Ducharme must own playoff decisions in audition for security as coach

Montreal Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme looks on during an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators in Montreal, Saturday, May 1, 2021. (Graham Hughes / CP)

MONTREAL — This will be pressure unlike anything Dominique Ducharme has faced before, and how he handles it will determine the immediate future of his career.

Think about what’s on the line, as the interim coach prepares the Montreal Canadiens for a first-round matchup with the North Division champion Toronto Maple Leafs. This past off-season, owner Geoff Molson authorized general manager Marc Bergevin to spend over $100 million on the construction of this roster. Expectations were set for the team to make the playoffs, and do some damage in them, and every decision Ducharme makes from this point forward will have a major influence on its ability to rise to the second part of that challenge.

You have to wonder how much his whirlwind first few months as coach of the Canadiens have prepared him for this. The former Team Canada bench boss recently described the experience as “playing the semis and the final of the world juniors, but for three months,” and on Wednesday, he said that getting through it has made him stronger.

“Every situation as a coach at every level, it’s experience and it’s something that you need to go through,” Ducharme said moments after the regular season wrapped. “For me personally, as with other experiences, it makes me grow as a coach.”

He’s fortunate this one didn’t bury him.

The 48-year-old had to navigate the back half of the schedule without being able to run more than a handful of practices—none of them on consecutive days. The Canadiens played 25 games in 44 nights, they were missing some of their most important players for many of them and Ducharme had his hands tied by the salary cap and was unable to institute change when he needed to most. He also said that he had to carefully select the moments to push his players because he could see in their eyes there was only so much they could take as mental and physical exhaustion set in.

It was an impossible situation, one Ducharme was severely limited in having full control over, and that’s been acknowledged by every rational person evaluating his 15-16-7 record.

But all of that is behind him now, and these first decisions he must make, as the Canadiens resume practice Saturday in preparation for Game 1 of their series in Toronto, will face as intense scrutiny as any others he makes moving forward.

Ducharme needs to own them all. This can’t be about what Bergevin or anyone else wants, because only he will be the one wearing them when all is said and done.

So, if he decides to start Eric Staal over Jesperi Kotkaniemi, or Jon Merrill over Alex Romanov, it has to be because he believes Staal and Merrill will give the Canadiens a better chance to win Game 1 and not because he feels he needs to support the thinking behind the decisions that brought Staal and Merrill to Montreal prior to the trade deadline.

We’re not saying that’s what Ducharme will do. And we don’t know if he intends to dress Joel Armia over Cole Caufield—he said on Wednesday he has yet to make any firm decisions regarding the final positions of his roster—but no matter what he decides, he needs to be prepared to adjust immediately if his decisions don’t work out. There’s no time in the playoffs to wait and hope the original plan gets sorted if it fails out of the gate.

Ducharme would be acutely aware of that reality after having coached Canada to silver and gold at the world juniors, after coaching the Halifax Mooseheads to the QMJHL’s President’s Cup and a Memorial Cup and after taking a front row seat to watch Claude Julien and Kirk Muller navigate last year’s playoffs.

Julien made bold decisions out of the gate to help the Canadiens achieve a remarkable upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins. The veteran coach promoted Kotkaniemi, who had finished the regular season in the AHL, and he demoted Max Domi, who had put up the second-most goals and points on the Canadiens over the balance of his two years in the organization.

Along the way, Julien also bumped Phillip Danault to a checking line with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehknonen and leaned heavily on rookie Nick Suzuki to assume No. 1 centre responsibilities.

Muller, in taking over for Julien, who underwent emergency heart surgery after Game 1 of the Philadelphia series, ruled ruthlessly and on instinct. In Game 4, he stapled heart-and-soul winger Brendan Gallagher to the bench and played Jake Evans in his spot because Gallagher hadn’t scored in the playoff games prior.

Muller was lambasted for it after the Canadiens failed to tie the game, and Gallagher was visibly furious about it.

But Gallagher’s comments about it afterwards spoke to the logic that must dictate all decisions a coach faces when the stakes are as high as they are in any given playoff game.

“I guess if the coach feels other guys are going to do the job better than you, that’s his job,” he said, and he was right.

It’s Ducharme’s job to trust his instincts, to plan for every scenario and to not flinch when an adjustment is required. It won’t be his job for much longer if he betrays himself in that process.

The pressure of it all, with so much already invested in this Canadiens season and ahead of a matchup with one the league’s most formidable opponents, can be suffocating. It’s Montreal-Toronto for the first time in 42 years, with the national spotlight burning white hot and potentially scorching anyone in its path.

But that pressure can also bring out the best in people. If Ducharme can keep cool and rise above it, he’ll have an opportunity to cement his place behind Montreal’s bench and continue doing what he’s always dreamt of doing.

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