Canadiens’ Ducharme must install meritocracy ahead of playoffs

Montreal Canadiens interim head coach Dominique Ducharme talks to his team during first period NHL action against the Winnipeg Jets. (John Woods/CP)

With Phillip Danault concussed and all the emphasis on how youngsters Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jake Evans would share the load in his absence, it was Eric Staal who failed a critical test to show he could elevate his game and make a difference when the Canadiens needed him to. And coach Dominique Ducharme better have taken note as Staal lost 11 of 13 faceoffs and failed to generate a single shot on net through 22 shifts and 15:36 of ice-time, because this wasn’t a one-off.

The coach has talked a lot about the value of Staal’s experience, but the value of his play has been largely negative. And it’s not because the 36-year-old isn’t trying or hasn’t done anything good. He’s adapted to the system, been reasonably well-positioned and could have a few more points to his name with a bit more luck, but the things he can no longer do have stood out much more than the things he can, and that has to rule the evaluation more than past experience.

Ducharme has to be honest with himself about defenceman Jon Merrill’s ability to contribute as well, on a night where he struggled while Brett Kulak scored one of two goals the Canadiens mustered in this 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s not a puck-mover or an offensive catalyst; he’s a defensive defenceman who’s only containing rather than killing plays, and that’s simply not good enough.

“Every day is an audition,” Ducharme said. “You look at the last 10, 15, 20 games, and you look in general at what the guys have given during the season and on the way to the playoffs, an NHL player is auditioning every day.”

Night after night, both Staal and Merrill have been given a chance to show they can help when it matters most, with Kulak, Evans and Cole Caufield cast aside to let them do it, but the verdict’s out. It seems clear they’re not going to provide anything more than what they were intended to when Marc Bergevin sent middling picks to the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings to acquire them prior to the trade deadline.

They’re depth options, and if the coach doesn’t treat them as such, he’s going to be hurting Montreal’s playoff chances—and his own future.

He’s a rookie coach wearing an interim tag. He’s in charge of a group filled with some future Hall of Famers, and that’s a difficult position to be in. But this team isn’t going anywhere with players past their primes taking ice time away from players who deserve it more, and Ducharme won’t be coaching them much longer if he doesn’t assert himself in recognition of that.

His job is to get the best out of what he has, and if he can’t see that players like Evans, Caufield and Kulak give him a better chance of doing that than players failing these auditions night after night, the Canadiens won’t have a chance against a Toronto team that beat them for a seventh time in 10 meetings to clinch top spot in the North Division.

And though this team failed once again to stamp its ticket to the post-season, it’s assuredly qualifying and most probably taking on the Leafs in Round 1.

The Canadiens could’ve beaten them on this night, but they never recovered from a play that shifted momentum in the second period. They were leading 2-0 at Scotiabank Arena when Merrill lost a battle behind his own net, chose the wrong lane to close the gap on Pierre Engvall and then failed to prevent a shot from him after pushing him to the perimeter.

Engvall scored, and Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen should’ve stopped his shot, but Merrill’s inability to kill the play before it developed that far has been an extension of a habit that runs counter to what he was billed as before he arrived in Montreal.

“I don’t think we did a good enough job of ending plays quickly enough in our zone and then transitioning that into pucks in their end,” Merrill said. “It’s definitely something we look to do as a team is strike quickly in the defensive zone and end plays and get out of our zone and not spend too much time in our end. So, it’s something we’re looking to do as a team every game.”

It’s something Merrill built his reputation on with the New Jersey Devils, Vegas Golden Knights and the Red Wings, but something he hasn’t been able to do with any consistency in the 11 games he’s played so far since his trade to Montreal. He’s wearing a minus-nine rating because of it.

Staal built his resume on being a reliable, clutch scorer who could play both ends of the ice and elevate his game at the right moments. But he’s shown no evidence this season that he’s still that player.

And yet, chasing Saturday’s game from the start of the third period, after allowing three unanswered goals in the second, Staal was deployed six times, which was as often as Kotkaniemi and twice more than Evans. The puck never found his stick in a scoring position because he never came close to getting into one.

It’s not a coincidence Staal has just two goals and an assist and a minus-10 rating in 19 games with the Canadiens after scoring three goals and 10 points and putting up a minus-20 in 32 games with Buffalo; it’s a reflection of what he’s capable of at this stage in his remarkable career, with his legs not regularly taking him to where he needs to get to in order to take advantage of his reach, his size and that precious experience.

You have to appreciate that Ducharme is trying to get the most out of him, and that Staal is trying to maintain a positive outlook.

“I’ve definitely felt a lot more comfortable within the structure and system of how we play,” he said after Saturday’s loss. “I feel like I’ve been close to a lot of looks and some bounces offensively. Really would like to see them go in, obviously, and it would be big for our group and I understand that. But within the system and how we play, I definitely feel like I’m right there and I’ve got to contribute as best as I can offensively and any situation Dom asks me to play—whether it’s faceoffs or against certain matchups. I’ll keep working at it and try to be ready Monday.”

The problem is there’s a wide gap between how Staal feels and what he’s shown.

Steps in the right direction over the final two games of the season for both he and Merrill would at least provide some evidence they can step into the lineup and be effective if other players can’t pull their weight given the same opportunities. But when Danault returns from a concussion, Brendan Gallagher comes back from a broken thumb, Paul Byron heals his lower-body injury and Shea Weber mends his upper-body injury, it’ll be up to Ducharme to lean on the players who give the Canadiens the best chance to win.

He’s dealt with an unprecedentedly challenging schedule and injuries to his most important players as the Canadiens were navigating it, but not running a meritocracy is a big part of the reason he’s got a 15-16-5 record since taking over from Claude Julien in February. And if he doesn’t do it come playoffs, it’s going to prove even more costly.

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