Canadiens smart to focus on defence after fourth consecutive loss

Claude-Julien

Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien talks with player Max Domi during training camp in Brossard, Que., Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. (Graham Hughes / CP)

BROSSARD, Que. — Whenever Claude Julien is asked about an in-game adjustment he’s made, his response is invariably: “It’s called coaching.”

On Monday, after his Montreal Canadiens blew 4-0 and 5-3 leads in a 6-5 loss to the New York Rangers on Saturday and took Sunday off, Julien did what I like to refer to as “smart coaching.”

Instead of running his charges through a punitive practice, which many people around town would have called for after watching the Canadiens lose a fourth consecutive game, the coach opted for a lengthy video session and a practice that focused specifically on the team’s defensive structure and its transition through the neutral zone.

When you break down the goals the Canadiens allowed to New York, you can see why that was imperative.

Here’s a sample:

Notice Montreal’s players coming off the bench and not reacting quickly enough to pressure the puck as expected. Notice the defence backing way off the line as the puck is coming into Montreal’s zone. Notice how late the forwards are in establishing who’s supposed to be covering whom in the defensive zone.

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These are the details a successful execution of Montreal’s system depends on, but they’ve been abandoned too frequently over the course of this four-game losing streak — and also at times through the 19 games that preceded this skid.

If the Canadiens have allowed the 12th-most goals against out of 31 teams in the NHL, part of that is certainly on goaltenders Carey Price and Keith Kinkaid. Another part of it is on their penalty kill, which ranks 26th because it was awful through the first 10 games and has only marginally improved since.

But it’s mostly to do with not fully adhering to the system they have in place, the one that allowed them to collect 96 points in the standings last season.

“I think we need a better commitment in certain areas where we have to do a better job,” said Julien following Monday’s practice.

“Some of it is communication. Some of it is just trusting that the system that we put in place is going to take care of that. For that, you need to trust it. I think there is a trust, but you need to apply it. Sometimes we don’t apply it. That’s why you have coaches. Coaches — their job is to fix those things and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

That’s why after some players filtered out onto the ice at 11:00 a.m. they were brought back into the dressing room. The coaches wanted to explain the drills they were going to run because they had opted to run drills that weren’t all standard ones the Canadiens have been running since training camp broke at the beginning of October.

The idea was to get everyone on the same page.

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“What we try to do is always eliminate the grey areas,” said Julien. “Because black and white is always easier than having to deal with the grey areas.”

With that work done, the Canadiens stepped back on the ice and warmed up with the same drill they run at the beginning of every practice — a drill where two defence pairings line up at opposing blue lines and exchange passes while a forward curls between them to receive the next pass before skating into the offensive zone with the puck. It’s a drill just to get the puck — and the legs — moving.

It was over the next three drills that the real work of the day got done.

The first one started with a 2-on-2 battle down low and then a quick transition to defence.

“That’s essentially just a backchecking drill just so the high forward coming back (Nick Suzuki in the video above) can communicate with our defenceman,” explained Canadiens forward Nick Cousins. “First forward back stays low once in the defensive zone, and the other two take the points. It’s about backchecking through the middle and making sure we’re communicating on who has who.”

The drill right after that was almost the exact same, but the only difference was that it started with all three of the forwards working together to get an offensive chance before having to get back after the play was already going the other way.

Essentially, the idea here was that instead of waiting for a puck to be recovered off a 2-on-2 down low, the forwards have possession of it. That means all three are already engaged in trying to make a play, which makes it only natural that one of them isn’t waiting up high in the zone in order to get a headstart on the backcheck.

Why would the Canadiens run this drill this way?

“Because that happens in game,” said Cousins.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Practising smart is simulating game-like situations.

Here’s another way the Canadiens did that Monday:

With a drill that starts with a flip across the neutral zone. It’s a drill that also focuses on back-pressure, but one that gives the backcheckers an edge.

“That’s about creating offence through transition because our D can step up,” said Cousins.

That one thing is a big part of the reason the Canadiens have the most 5-on-5 goals in the NHL (57). It is the thing that allows them to defy the fact that they don’t have the type of high-octane talent that a lot of their competitors boast.

“We’re a speed team,” said Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher. “We like to transition quick. We like to use our speed and that’s usually where we’re able to take advantage of other teams. When we get away from that, we’re a little bit sloppy (and) it seems like we play the game on our heels.”

Right.

Even in a game in which the Canadiens take a 4-0 lead and score five goals, they stand a good chance of losing if they abandon the little details that enable their speed and transition. That’s why Julien ran practice the way he did on Monday — and not as some might have preferred him to.

“I think people would prefer we win tomorrow’s game than to see our players be punished today and then guys can’t necessarily respond tomorrow,” Julien said.

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To borrow a line from him, that’s called coaching.

Monday’s video session was intensive and purposeful.

“When you see things instead of just talking about things, it’s always more clear,” Julien said.

What was clear to the players after watching how things broke down against the Rangers was that they need to follow the system instead of ad-libbing out of panic or nonchalance.

The drills in practice reinforced that.

It wasn’t a traditional bag-skate, but it also wasn’t an easy 50-minutes on the ice.

It was smart coaching.

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