the Canadiens lose…because “It was time”. Brian LOL’ed and told me that those exact words just happened to be the title of his Call of the Wilde column under the “Wilde Goats” section.
It was also time to step away from the retreadmill, and hire a coach without “multiple firings as an NHL coach” in big bold letters on his resume under “past experience”. Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin did indeed deviate from the norm, promoting assistant coach Dom Ducharme to the interim head coach position with the Canadiens.
The last three head coaches were oft-fired NHL coaches Jacques Martin, Michel Therrien and Julien, and what did they accomplish success-wise while guiding the Canadiens?
Not counting the qualifying win last year which was without Julien anyway (and the NHL doesn’t officially recognize it as a playoff series), Montreal’s retread bench bosses won five playoff series in a decade. A decade! In Scotty Bowman’s day, that was accomplished in 22 months.
The club needed a younger set of eyes guiding the team behind the bench, one that’s not so conservative, like the vast majority of the old-guard coaches. The game has changed – it’s faster, defencemen are more offence-oriented – teams are more offence-oriented. You no longer coach not to lose; you try to outscore the other time without playing recklessly. “Safe is death” as John Torterella once said, an older coach who was wise enough to know that he had to adapt to a changing league even if he still ruffles the feathers of the odd fledgling on occasion.
Julien’s winning percentage this time around with the Canadiens was .526, which averages out to 86 points per 82-game season. That’s ten points out of the playoffs. It wasn’t good enough. Not nearly good enough.
Defence-first coaches weren’t getting the job done in la belle province. The last offensive-minded coach in the organization was Jacques Demers. Is it mere coincidence that it also happens to be the last coach to win a Stanley Cup in Montreal? Demers played young players and stressed an offensive approach. Jacques didn’t care how you won – as long as you won.
I contacted Ottawa 67’s coach Andre Tourigny this morning and asked him about the hiring of Ducharme.
“I’m very happy for Dom” said Tourigny, who faced him for several years as a fellow coach in the QMJHL. “He will do a very good job. He is very offensive (minded). Very creative.”
I won’t lie to you – Tourigny would have been my first choice to be the next head coach of the Montreal Canadiens – and that might still end up being the case in an official role. Ducharme is the interim head coach – if he guides the Canadiens to a playoff position and has some postseason success, he will sign a contract to be the next head coach of les Canadiens. If he fails to rouse the club out of this slumber – he will be gone at the end of the season, and so likely will be Bergevin.
I do understand why Bergevin decided to put Ducharme in charge, however, in the middle of the season. First of all; he’s had a first-hand look at how he coaches the past couple of years, so he’s obviously comfortable making him the bench boss at this time. Bergevin would know that better than you or I; being there and witnessing Ducharme’s interactions, strategies and personality.
The Canadiens have one day to prepare for the next game, and basically play every second night for the remainder of their gruelling schedule. It would have been asking quite a lot of a coach who isn’t already there on a daily basis to step in and guide the team the rest of the way on basically a day’s notice; even one as promising as Tourigny.
Ducharme isn’t an old-school coach like Claude, who still wanted to win zero to minus one. Ducharme simply wants to win. I would be quite surprised if that approach doesn’t energize young talents like Alex Romanov, Nick Suzuki, and especially Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
I was at the last two games of the Quebec-Halifax playoff series in 2012 when it was Quebec’s Patrick Roy coaching against Ducharme. Quebec had gone up 3-0 in that series, but Halifax managed to win the next two games at home, and the series returned to “le Colisee” for the last two games, if necessary.
Halifax didn’t play to lose in those games. They pushed the envelope…led by their young talents Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, who weren’t even eligible for the NHL draft for another year. Drouin, who was only 16 years old at the time, started the season in midget AAA, and had only played 33 regular-season QMJHL games when the playoffs rolled around. Did that concern Ducharme? Not one bit – the two 16-year-olds were handed first-line minutes and willed Halifax to victory. Halifax beat Quebec skill-on-skill – scoring ten goals in those final two contests on the road.
I can well imagine what would have happened if Julien had been coaching that team. Putting his fortunes in the hands of a couple of 16-year-olds? Not a chance. After his team had gone down 3-0 in that series, MacKinnon and Drouin would most likely have been on the fourth line, he’d have gone into his patented defensive shell, and the players with the most minutes would have been 20-year-old checkers….with Claude hoping to somehow eke out 1-0 wins.
Let’s not lose sight of the fact that defence coach Luke Richardson was not also fired. It will be interesting to see if Ben Chiarot remains on the top pairing playing 22 minutes a night with Ducharme calling the shots. We should have an inkling fairly early on about just how much CJ controlled that.
Do the shackles come off of Alex Romanov sooner rather than later? I would suspect that they will. The first game of the season, Richardson played Romanov the second-most minutes on the blueline. I can well imagine that it didn’t sit too well with Julien, and those minutes were immediately reined in. Montreal gave up five goals in that exciting overtime loss, and even if Romanov wasn’t responsible for ANY of them and looked terrific, Julien’s tendency when his club gives up five goals has always been to blame it on young players. Romanov rushing the puck up the ice and pushing the offence would have troubled Julien.
Bergevin has put his future employment fortunes in the hands of 47-year-old Ducharme, 39-year-old Alex Burrows (brought in from Laval as an assistant coach), and 51-year-old Richardson. Essentially – three coaches in or around their 40’s.
I like the “gamble”. Three coaches old enough to know; yet young enough to also know that “safe is death”.
Toronto fired one of the most highly-regarded head NHL coaches in terms of success in Mike Babcock and replaced him with a 38-year-old coach with no NHL experience at the start of last season. Sheldon Keefe immediately put his skilled young players in a position to succeed – giving Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner more ice time on a line together and letting them play through mistakes. It may not have paid off immediately but both of those players are now flourishing, as are the Leafs.
The players who the Leafs need to take them to the Promised Land were put in a position to succeed; growing pains and all. What better way to learn that if you play with fire you will get burned…than by putting their feet to the fire? Matthews, in particular, is a much more mature player on the ice today than he was 14 months ago.
This should be positive news for Jonathan Drouin, who Ducharme developed into the most exciting QMJHL player I had seen since Sidney Crosby. I can’t help but wonder if Drouin didn’t heave a huge sigh of relief this morning when hearing about the change. The guy that helped him realize his dynamic offensive potential in junior is now his head coach in the NHL. A fresh start, with his mentor leading the charge.
I don’t see Kotkaniemi playing 13 minutes a night the rest of the way. Nor do I envision Chiarot getting five minutes more per game than Romanov. Ducharme is much more likely to put his trust in the players who are most capable of bringing success to the Montreal Canadiens, and I see that as a very positive thing. You win in today’s NHL with talent, not just with experience.
Here’s hoping that Montreal’s young talent can lead the way.
A welcome read!
I sure hope you’re right!
It would be especially nice to see Drouin finally flourish.
Talk about a sleeping giant.
And, along with KK and Suzuki – I’d love to see Lehkonen finally encouraged to shoot.
Brian Wilde was right.
As exceptionally decent as Julien is – it is TIME.