BROSSARD, Que. — When Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien is asked to give one reason he believes his team can win the 2020 Stanley Cup, he returns to a familiar refrain.
“Because my belief has never changed since Day 1. If you peak at the right time and you’re playing your best hockey at the right time of the year, you have an opportunity now with parity,” he says.
It’s a premise that has him thinking out loud about what could have been for his Canadiens, who finished just outside of the playoffs last season despite accumulating 96 points in the standings.
They beat some of the league’s best teams down the stretch and went 7-2-1 over their last 10 games before falling just short of their goal.
“It’s about never getting comfortable,” Julien says.
“I think we did that last year and we got better and better and better as the season went on. People may laugh at what I’m going to say, but the biggest disappointment for me last year in not making the playoffs is I really thought we were playing so well that we could have made a pretty good run at it had we gotten in. You get a hot goaltender, you get your team playing the best hockey possible, you get Tampa Bay knocked off early, you get other teams knocked off early like Washington and those kinds of teams, and all of a sudden it’s open to anybody. And that’s what ended up happening (with the Cup-winning St. Louis Blues). You just have to get in and then it’s anybody’s game.”
These were his thoughts to close a 20-minute conversation on Tuesday. The interview covered how he intends to reverse Montreal’s fortunes, how he uses his players, expectations from certain players, integrating three 20-year-olds who appear ready for primetime, analytics and what makes him optimistic about this version of the Canadiens.
Sportsnet: Is there anything you looked at over the summer, outside of the power play, that you could personally bring that could make the difference for the team this year?
Claude Julien: I think we looked a lot at the power play, but we also looked at things that we were good at and that we’ve got to stay on top of. We were good at 5-on-5 and I thought the transition game was pretty good and somehow, believe it or not, it’s something you have to stay on top of. You saw it in pre-season, our game slowed down again and our transition wasn’t as quick. So it’s about staying on top of certain things that gave you success and then trying to add to that. I think even if the penalty kill was 10th or 12th (editor’s note: it was 13th) we still want to get better there. Power play was the biggest area of concern and improvement that we have to make. Because we didn’t produce much, I think it cost us some games and I think it eventually cost us a spot in the playoffs. So it’s a little bit more of that.
From my end of it, I think it’s about making the guys understand and believe in what we need to do here. Last year was good, but not good enough. We need to be able to bring good enough to the table this year, and that means we’re aiming to make the playoffs. We didn’t make them last year and even though everyone saw us out at the beginning of the season, we still believed we could. And the same thing is in our minds right now is that we still feel even though it’s a tough division and it’s going to be a tough conference, we want to be there. It’s going to take a lot of work and it’s going to take even more sacrifices than I thought we had last year.
SN: Last season, few coaches in the NHL distributed ice-time more evenly to his forwards than you did. Is that a function of the personnel you have at your disposal? Or is it more about style of play and maintaining over 82 games?
CJ: It’s a little bit of both. We’re not standing here saying we’ve got Sidney Crosby in our lineup, or Connor McDavid and stuff like that, so it’s hard for us to ask our players to play 22, 23 minutes per game. Although I may have been the guy who distributed the ice time most evenly, there’s a lot of teams, good teams that had no forwards over 20 minutes (per game). I think where the game is trending right now, and the way we want to play it at a fast pace, you can’t expect your players to be able to sustain that for the whole year if you want to (have more of a hierarchy of ice-time). This is why you need to have four lines. This is why you have to be able to use your whole bench to play the type of game that you want. It demands a lot of energy, it demands a lot of effort to play at that speed. The guys like it, but it’s very demanding and that’s probably one of the reasons why you saw a little more balance in the way the ice-time was distributed here.
SN: With the way you integrated young players in Victor Mete and Jesperi Kotkaniemi over the last couple of years, would you do anything different in integrating players like Nick Suzuki, Cale Fleury, and perhaps Ryan Poehling down the road?
CJ: No. I think at the end of the day you integrate those guys into your lineup knowing that there’s going to be bumps along the way. But as long as they’re confident, as long as they’re playing well, you just give them the ice-time they should get. You saw (in pre-season) Nick Suzuki was given a lot of power-play time, a lot penalty-killing time and a lot at 5-on-5. He was in all situations to give us the time to evaluate him properly, but at the same time to see what he’s capable of bringing. The way we utilize him is the way we see fit at the time. But as I mentioned, knowing that along the way there’s bumps in the road, we’re also ready for that when it does happen and how to do those things. You saw last year Kotkaniemi really hit a wall and we sat him a few games and it was the right thing to do. It’s still the right thing to do to give a guy an opportunity to sit back, watch, catch his breath a little bit and get some rest so that he can at least come back and maybe give you some better games. You’ve heard me say many times where college players and European players always struggle with that the first time around. It’s a grinding schedule and it just goes to show the grind that the players have to go through year after year. Some of them get used to it and they know how to handle it. Some guys think they can handle it until they get to that stage in their first season where they really hit a wall. So those are all things that have been in the game for a while and they continue to be in it.
