Re-visiting Claude Julien’s first time as Canadiens head coach

Breaking minutes before the show, Eric Engels joins Tim and Sid to discuss the firing of Michel Therrien and if Claude Julien can turn around the Canadiens recent struggles.

If the Montreal Canadiens were going to make a coaching change this season, now was the time to do it; the team has begun its mandated “bye” week, with their next game not coming until Saturday against Winnipeg.

On Tuesday, the Canadiens made the surprise move of firing head coach Michel Therrien and replacing him with Claude Julien, fired by the Bruins just last week. It’s not only the second time Julien will coach the Habs, it’s the second time Therrien has been fired mid-season for Julien to take over.

The last time Julien was hired by Montreal was in January of the 2002-03 season after the Habs struggled to get above .500 and were left sitting 11th in the Eastern Conference. Then-GM Andre Savard decided to pull the trigger and let go of Therrien for Julien, who was leading an NHL bench for the first time.

Here’s a brief overview of how Julien did in his first go-around as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens.

2002-03 SEASON
Therrien was fired on Jan. 20 after a three-game losing streak and having lost 10 of 13 games. At the time, Julien was a 42-year-old head coach of the Habs’ AHL affiliate in Hamilton, where he was serving his third consecutive season. The Hamilton Bulldogs were coming off a season in which they reached the Calder Cup semifinal and were holding a 33-6-3-3 record at the time of Julien’s promotion to the NHL club.

“It’s a great honour and a privilege for a guy like myself who grew up in Ottawa wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey to have an opportunity like this,” Julien said at the time. “When Andre called me and offered me the job, there was no doubt in my mind.”

Julien won three of his first five games with the Habs, tying the other two, but there was no saving them that season. The team lost 13 of its next 17 games and finished with a 30-35-8-9 record to miss the playoffs and land fourth in the Northeast Division.

Montreal’s top three scorers that season were Saku Koivu, Richard Zednik and Yanic Perreault. In Julien’s first half-season behind an NHL bench, he had a 12-16-4-4 record.

Therrien Out, Julien Back In For The Canadiens
February 14 2017

2003-04 SEASON
The Canadiens rebounded in Julien’s first (and only) full season behind the bench, thanks largely to Theodore’s bounce back to respectability and a great rookie season from Michael Ryder, who was second on the team with 25 goals and 63 points. Mike Ribeiro, who played his first full NHL season that year, led the way with 65 points.

At Christmas, the Habs were again around .500 with a 16-15-4-2 record on Dec. 27, but they proceeded to win eight of their next 11 games. Even though they got into the playoffs, the outlook for the first round was bleak after the Habs lost five of their last six regular season games, including a 3-2 OT loss to the division-rival Bruins. They matched up against Boston in Round 1, who narrowly took the Northeast Division by one point from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Montreal lost the first two games of that series and three of the first four to trail 3-1 heading back to Boston for Game 5. But from then on it was all Montreal, as Julien’s team won the next two games decisively (5-1 and 5-2) before taking Game 7 by a 2-0 score thanks to a couple of goals from Zednik.

In Round 2, Montreal lined up against Tampa Bay, who finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference and the second-best record overall. Here they were no match for the eventual Stanley Cup champions, scoring just five goals in four games and being swept into the summer.

2005-06 SEASON
After the lost season to the lockout, Julien returned to the bench but was doing so in a whole new environment around the league and with a GM, Bob Gainey, who was hired in June of 2003 and hadn’t yet had a reason to make his own coach hiring.

The Canadiens started with a 13-3-3 record, which made Julien look secure in his position. But as quickly as it started, it all fell apart, as Montreal lost 13 of its next 22 games from Nov. 18 to Jan. 11 and Julien was let go with a 19-16-6 record. Gainey replaced Julien for the rest of the season, and led the team to the playoffs, where they lost in the first round to the eventual champions again — the Carolina Hurricanes.

While Julien returns to the Habs as their Mike Babcock-type hire, the best possible coach available for a team that must hire someone who speaks French, his first time around certainly wasn’t foreshadowing the kind of successful coach he’d become. In fact, he didn’t even make it through one full season of his next job as Lou Lamoriello fired Julien 79 games into his first go with the New Jersey Devils, with the team in sixth place and leading the Atlantic Division.

As we know, Julien was hired by the Bruins the season after his Devils gig and he spent the next 10 years there, where he became one of the most sought-after and respected coaches in the NHL. It’s funny to think that Julien’s first year with the Bruins was his second full season as the head coach of any NHL bench.

And now he returns to Montreal as the must-have hire, expected and anticipated to bail out a team that’s taking on water.

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