MONTREAL — Think about the common thread between these things: Jake Allen winning both of his starts, Joel Edmundson improving with every game, Alexander Romanov making an immediate impact, Josh Anderson jumping out of the gate with a start that inspires hope he’s the player the Montreal Canadiens thought they were getting and not the one who struggled through an injury plagued 2019-20 season, Corey Perry making a difference as soon as he’s turned to and Tyler Toffoli earning the NHL’s first star of the week with an incredible offensive outburst.
It’s not a stretch to say it’s Claude Julien. With the help of his staff, the coach had the challenge of integrating all these new players over a 10-day training camp, with no exhibition games and ahead of a two-week road trip that started in Toronto and ended with three games in Vancouver, and he’s done a masterful job of it.
It’s hard not to be impressed by that. A 4-0-2 start — even for a Canadiens team everyone thought was deep, balanced and much better than the one we saw last year— was pretty hard to envision given all those challenges.
And we know where the fingers would be pointed if the Canadiens started 0-2-4 — especially with expectations sky high. Squarely at Julien.
How did he pull on the right strings to get his team ready for the enormous challenge that lay ahead on Jan. 13?
“I think the approach we took in training camp, with some video sessions before practices showing exactly what we wanted to do,” Julien said following Montreal’s 5-2 win over the Canucks on Saturday.
“Being clear on the expectations of the system that we’re using and everything else, and making sure that everybody was comfortable with it, I think, made a big difference. We went step by step in regards to that. Every day was something new, so we just wanted to make sure all the guys had a good understanding of our system. I think that really helped, and it helped our new players integrate with the players that have been here for a while. And I just felt, in talking with the new players, they were comfortable. They felt there was clarity in the explanations of what we wanted to do. So all those things put together, I think, made the transition a lot easier.”
That’s an undeniable part of it, but of equal importance is how Julien and his associates have structured their team, assembled their lines and stuck to their plan out of the gate.
He didn’t panic when Joel Armia, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Toffoli failed to produce more than one point between them over the first three games. Julien saw they were getting scoring chances, he was content with what they were doing and how his other lines were shaping up, and he kept everything intact ahead of the series against Vancouver.
That’s where Kotkaniemi’s line — with Corey Perry taking the injured Armia’s place for the third game against the Canucks — exploded, with Toffoli scoring five goals and seven points.
“I feel like he’s done a really good job of sticking to the lines, the lineup, giving everybody a chance who’s playing — it’s obviously tough for the guys who aren’t — giving everybody a chance in the lineup to gel and get used to new things,” Toffoli said after Tuesday’s practice at the Bell Centre.
“Obviously, there’s been little things that we haven’t been doing too well, but he’s not really getting angry or mad in a sense. It’s more of just still teaching. It’s been really good, it’s been really easy to adjust, and I feel like all the guys who are new probably say the same thing."
The old guys are feeling good about the way the team is being managed, too.
Carey Price, in his 14th season with the Canadiens (his fifth with Julien as coach), said that he feels Julien and the staff have done well to prepare everyone and that the work-to-rest ratio has been optimized to manage the hectic schedule.
“Our practices have been upbeat and up-tempo,” Price said.
The games have been played at a frenetic pace, with the Canadiens pushing their opponents to an elevated rhythm not typically featured in the early parts of the regular season.
Canadiens forward Tomas Tatar said last week the team is having a lot of fun in the process, and it seems quite clear Julien is, too.
The 60-year-old had a cardiac episode and was rushed to a Toronto-area hospital following Game 1 of Montreal’s playoff series with the Philadelphia Flyers this past summer. He had emergency surgery to stent a coronary artery on Aug. 14 and soon after was given a clean bill of health and assurances he could return to coaching — and the pressure and stress that comes with it.
On Tuesday, Julien shared how much that means to him.
“It’s always meant a lot for me to be doing this,” Julien started. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time that I’ve taken this job for granted. (I’m) especially feeling extremely fortunate that I’ve been doing it for this long. Having gone through what I went through this summer in the bubble, (it) could’ve gone either way. (It) could've been the last time I was behind the bench. And yet, here I am today and, through a pandemic and everything else, feeling fortunate to be able to continue to do the job that I love doing. And that’s the reason I’m still doing it, because I love it. I’ve always enjoyed coaching and being part of a group, so that hasn’t changed. But with everything that’s been going on and how some people been so unfortunate and have either lost their jobs, lost loved ones and everything else, we do consider ourselves lucky to be doing what we’re doing. And, at the same time, not just that, but I think we do embrace the opportunity to maybe help with the mental health of a lot of people who are locked into their homes and can’t do much. I think hockey, and hockey games, excites them and gives them joy. So, we have an opportunity to do that and that’s something that doesn’t go unnoticed on our part.”
And Julien’s particularly enjoying doing it with this edition of the Canadiens.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s been fun from Day 1,” he said. “I really appreciated the attitude and the approach these guys have had since the first day they came into camp. Our players that were here for a long time were extremely excited and happy to be back. The new guys who came in seem to love the environment and seem to enjoy their new teammates. So, it’s been really good. And that’s kind of (transferred) so far into our games.”
Now, as Julien said, the challenge is to keep the good vibes flowing.
“It’s six games in and we’ve got 50 more to go,” Julien said. “There’s going to be challenges along the way. I just think we have to be mentally ready to be able to face all this adversity that we’re going to have along the way doing it the right way and being able to overcome those things, and that’s going to help us grow to become an even better team.”