SN: Knowing that, and building on what you just said, did that make the decision between you and Marc (Bergevin) a more difficult one regarding whether or not to keep Poehling here to start? Did it enter into the conversation that you might get the best of him earlier in the season than you would later on because he’s one of those guys coming out of college?
CJ: Not really. I think the major thing in all of that is we’ve got a guy that missed 10 days, had a concussion (and only) played two games. We had some tough decisions on our 23-man roster. It’s the right thing to do for him right now, and it’s the right thing to do for us as well. It’s kind of a win-win situation. If he can go there and play some games and find his rhythm and everything else and we buy a little bit of time here, at one point maybe some things will get straightened out here too. But right now we have the 23 players that we think should start the season and maybe because of his injury that made it a little bit easier to make that decision. Had (he not been injured) it would’ve maybe made it a little bit harder and maybe would’ve been different, for all we know. But that’s the hand that we were dealt for now. But I don’t see him not playing in the NHL. He’s going to be here. When’s it going to be? who knows? But I don’t think it’s going to be too long before we see him back.
SN: What are you expecting from Kotkaniemi? What can he do to push his way up the lineup? As of right now, he’s on your third line and not starting with a role on the power play.
CJ: We don’t have Line 1, Line 2, Line 3. When you look at (20-goal scorer) Paulie (Paul) Byron on the fourth line, when you look at (Jordan) Weal who’s playing there, or (Nick) Cousins and then (Nate) Thompson — some nights, and I’ve seen them play together a little bit in pre-season, they’re a pretty good line. We try and balance things for the reason we talked about earlier, that we need four lines going. We need four lines that can score goals. Not to say we’re putting a top player on the fourth line, necessarily, but we feel we have pretty good depth when it comes to that. In Kotkaniemi’s situation, I think right now for him is understanding that — and we need to understand — the second year doesn’t necessarily get any easier. You’ve heard of the sophomore jinx where guys have a great first year and the second year is totally different. You have to expect that sometimes it could happen. Our job is to continue to manage him the best way possible. Sometimes it’s about giving him more ice when things are going well for his confidence, and sometimes it’s about protecting him. When he’s having a tough night, you try to get the best matchups for him possible and not just for him but also for the team. You try not to expose those kinds of players and that’s part of the job we have to do every year with different players. I would expect him to be able to take that next step, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be any bumps in the road for him either.
SN: When you look at Jonathan’s Drouin end to last season, is there anything more you could have done as his coach to help him snap out of his funk sooner?
CJ: No. I think we’ve done quite a bit with him. I think we’ve gone the extra yard with him. At the same time, these questions that come up about what could we have done better … I think at some point it’s natural that on every team certain players don’t have … You look at Patrik Laine in Winnipeg and as a coach sitting there and saying, ‘What could I have done better,’ sometimes you realize it’s just one of those situations where it’s a learning process. Maybe the player realizes that he could’ve done something better. All I know is that we work with our players diligently all the time. That’s why I’m here (for this interview) a little bit late, because I was finishing (a video session with players) and that’s our No. 1 priority when it comes to our job. I think as a coaching staff we do spend a lot of time and we do go the extra mile when it comes to spending time with players, and that’s not to say it’s all on the players or it’s their fault if something’s not working; it’s just part of the process. Some guys get it quicker than others. For some, it takes a lot longer than others. But all we know, when we talk about Jonathan Drouin as an example, it’s that he’s one of those guys that you see the potential, you see what he can be if he finds his rhythm. So for us, it’s to keep working with him hoping that he finds it because if he does, he’s going to be a huge help to our hockey club.
SN: The opportunity for Drouin to start with Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia on a line that is likely to get a lot of offensive zone starts, one that will benefit from matchups against weaker opposition because Phil Danault’s line and Max Domi’s line will draw a lot of attention, is that the spark for him to find that game you want to see?
CJ: I think that at the end of the day Jonathan wants to be more than just an offensive player. I think he wants to be a good player and his game is an all-around good game when he’s moving his feet and skating. And that’s the biggest thing for him. He’s got so much talent that when he’s skating he’s unpredictable to opponents. When he’s not skating, he becomes predictable. So those are the kind of things that if Jonathan finds that, I don’t think it’s going to matter where he starts. I think it’s just a matter of confidence, and same goes for his linemates. What do we expect from Armia? He’s got a lot of talent and I know there’s more in his toolbox than what we’ve seen. You look at him as an older player, but he’s still a young player to our eyes. With Kotkaniemi being strong (and having) a year (of NHL experience) under his belt, both those guys with Jo … If they can give us more, we talk about what’s the difference between getting into the playoffs and not and it’s about having guys being able to bring a little bit more to the table. And guys that had their best seasons last year? Well, it’s about doing it again. If you did it once, it doesn’t stop you from doing it twice. So the challenge of can those guys repeat it? Well, I think that’s what they have to do. They’ve shown they’re capable of doing it. I think it’s important for those guys to expect they’re going to do it again.
