What usually happens with a team that changes its coach mid-season

David Amber is joined by Sportsnet.ca Senior Columnist Eric Engels to discuss the Montreal Canadiens firing of head coach Claude Julien.

This is your introduction to the concept of “LOFT,” which is at the centre of conversations NHL GMs and owners have when their team is losing and they’re considering their options to quickly get better.

Is our coach failing to get the most out of this roster, or are we suffering from LOFT?

Excuse the vulgarity, as this is primarily a hockey term used in private, but LOFT is a Lack Of [expletive] Talent.

The reason coaches are so often the first to suffer at the hands of a poor record -- or in the case of the Canadiens, just underperforming expectations -- is because many GMs can’t bring themselves to cop to LOFT, given that would mean the problems falls on their heads. So with Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens in the midst of a skid where they’re failing to take points off the decidedly ungood Ottawa Senators, LOFT was ruled out for the Habs, and instead Julien took the bullet.

Before I get into how changing leadership affects players and teams in the immediate future, a couple quick notes on the Habs and why we’re going to have that conversation in the first place.

The Canadiens are currently top-five in shot attempts percentage (Corsi) in the NHL and are third in the NHL in straight up shots percentage. At 5-on-5 they’ve posted some of the best stats in hockey (though we’ll consider divisional weakness here for context):

Overall, of every shot taken in their games, Montreal gets some 54 per cent of them. They’re also on the positive side of the ledger in expected goals percentage (all strengths), if you’re into such measurements.

This is a team whose top four centres are Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Jake Evans, which is stable as NHL centres go, but lacking elite names. Outside of occasional healthy scratch Corey Perry, the highest single-season point output by a forward on the Canadiens, taking all of their careers together, is Tomas Tatar’s 61-point year from last season. (That’s a staggering stat for me.)

The Habs' depth is probably the best in the North Division, and as good as some of the top teams in the NHL. But as far as top guys and game breakers go it seems to me they may suffer a bit from LOFT, and that maybe Julien was doing a pretty decent job.

There are cases on both sides of “should they or shouldn’t they have done it?” You can say the team struggled to adapt and their special teams never got better. You can argue that second part is a big deal and somewhat within the coach’s control, but you can also use it to make a pretty good LOFT argument, too. You can say goaltending undid Julien, or that the goaltending wasn’t supported by the players Julien chose to play most.

Whatever you choose to say, Julien is gone, the Habs have a winning percentage of .611 and sit in a playoff spot, and this season is far from over. I think the team itself will make the case that’s why they made the change when they did -- to salvage what they see as a season of opportunity in a soft division before it gets away from them.

So as players and a team, what now?

In my experience as a player I’ve dealt with a coaching change, I’ve discussed the situation with friends in the game, and like many in media, I’ve seen how it mostly seems to play out on this side of it. A few things seem consistent:

The return to tryouts-level effort

This is a fresh start for everyone who’s had a gripe about their usage, which is usually about 80 per cent of every hockey roster. Whether it be in practice or games, Dominique Ducharme is about to see every player’s best as they try to impress for more, which is where the New Coach Bounce primarily comes from.

It’s not like guys weren’t trying -- heck, you saw Montreal’s 5-on-5 results -- but you’ve also watched NHL playoff hockey, too. There’s undeniably another gear players are able to reach for when they’ve got reason to. (It’s just not sustainable to play at that pace/effort for 82-plus games a season.)

Everyone on their best positional behaviour

Ducharme has been around the team and certainly already knows who’s the most/least positionally diligent of the group. But it’s the same as the effort thing -- the microscope is dialled in a little bit more on players, so you can expect improved positional play in the short term.

The quiet contention (if interviews happen)

In general when there’s a new coach, that person will take the time to talk to every player individually, which is a big undertaking. That’s the time for players to make their case for how they feel they’re being under-utilized and how they could be better. It’s with that in mind that a lot of the lineup shuffling happens, as players who make strong cases for different roles are occasionally convincing.

Tactical changes

When the new hire is internal, we don’t often see much here. If Ducharme wanted to do much differently, he was still on the coaching staff and would’ve said his piece. With the Habs you’ll be looking at tweaks, not an overhaul.

The return to reality

And here’s why I started this by talking about LOFT. After the initial five or six games of effort a new coach gets from his players, and his slightly altered vision of the player pecking order begins to crystallize, truth returns: as a team, you generally are what you are.

I’ve made the case that a bad coach can cost his team a half-dozen wins over a full season (maybe a couple more), and that maybe a good coach can push things that far in the opposite direction. That adds up to a pretty big swing, if you go from a bad coach to a good one.

The problem for the Canadiens is that Julien is objectively not a bad coach, and Ducharme was on his coaching staff, so how different can we expect him to be? The potential for an increase in wins and losses might not be more than a few.

Mostly the Habs are what they are, and the most insurmountable worry is that “what they are” includes that pesky old LOFT issue.

So are the Canadiens afflicted with that curse? Bergevin sure didn’t think so. The only way the Habs will be proven correct is with a quick and lasting turnaround.

Without one, we know where the spotlight turns next.

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