MONTREAL — It’s a difficult balance to achieve — especially when you start the season without a regulation loss in your first seven games and maintain your rhythm over the next three before falling off-pace for four — but as a coach, you have to know when to stick with it and when to make changes.
It’s fair to say Claude Julien is in the middle seat right now, and finding that balance will only be more challenging if things keep sliding.
The Canadiens, who opened with 44 goals in their first 10 games, have scored just six in their last four. The opposition has tightened up — the Ottawa Senators looked like Team Germany, parking it on their half of the ice through two games and not allowing the Canadiens to gain any traction in transition before the Toronto Maple Leafs put a blanket on Montreal’s offence in Wednesday’s 3-1 win.
And even if the flow was moving in both directions of Thursday’s game, which was delayed an hour for the completion of test results after Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi was added to the NHL's COVID-19 Protocol list, the Canadiens weren’t able to generate more than the one odd-man rush they had early in the first period — a breakaway for Nick Suzuki.
Teams have adjusted to Montreal’s devastating counter-attack and clamped down in the scoring areas, and now it’s the Canadiens’ turn to make their own adjustments.
It's not like Julien sat on his hands over the last 48 hours. He pulled assistant captain Paul Byron out of the lineup for Wednesday’s game and put him back in Thursday. Corey Perry went from the third line Saturday, to the fourth line Wednesday and to the taxi squad Thursday. Tomas Tatar and Tyler Toffoli switched places on lines two and three against the Oilers, and Jake Allen took Carey Price’s place in front of the net.
But the Canadiens tried hard and lost, the frustration was oozing out of them on the ice — and off of it in their post-game media availability — and it left us wondering if Julien needs to tweak the offensive strategy. Or at least one part of it in particular.
The Canadiens tend to rely on funnelling the puck back to the point a lot in the offensive zone. It’s at least part of the reason they came into the game with the 20th-most goals per game off the cycle at 5-on-5. Considering they lead the league in goals, it’s a concerning number — especially when teams aren’t allowing them to generate as much in transition and off the rush, where they still rank first in goals per game.
That pattern — which we know of thanks to the fine folks at Sportlogiq, who provided the above data — was apparent in Thursday’s game as well, with Montreal’s defence accounting for 40 per cent of the shot attempts in all situations and 16 of 34 shots at even strength.
Prior to the game, Phillip Danault was asked about what the Canadiens could do to be less predictable in this regard, and he said, “I think definitely we should work a little more with us as forwards.”
“Cycle and those little things can help us,” Danault added. “It could be a little different, too — teams are doing video every day, so we’ve got to adjust sometimes on those little things. Those little things can bring you far and win some games, too. So, maybe a little more between the forwards in the O-zone.”
When we asked Julien about it after the loss, he said it came down to the lack of execution of the strategy in place, rather than the strategy itself.
“This (strategy) has been going on since the playoff bubble, which I thought served us well,” Julien said. “It served us well at the beginning of the year, too.”
In fairness to Julien, that’s true to an extent. Montreal’s defence combined for 16 points in 10 games in the August playoffs, and they’ve combined for 34 points in 14 games this season. Those things wouldn’t have happened if this particular strategy wasn’t working to some degree.
We’d even agree with Julien’s explanation of why this strategy works in general, and why it’s not working now.
“When teams swarm and you have no room down low, you want to move it up high,” he said. “But we need to get on the inside, we need guys going to the net, and that’s what’s not happening right now. When you do move it up, sometimes it does open up some space for you to put it back down and use those little plays.
“So I don’t think it’s the system itself, it’s more us not executing properly. And I think when you see our execution come back, those things won’t be in question.”
But how long can he afford to wait to tweak it a bit, to throw a curveball at the opposition on this until the confidence to execute it properly returns?
It’s a shortened season, every point in the early part of it is that much more precious, and a losing spell can put so much in doubt.
We’re not suggesting everything needs to be undone because of a bad stretch, which prompted Julien to say several times, both before and after Thursday’s game, that the Canadiens don’t have their “A-game.”
Both Byron and Brendan Gallagher were asked after the loss if the coach was too reliant on all four lines and both of them practically said the same thing verbatim — a thing we agree with.
“The strength of our team is having four lines that are capable of playing good hockey for our team,” said Byron.
The Canadiens played superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on Wednesday and Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on Thursday, and with respect to Suzuki, Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson, they aren’t of that ilk. Even if they’ve produced at nearly a point-per-game rate so far.
This team’s superpowers are its depth and its balanced. If Julien deviates from that just to put a few more goals in, a lot of other areas slip, so we don’t see a reason for him to do that.
And the players have to do their part, too.
“Right now things aren’t going that well offensively, but I think we need to do a better job of going to the net,” Byron said. “Not really playing as much on the outside, find ways to get in front and make life difficult for their goalie. We had a lot of shots, a lot of outside shots, one-and-dones. I think (Smith) saw a lot of the puck tonight and it just makes it easy for him. You’re not always going to score 3-on-2 breakaway goals all the time. Sometimes you’ve got to go to the paint, you gotta get dirty goals, stuff that guys like Corey (Perry) and Gally made a living doing for years. It’s just on everybody to go and do that and embrace that mentality. Put the work boots on and go to the hard areas to score. It’s a big part of our game I think we can improve on.”
The coaches can help the players do it. Julien and his associates have to consider attacking this issue with some new methods before the team slips further into the offensive abyss.
Gallagher’s not sweating it.
“There’s no concern,” he said.
But Gallagher’s not the one holding the clipboard on the bench, and finding that balance of sticking to your plan and adjusting it is always hardest to do when things aren’t going the way you want them to.