MONTREAL— It’s all in Claude Julien’s hands now, and he knows it.
The 60-year-old coach of the Montreal Canadiens, appearing healthy and happy just two months into his convalescence from heart surgery, spent 57 minutes talking with reporters via Zoom Thursday. He spoke at length on the depth of his roster in the wake of several additions general manager Marc Bergevin recently made during the off-season, and he expanded on his desire to get back behind the bench in short order and on how he views the puzzle and where the pieces fit within it.
But it took Julien just 42 seconds to make his most salient point of the day, one that shows to what extend he understands that the team’s success is riding on him.
“I think right now what we’ve done is that we’ve made our team that much better that we should expect to make the playoffs,” Julien started. “And if people think that it’s putting pressure on ourselves, pressure’s what you make of it. For me, I don’t look at it as pressure but as an opportunity, and we should be good enough to make the playoffs and we should thrive on the opportunity to accomplish that. It’s as simple as that. Marc has done a good job of giving us a team that should make the playoffs…
“If by mid-season I’ve lost half my team to injuries, I guess those things change. Other than that, we should definitely be a competitive team that should be able to make the playoffs.”
Understanding that it's a dime short of declaring yourself a Stanley Cup contender, it’s still a considerable departure from saying, “We hope we can make it,” which is what Julien and Bergevin have repeatedly said over the last three seasons of icing a roster that pales in comparison to the one they have on their hands right now.
The expectations have risen, and Julien has to put the Canadiens on the right path from Day 1 of the 2020-21 season. And the margin for error will be much slimmer than it’s been through his last three-and-a-half seasons behind their bench.
The coach referenced a more condensed 2020-21 schedule to explain the importance of adding a quality goaltender in Jake Allen behind 33-year-old starter Carey Price, but a condensed schedule—and one that’s probably going to be at least 20 games shorter than commissioner Gary Bettman was hoping it would be—has just as much bearing on him as it does his goaltenders. It means there’s little to no time to recover from any sort of extended slump.
This won’t be like last season when the Canadiens had two eight-game skids from October through January but were still within striking distance of a playoff spot in the weeks leading up to the February trade deadline.
Granted, the season will still be more of a marathon than it will be a sprint, but any deviations far off course will prove much more costly, and that ramps the pressure up considerably.
It was high to begin with, because the Canadiens have failed to earn their way into the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. But it’s even higher now—especially since Bergevin added pieces at every position and ones that specifically offset the deficiencies of Montreal’s most recent roster.
As Julien acknowledged, having a seasoned goaltender in Allen is going to afford Price the rest the coaching staff couldn’t give him in front of Keith Kinkaid and Charlie Lindgren last season. The coach said he felt trading for and then signing Joel Edmundson and adding rookie Alexander Romanov to the mix gives his defence more size and versatility, and he noted that newcomers Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli will bring goals and a level of balance to his forward group that wasn’t previously there.
“It’s easy enough to look at the names of our forwards and see we have four lines that should be very competitive,” Julien said. “I’d say right away, with the number of players we have up front who can score and do good work, that we can easily eliminate the idea of a first line, a second line, a third line; I think it’ll be a question of the line playing best during a given game playing as the top line that night.
“We have a good depth and balance in our lines. I can make the lines right now, but they can change tomorrow. That’s the beauty of what we have right now—we can move players here and there and still have good lines…”
But it’ll still be up to Julien to make the right decisions at the right times, and to have the right read on the chemistry and a proper feel for the moment.
And the coach has to hope he’s right about sticking with the system he implemented three years ago.
“Right now what I would tell you, I don’t know that a tonne has to change from the way we play more than we’ve got more depth to make the things we’ve been working on becoming even more successful,” Julien said. “We talked about being a little bit bigger, so maybe now we get a little bit better along the walls. As you know, you guys watch hockey enough and you know where those issues are, and there were times where we got caught against those teams that really battle along the walls [and] we really struggled, we couldn’t get on the inside. So now we’re bigger, with the addition of guys like Anderson… we’re able to get a little bit better in those areas.”
Julien’s hopeful that with Anderson and Toffoli, the Canadiens can finish more of the chances they generate at five-on-five—they ranked second in the NHL in shot-attempt differential, second in scoring-chance differential, but 25th in shooting percentage last season.
And even if neither player answers all of the Canadiens’ problems on the power play, he feels they’ll help in that department.
Guys like Toffoli—we know he can score and he’s going to add something there,” Julien said. “When you look at a guy like Josh Anderson—a big guy who does good work around the net—we have elements that we can certainly put in certain positions and help our power play. We brought players who can help us there and we’re going to look to use them there.”
But Julien’s not depending on that, and he said that even though he’ll continue to lean on associate coach Kirk Muller and assistant Dominique Ducharme in that department, the buck stops with him.
It does in every department.
“It’s certain that with the additions we made we’ve become a team that’s much more competitive,” Julien said. “We feel confident, and it’s our work as a coaching staff to bring this team up to match the expectation level. I’m confident with the group we have, I’m excited and anxious to get started and to work with our group.”