Brossard, Que.— Let’s start here, before we get into the minutia of system changes, which were detailed during Monday’s media availability with Montreal Canadiens Jonathan Drouin, Joel Edmundson and Dominique Ducharme: Things have been so haywire since Ducharme took over from Claude Julien as head coach last Wednesday that his first chance to realize the significance of it all didn’t quite dawn on him until Sunday.
“It’s certain that as I was coming back to Montreal Sunday—we left our cars at the Bell Centre—when I got to my car I said, ‘Wow, it changes quickly in hockey,’” Ducharme explained. “I left (for Ottawa on Feb. 21), and when I came back to my car (from Winnipeg on the 28th) it hit me that I’m the coach of the Montreal Canadiens. It’s special. It obviously changes for me, but it changes for my family too.”
The 47-year-old grew up in Joliette, Que., 70-odd kilometres from downtown Montreal, a Canadiens fan who was probably too young to vividly remember the dynasty years of the late 70s but certainly old enough to see Bob Gainey, Claude Lemieux, Patrick Roy and the 1986 team hoist the Stanley Cup. Surely he emulated them at one point or another, dreaming of one day being in the same position.
Ducharme also worked his way up from the Canadian college hockey circuit to the QMJHL then to the world juniors before joining as an assistant coach of the team he grew up cheering for, and now he’s arrived in his first NHL coaching gig and it’s Montreal. No matter what happens from this point forward, his name is associated with names like Blake, Bowman, Burns and Demers, and that’s… That’s just cool. If you can’t sit back and appreciate what this must mean to him, you have no soul.
Meanwhile, consider it a plus that Ducharme has a good understanding of what this all means. He doesn’t seem rattled by it, nor does he seem perturbed by the knowledge that each and every one of his decisions will be scrutinized in a way they might not be in any other market.
“I knew when I was hired I’d have eight million assistant coaches,” Ducharme said. “It’s good, though. That’s passion. It’s one of the reasons that makes playing in Montreal special is the passion for the Montreal Canadiens.”
About that passion
Most people want to see others promoted in their place and can’t understand Ducharme’s hesitance to institute immediate change on this front. And we get that.
Performance needs to dictate usage, always—but especially when the team has lost eight of 10 games, five in a row and neither player has played anywhere near expectations.
But Ducharme has been with the Canadiens for two years and has a keen understanding of how important both Price and Danault are to the team’s success, and part of his mandate is to get them to where they’re expected to be as quickly as possible. It’s why he turned to Price in his first game behind the bench, despite the goaltender struggling in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Senators and having pitiful numbers through his first 11 starts of the season. It’s also why he reunited Danault with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar and gave him over 21 minutes in Thursday’s 6-3 loss to the Jets.
Danault wasn’t up to snuff on Thursday, and he wasn’t much better in Saturday’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Jets, in which he played just 15:32.
And Price was given time to sort things out with goaltending coach Stephane Waite after Thursday’s 6-3 loss. He watched Saturday’s game from the bench but will be back in the crease against the Senators Tuesday.
But Ducharme continuing to show these two players faith right now is essential if this team is going to get to where it wants to go this year. And though fans might not have as high expectations for the Canadiens as they did to start the season, Ducharme and the Canadiens still believe they’re destined for much better than they’ve shown of late.
“I’m not worried about Carey Price,” Ducharme said. “Not at all.”
On Monday, Ducharme kept Danault with Gallagher and Tatar, and here’s what he said about how he wants them to play:
“I think that line has a lot of success when they’re on the puck,” Ducharme started. “When they create a turnover, they counter quickly. When they’re really close to each other, they strike back quick. And so I’m trying to get them to get closer to each other, create more turnovers and strike. I think that’s how they had success and numbers in the past. We want to do that as a team. I think it fits them and they can even go extra on that. I’m not worried for them. I think they’re heading in the right direction.”
They have to be, and Danault has to be driving the line there. It’s his job to lose, and he will lose it if he doesn’t get the details of his game in order.
There’s been a lot of emphasis on Danault having zero goals through the first 20 games of the season, and there should be—especially if he’s playing with two of the team’s best offensive players. But Danault’s never been a goal scorer—the most he’s ever had in a season is 13—and he has much more to give than just goals.
At his best, the Victoriaville, Que, native is always “on the puck” and helping “create a turnover,” so his linemates can “counter quickly.” He’s a guy who digs in and wins the majority of his faceoffs; not a guy who loses them clean if he’s going to lose them, like he did too often in the losses to Winnipeg. He’s a player Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon recently said (on the Spittin Chiclets podcast, which I’m appearing on Tuesday) is perhaps the hardest centre to play against in the NHL, a player who should one day win the Selke Trophy, which he’s received votes for over the past two seasons.
At 28, Danault hasn’t lost his game. He’s just misplaced it.
Danault’s being given a chance to recover it now, and he’s got to do that.
Price is being given the same chance, and if things go to pattern—over the last few seasons he’s started off with an average month, followed it up with a terrible one and bounced back with some of the best numbers in the league for the rest of the season—he should be fine.
Ducharme is banking on that, and he’s banking on Danault doing what needs to be done, but his patience isn’t limitless. The results need to come now, or the changes many people are pining for will be unavoidable.
Speaking of changes
Ducharme isn’t overhauling the whole system, he’s just tweaking some things to get the Canadiens playing to their biggest advantage—their speed—and we think he’s onto something.
There was evidence of it in Winnipeg, with the Canadiens dominating at 5-on-5 and getting their transition game back on the rails, with close puck support and good pressure all over the ice.
Here’s a change in the defensive structure, as outlined by Edmundson.
The defenceman, who leads the NHL with a plus-18 rating, explained that the third forward will be in closer support and more active both on the backcheck and in the defensive zone, allowing the defence to hold the line.
Edmundson also said the Canadiens will get away from some of the zone-defence elements that were in place under Julien.
“A couple of weeks ago, the winger would get up to the hash marks and we’d have to pull back into the net area and let the forwards take care of them,” he said. “We switched that. We’re staying on them.”
Here’s something else the Canadiens want to do as it relates to support, as outlined by Drouin.
“There's some areas in the offensive zone where it's OK to be 1-on-1 where you try to beat your guy,” the 25-year-old said, “but if you're two around the puck, if you lose it your buddy, your teammate's there to grab it. It just makes the game easier that way. Even in the defensive zone where you're supporting your defenceman and the defenceman gets it, you're right beside him. It's something we try to adjust a little bit and bring into our game where we're not paying 1-on-1 hockey all over the ice. We have support all over the ice, give-and-gos. I think it's going to help our game with the forwards we have."
It is the template of the Tatar-Danault-Gallagher line when they’re working as well as they did over the last two seasons, and it can be borrowed from by all of Montreal’s lines.
But where Ducharme is taking it up a notch is in not only tweaking strategies for each of his players, but also for each line from the blue line in.
“Every line has something different they can bring,” said Drouin, who played for Ducharme with the Halifax Mooseheads 2011-2014. “Some lines have different skill sets, different attributes. Dom's good enough and knows when to tell this line you can do some of this stuff, this line does other stuff where you bring different stuff.
“His biggest attribute for me is his communication where everything's very clear. Everything's down on the table (knocks on table). You know what you have to do, you know what you can do. I think he's very good at that.”
Of course, as Ducharme explained, everything has to happen within the structure of the team.
“We have a way of playing as a team, we have a way of thinking for example offensively, and within that each line has different assets that they can generate things from,” he said. “So, basically we have the philosophy, we have what we want to create, and then from there, individually and as a line, they express themselves with the strength. We’re going to help them individually and as a line also.”