BROSSARD, Que.—The axe is swinging, and everybody is just waiting for it to drop.
That’s what typically happens when a team flunks out like the Montreal Canadiens have.
The Canadiens are currently enduring their second eight-game winless streak of the season and have won just seven of their last 26. They came into this most recent skid in third place in the Atlantic Division, but now that they are 11 points out of that position and nine points behind in the wild-card race, their fans are expecting someone to pay the price for that result.
And with the expectation that it won’t be general manager Marc Bergevin, despite Montreal trending towards a third straight absence from the playoffs (and a fourth in the last five years), coach Claude Julien is in their sights.
We believe Julien has squeezed every ounce of juice there is to squeeze out of this lemon, that he’s generated better results than anyone else could with what he’s been given, that the Canadiens haven’t quit on him or his system, and that it would be entirely unfair to fire him at this stage.
But it’s all up in the air right now. Even if management has sold ownership on the future of the team and internal expectations for this season were low — and considerably lower than external expectations — to begin with, situations like these are untenable.
The bottom line is that if the Canadiens don’t start winning games, someone’s going to pay for it.
But Julien? He should be seen as the guy you want at the helm for when this team eventually is where management — and the fans — want it to be.
Consider the 5-on-5 numbers:
• The Canadiens have had more shot attempts than their opponents in 71 per cent of their games.
• The Canadiens have had more scoring chances than their opponents in 76 per cent of their games.
• The Canadiens have had more scoring chances from the high-danger zone than their opponents in 64 per cent of their games.
And if you want to look at just the last eight games alone — every one of them essentially lost by a goal, because in the two that were by two goals the opposition scored an empty-netter — the Canadiens have generated more shot attempts in five of them. And although they’ve given up more scoring chances in five of them, they’ve been neck and neck in high-danger scoring chances in all of them but one (their loss on Tuesday in Detroit, in which the Red Wings had 12 high-danger chances to Montreal’s eight).
This is all taking into account that Jonathan Drouin, one of the Canadiens’ most important forwards, went down on Nov. 15 with a torn and since-surgically repaired tendon in his left wrist; that Paul Byron was lost in the same game as Drouin and has since had knee surgery and suffered a setback in his rehabilitation; that Joel Armia, the big Finn who was on pace to shatter career-highs in goals and points, went down with a hand injury on Dec. 23 and has missed each of the last eight games; and that Brendan Gallagher — the team’s heart-and-soul forward — suffered a concussion on New Year’s Eve and missed four of the last eight games.
The team’s power play had shot up as high sixth in the NHL, even with some of these players unavailable, but it has understandably dipped down to 10th.
Amazingly, the penalty kill, which had been inexplicably bad through a fair portion of the first half of the season, has successfully killed off 17 of the last 19 power plays the Canadiens have given their opposition.
So yeah, when Julien says the team hasn’t packed it in — like he did after Thursday’s devastating loss to Edmonton and also after Friday’s practice in Brossard — there’s more than enough evidence to support his claim.
"You guys see the same games I do. I don’t think we’re being out-played by any means, by anybody," said Julien. "But the mistakes are costly right now.
"There’s frustration, but the one thing there isn’t — there’s no quit. You see (it) again today (at practice). I know it’s black right now, and I know there’s a dark cloud over us right now, but nobody has quit on this team. Players, coaches — we’re still going to work as hard as we can. And I’ve seen situations where teams have packed it in in the past. I’ve seen it, I’ve witnessed it, but this team here hasn’t done that."
Does that mean the coach needs to make technical changes to generate different results?
"I think I would if we were getting outplayed," Julien said. "For example, (on Thursday) we out-chance the other team (they did), we out-shoot the other team (they did), we did everything else… we did everything well, except we didn’t out-score them. So, I’m not sure how you find a way to score more than the other team when your team is getting more chances than the other team. I think when people look at the game (Thursday) for example, for two periods we’re by far the better team. Third period we got a little bit on our heels and it was probably a little bit more even at the end, but one period cost us the game. So it’s hard to say all of a sudden, we just change everything that we’ve been working on because of our lineup.
"I’m not sure there’s too many coaches in the league that… you can tweak certain things, which we’ve tried to do. You’re trying to put some lines together and some of them (like Ilya Kovalchuk-Max Domi-Nick Suzuki) when you don’t get the last change and you just say, ‘We’ve got to be careful who they’re out against,’ and that kind of stuff. But at one point there’s only so many things you can do as a coach; you have what you have and we’ve got some young players, we’ve got some guys who would be in Laval (in the AHL) if we were healthy. That’s reality, and that’s life, so you have to deal with that and adjust."
We’re not sure what else Julien can do, and it’s probably not going to help his situation that Gallagher isn’t likely to be available on Saturday, when the Canadiens play the Ottawa Senators.
One of the team’s best defencemen, Ben Chiarot, will be out of action for a second-straight game and is likely to miss a few more before returning from a lower-body injury. That’s a killer, too.
But if the Canadiens can’t find a way to win, regardless, that axe could drop. It would just be wrong if it fell on Julien.
All advanced stats in this piece courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.