SN: Everyone’s assuming Kirk Muller and Dominique Ducharme are running your power play. Is that still the case?
CJ: I’m going to say they lead the power play, but at the end of it, I have to take responsibility for whether it’s going or not because I am the coach. But from that point of view, they kind of lead it and prepare things but I’m always involved. Same thing with the penalty kill. Luke Richardson kind of has it with me involved with him as well. But as a head coach you need to trust the people around you, trust that they’re good enough to do those kinds of things, and I do. At the end of the day, as I mentioned, I can’t run away from that responsibility because as a head coach it’s still mine and it’s still (me who has to answer for it).
SN: You said last week that you want to see cohesion and focus on the power play. Are there already signs that those things have been developing over the last three weeks?
CJ: Our entries are much better than they were last year. We’re managing the puck a lot better in the offensive zone. Now we’re still working on making the right decisions with the puck to create a scoring chance and you’ve seen it at times. At other times we’ve seen the players forcing plays. The biggest thing I’ve seen right now that I hope will improve has been the finish. We’ve created chances, but at times we haven’t been able to bury them. And you hope that it’s just a matter of confidence and it’ll come. But there’s already an improvement on the power play since last year just in the breakouts, the understanding of where you’ve got to be and what you’ve got to do and I think that’s pretty clear in the guys’ minds.
SN: It seems you guys are working the puck down low more.
CJ: I don’t know if it’s working it down low. You eventually get there. But the key is we need to spread the penalty killers out. It can’t just be one way. If you just want to work it down low three against four … as a penalty-killing unit that’s what we like to do is if they just want to play down low with three guys we have them outnumbered with four and that’s an advantage for us. It’s when you get it back to the top that you have to open up that box and then those options open up. That’s what it is right now. We need to work the puck up so we can open the box and then we can use the low plays and bring it back down and then attack in hopefully 3-on-2 (situations).
SN: Thoughts on Cale Fleury? He’s not just starting in Montreal, he’s in your top-six.
CJ: I thought he earned his spot with his play. He’s a big body, he’s physical, he moved the puck well, and I thought he played with a lot of confidence. He played on his toes and not on his heels, so he earned the right to start with our team and we’ll see and go from there. I think for a guy who’s in his second year (as a professional) he made some great progress and he came to camp ready to earn a spot.
SN: Switching gears, how do you view analytics?
CJ: I’ve always had the same view on analytics. You take what you want and at the end of the day, I’ve always said the thing about analytics is a lot of the time it just justifies what you see. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We always want certainty. Sometimes you see something and you look at analytics and say, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I saw.’ There is some good use to that and sometimes it’s good to see a thing where I don’t think we’re managing the puck well and then you look at your puck possession time and again it reinforces what you’re seeing. Analytics reinforces a lot of times what you see, and you use it sometimes for things you don’t notice and those things sometimes will give you that information that you need. Overall, I’m not a believer of overusing that. I think it can be overkill, especially for players. They have a lot of their minds. Analytics is for us coaches to have something in our toolbox, but it’s not something you always want to share with the players.
SN: Can you think of an example of where you were looking at analytics and they changed your mind about something?
CJ: I don’t think it’s changed our minds, but sometimes I’ve seen things where it’s, ‘Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I saw it.’ But it’s not changing my mind where I thought someone wasn’t good but he is good. But there’s sometimes, just like anything else, where you see the negative way too much and forget to look at the positive. And sometimes when you take the time to look at it or look at those analytics, I say I guess I didn’t look at the whole picture.
SN: Moving on, how can Max Domi evolve at centre?
CJ: For me, Max right now, it really helps his game to play at centre because he’s a good skater and he likes to skate. That’s helped him a lot. He likes to cover a lot of the ice. At the end of the day, his biggest challenge is focusing on what he has to do as a centreman in making sure he’s supporting and he’s not cheating on the offensive side. He has to make sure he supports the puck all over the ice (because) that’s what centremen do. In the D-zone, in the offensive zone you have to be where you can support the puck. So I think that’s something he does well because he’s a good skater, and when he does it the right way he’s a real good player. When he gets away from doing the right things, then he becomes an average player.
SN: Wrapping up here, what are you most optimistic about when you look at the makeup of this team?
CJ: The potential. It’s one word: Potential. When you look at the young guys coming in right now with Suzuki, Fleury and you’ve got Kotkaniemi and you have the veterans who are getting hungrier and hungrier with time … you miss the playoffs a couple years in a row and you get hungry to get back in there. I think the potential of this team and just their attitude and their approach, I think we’re going to be there knocking at the door for sure.