Canadiens' Ducharme must be sure-footed as he steps up coaching ladder

Now official Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme describes the bond he has with his players and how the relationship is built on respect, and says they're all on the same page and here for a reason.

MONTREAL — It’s a clean slate but not a blank canvass that Dominique Ducharme’s been given with the three-year contract extension he signed on Tuesday to officially become the 31st head coach of the Montreal Canadiens.

Consider it an ideal situation for the 48-year-old from Joliette, Que. He’s already set the foundation for how he wants the Canadiens to play, already seen his tactics successfully employed by a group that just went to the Stanley Cup Final and will largely remain intact, and now he’s got a normal training camp and an 82-game schedule ahead of him to perfect the little details.

It’s a wonderful departure from the situation he just navigated in his six months as interim head coach. That one was anything but ideal — taking over six weeks into a shortened season and in the middle of a storm, having to implement an entirely new system without the benefit of being able to practise on consecutive days more than twice before the playoffs, going through an unprecedentedly challenging schedule with nearly every key player sidelined by injury and then getting benched with COVID from the middle of the conference final through the first two games of the final.

For a guy who firmly believes adversity builds strength and character, we’re not sure Ducharme would’ve wished for as much as he faced over the first half of 2021.

For one who believes in destiny, Ducharme said Tuesday’s signing was a good omen.

"July 13th is an important date in our family," he said during his Zoom press conference, just a couple of hours after the ink dried on his new deal. "It's the date our parents got married. It's also five years ago to the day that my father was buried. It's almost like destiny that this is happening on this particular date. It could've happened on the 12th or the 14th, but it all transpired on the 13th."

What happens next is what matters most.

On Wednesday, Luke Richardson signed a three-year extension to continue managing the defence and the penalty kill. Ducharme is hoping Alex Burrows comes to terms on a new deal in short order to also return as his assistant. From there, the coach will look to add one more over the coming weeks and he might have to help hire a goaltending coach if Sean Burke chooses to go back to Arizona to continue in his duties as director of goaltending from home.

From a technical standpoint, everything else should fall into place.

"We don’t need to start everything over," Ducharme said. "There’s lots of things that we want to rework, things to add or polish, but the base is there."

So are the relationships.

Ducharme spent much of his time cultivating working ones with his players. He dedicated himself to meeting with each individual on a daily basis and spending time with each of his lines to establish and confirm identities, and it’s clear that approach was well-received.

"I feel like he brought the best out of each guy, knew how to approach each guy, how to bring our team closer and get us playing a more consistent, harder game," defenceman Jeff Petry said last Friday. "And I thought he did a great job with that and did a great job with our group."

Corey Perry, who’s 36 and has played for several different coaches over his long NHL career, gave Ducharme this endorsement: "He’s a head coach. He’s to the point, he gets his point across, and he’s definitely detailed and structured. That’s everything you want from a head coach. He’ll talk to you, let you know where you stand, and I can’t say enough about him. He did a tremendous job for us."

That someone at the other end of the age curve had as many good things to say tells you to what degree Ducharme established himself as a coach worthy of his new deal.

"He came in at a tough time. We weren’t playing that great, but he implemented his system and what he believed in, and I think as a team we really embraced that," 21-year-old Nick Suzuki said. "He did a great job with our whole group, listening to the players and really trying to get the most out of us. And the conversations that I’ve had all season with him, just trying to help me out as much as possible, trying to give me little bits here and there of how to take my game to a higher level. So, he really did a great job."

It's why general manager Marc Bergevin doubled down on his original bet on Ducharme, giving the coach an opportunity he felt he would earn when he took over from Claude Julien back in late February.

Now, Ducharme must take advantage of it by continuing to navigate each challenge calmly and coolly — just as he did in facing so many of them this past season — and by continuing to strengthen the bond with his players.

"Having success as a team is a partnership," Ducharme said. "We’re not there against the players … we’re all here for the same reason. I want every one of them, individually, to have success, but mostly that’s our job collectively having success.

"At the same time, we all have our job to do. We talked about that with the players. We’re putting in the plan, we’re adjusting the plan, we show the direction what we want to do. Their job is to get into that and bring their own individual skills, their personality as a player within our team structure."

Ducharme will ultimately be judged for how he influences that process moving forward. And while the experience he’s earned over a short period is now behind him, it will only help him tackle this next challenge.

It’s a giant step up the coaching ladder. Ducharme climbed his way up from the Canadian college circuit through the QMJHL, Hockey Canada and a job as Julien’s assistant before helping the Canadiens become a better version of themselves than anyone believed they could be, and now he must move upwards sure-footed.

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