Canadiens’ Julien has sights set on winning games, not draft lotteries

Sportsnet’s Eric Engels joins Writers Bloc to discuss how some NHLers may be reluctant to resume the season and could sit out the rest of the year.

MONTREAL — There was no word that came up more frequently over Claude Julien’s 31-minute conference call Thursday than “opportunity.”

Not that the 60-year-old coach of the Montreal Canadiens was repeating it over and over again in reference to the 12.5-per-cent chance his team will have of drafting first overall should it lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in round that precedes the 16-team Stanley Cup tournament this summer. You know, the opportunity to draft a generational talent who just happens to hail from Quebec.

No, Julien is most concerned with taking advantage of the opportunity the NHL and NHLPA gifted his Canadiens by including them in the return-to-play model that appears to be on the verge of being finalized.

As he should be.

Though it’s worth mentioning: the coach did acknowledge that a significant portion of the fan base — possibly a majority of Canadiens fans — would rather see his team, which finished 24th in the standings after losing 40 of 71 games from October to mid-March, be included in that lottery for the first overall pick.

Julien even expressed that he can appreciate that viewpoint.

“That’s totally normal. That’s totally normal. There’s no issues there,” Julien said. “I think everybody’s got their opinions and are entitled to it, because some fans — and rightfully so — get excited about seeing the possibility of having that guy there. But imagine we didn’t win the first round and we don’t get (consensus first-overall pick Alexis) Lafreniere; how are the fans going to react then?

“It’s one of those situations where, as an organization, as a team, as a group of players and a coaching staff, everybody — we go out there to win and we go out there to move forward. And the best way to move forward is to do the best we can.”

That’s the opportunity Julien is relishing.

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And yes, it’s conditional on the NHL creating a safe environment for him, his team, and the rest of the participants who will enter their respective hub cities after a two-to-three week training camp in their respective playing cities.

But Julien said he’s confident that the league has mapped out the safest way to return to play, and that everyone involved will exercise the appropriate caution.

“I have full faith in the NHL that we’ll be safe,” he said. “Also, they’re giving us the option to opt in or out based on our comfort level.”

With regards to comments Julien made to The Athletic last week about possibly pulling himself from the action because of his age and the risk category he falls in should he be exposed to COVID-19, he offered this clarification:

“All I said was that if there’s a moment where I don’t feel safe, I’d pull myself from the bench. But I don’t see that happening if the NHL does what it plans on doing — testing a lot, putting us in a bubble and keeping everyone safe.”

“If at a point I feel really, really in danger, because I am 60 and there’s certain things we live with at our age, my life and my family is more important than my job,” Julien added.

With that sorted, the coach spent most of his time Thursday talking about the opportunity his team has — not only to gain valuable experience, but to win.

It’s something most people don’t believe these Canadiens have in them, but something Julien believes they’re capable of.

And that’s what he’s going to sell to his players — both veterans and youngsters — when they arrive for training camp later this month.

“To me it’s about giving your players confidence,” Julien said. “I think when you show confidence in your players, a lot of times they’re able to come out there and give you their best and kind of play their best kind of hockey.”

But it’s going to be a balancing act.

On one end, it’s vital that Julien shows that confidence in young players like Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling, Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen and Cale Fleury to ensure they gain that experience he knows is so valuable. But he also believes the team will benefit most both in the short- and long-term from winning, and all of his decisions will be made with that aim in mind.

“I think, for me, I say it often: it’s about coaching,” Julien said. “You get in certain situations in a game where you say: if we want to win this game, I’ve got to lean a little bit more on my veterans. There’s other times in the game that you say: listen, our young guys have to come up here and really help out because we don’t want to over-utilize our veterans. You balance things out depending on the situation of the game. But I think, at the end of the day, what’s most important is having confidence in your players and showing confidence in them that, ‘Hey, listen, I know you can go out there and do the job,’ and give them an opportunity to gain experience.”

Julien’s hope is that the players arrive at camp with the same enthusiasm and approach to this opportunity as he has.

“They haven’t played in a while, so the excitement, the rest and everything — you hope it will help you along the way and that’s what I’m hoping,” Julien said. “I think we have a great opportunity here, honestly, to grow as a team. And the only way to grow is to go out there and go out there to try and win and move forward here.

“I know there’s a lot of whatever comments going around, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we should lose in the first round so that we have a chance at the first-overall pick and we’d get a chance at the local boy Lafreniere,’ and, trust me, I’d love to have this player on my team. But there’s no guarantee, even if we go out in the first round, that we would have that player. So the only way to take a step forward is to go out there and play hard and try to win and do the best you can. And if we win, then we’re getting better as a team. And if circumstances go the other way, then maybe we do get a shot at him.

“But, at the end of the day, we’re built, we’re all built to win and we’re professional athletes, we’re competitive. There’s no reason in the world to think otherwise, so that’s the direction we’re going in.”

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