MONTREAL — Words matter and these ones from the press release the Montreal Canadiens sent out in the wake of firing head coach Claude Julien and replacing him with Dominique Ducharme Wednesday matter most:
"In Dominique Ducharme, we see a very promising coach who will bring new life and new energy to our group,” said Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin. “We feel that our team can achieve high standards and the time had come for a change."
These words were carefully chosen — especially words 12-17. When captain Shea Weber said on Monday that a heaviness had washed over the Canadiens following a teeth-grinding, hair-pulling loss to the Ottawa Senators — the team’s fifth in seven games — it was an urgent call for “new life and new energy.” A loss to the Senators on Tuesday did nothing to lighten the mood or change the energy, but Bergevin is clearly hopeful Ducharme, with the help of Alex Burrows, who’s replacing associate coach Kirk Muller, will — even if this is officially his first head coaching gig in the league.
This is the guy who rose from assistant coach on the Canadian college hockey circuit to become head coach of the most storied franchise in the NHL, from anonymous university boss to synonymous with just 27 other names to have held the title of head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, with stops in between in the QMJHL with Drummondville and Halifax, where he won the Memorial Cup and was named CHL coach of the year. He also comes decorated in the silver and gold placed around his neck as coach of the 2017 and 2018 Canadian world juniors.
You don’t rise to such heights without having the right balance of fire and ice, and Ducharme built his reputation on that balance with every step he took up the coaching ladder.
Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers, who played for Ducharme in Halifax with the Mooseheads from 2013-15, confirmed as much Wednesday, saying, “He’s got a bit of both.”
“And I think every great coach in the league’s got that,” Ehlers continued. “You want your coach to be talking to you and all that, and you also want your coach to be yelling at you when you’re not playing the way that you should. So, that’s how I experienced him in Halifax, and it helped me a lot.”
Bergevin wants energy? Ehlers says, provided Ducharme hasn’t changed in six years, that’s what he’ll be bringing.
“Back then, he was good at firing the boys up,” said Ehlers. “And he wanted to get the boys fired up for the big games and for every single game.”
Burrows spent his 998-game NHL career (regular season and post-season combined) as an energy guy; a sparkplug type who teetered along — and often went over — the edge.
But Ducharme and Burrows have to bring a lot more than energy to the Canadiens, which brings us back to Bergevin stating “the time had come for a change.”
The timing was certainly ripe for one, with a 2-4-2 record over their last eight games. And with the Canadiens 9-5-4, and still sitting in a playoff spot 38 games away from the end of the regular season, at least there’s still plenty of road ahead to course correct.
The time for a change to the power play came months, if not years, ago — hence Muller’s removal from the staff. It’s a power play that might not be capable of climbing to the top of the NHL rankings, but one that can certainly do better than 20th, where it currently sits. It needs an extreme makeover.
As does the 22nd-ranked penalty kill. How it came to be a Benny Hill drill in its own end, with two great goaltenders, four mostly defensive defencemen and seven reliable and defensively savvy forwards anchoring it, is the greatest mystery of all. One that we suspect Burrows will have at least some influence in solving.
And one of the biggest things that stagnated under Julien was the offensive-zone strategy — something we delved into in-depth early on in this losing spell and something that wasn’t addressed as things devolved and the Canadiens continued to depend heavily on shots from the point to generate scoring chances.
If Ducharme wants a blueprint, the one Bruce Cassidy drew up for the Bruins after taking over from Julien in Boston on Feb. 7, 2017, is readily available to him.
“We’re going to tinker with our offensive zone play a little bit in terms of encouraging our forwards to attack the net more from the half wall, using the back of the net and forcing teams to defend the front of the net as opposed to maybe playing on the perimeter going from low-to-high,” Cassidy said early on in his tenure, before helping the Bruins score the sixth-most goals in the NHL since the 2017-18 season.
He didn’t change everything, though, once Julien was fired in Boston and re-installed for the second stint of his career behind Montreal’s bench a week later. Cassidy kept Julien’s defensive structure and the transition strategies in place, and we can see Ducharme opting to do the same.
The 47-year-old from Joliette, Que., has been with these Canadiens for two years, and he’s gotten as much of a sample of what did work under Julien as what was less successful. The team built top-five underlying numbers in every relevant 5-on-5 category outside of goals, and that was on the strength of its swarm defence and quick transition to offence. Despite the recent skid, Montreal still ranks toward the top of the NHL in goals on the rush per game at even strength.
A bit of stability won’t hurt, and that’s undoubtedly part of the reason Bergevin feels Ducharme is the right man for the job.
That the Canadiens play in locked-down Montreal, where an 8 p.m. curfew is still in place and quarantine rules mandate an incumbent to spend two weeks in isolation, is also a factor. It made it unrealistic if not impossible to bring someone in from the outside.
Sources informed us Tuesday the decision to fire Julien wasn’t made overnight — it was weighed for several days, and from every angle, including this one above.
So, Ducharme carries forward in his new position with the “interim” tag attached to his designation.
“We see a very promising coach,” were words four-nine in Bergevin’s statement.
Ducharme has to be the right one, because, we’ll remind you, the GM also said, “We feel that our team can achieve high standards.”
That feeling starts with owner Geoff Molson, and he’s likely to feel time for a change in upper management will be necessary if the Canadiens don’t turn things around.