Dominique Ducharme can do better, and he has to.
The coach of the Montreal Canadiens isn’t alone. He’s not solely responsible for the team’s 5-15-2 record, for its worst 22-game start in its 111-year existence, and it’s certainly not exclusively his fault the execution of the players — from his best ones to his worst ones — has so frequently been as far off the mark as it appeared in the second period of Friday’s 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
About that horror show: After playing a decent first period and controlling both the pace of play and the shot attempts, the Canadiens came out for the second seemingly incapable of completing a simple pass. They couldn’t even generate more than one shot on net through the first 12:25 of the frame.
That’s when things got really ugly.
Jake Evans took a high stick and drew a four-minute power play for the Canadiens. They started it off with good pressure in the zone, they soon notched their second shot of the period — an excellent chance for Josh Anderson in the slot — and then they gave up a quality chance for Zemgus Girgensons before giving up a 2-on-1 that ended with Kyle Okposo making it 3-1 Sabres.
The Canadiens played the rest of the game like it was a lost cause. They appeared dejected to start the third and completely frustrated less than four minutes in when Tage Thompson scored his second of the game for Buffalo.
There was really no excuse for it.
All of this happened against a Sabres team that had gone 2-9-1 since starting their season with a 5-1 win over the Canadiens that sent them on a 5-1-1 run. It happened against a Sabres team that had lost five of its last six and each of the last four.
The Canadiens were bad.
They have been all season long, and it’s time for Ducharme to do something drastic about it.
He’s been dealt a horrible hand since taking over from Claude Julien last February.
The Canadiens were almost immediately shut down due to COVID-19 after that, their schedule was rearranged to have them play their remaining 25 games of the 2020-21 season over 44 nights. There was no time for practice, key player after key player fell to injury, and the team nearly missed the playoffs before going on a remarkable run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Ducharme deserved full marks for helping them do that.
But even if he’s had to deal with far more adversity than he’d have liked to start this season — Shea Weber was too injured to continue his career, Joel Edmundson hasn’t played since the start of training camp, Carey Price checked into the NHL/NHLPA’s player assistance program just before the games of significance kicked off in Toronto, and several other players got hurt over the first seven weeks — Ducharme hasn’t found a way to help the Canadiens out of their hole.
On Friday, after another terrible game, the coach, who signed a three-year extension last July, repeated — almost word for word — what he said following a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Nov. 16.
“You’re in the NHL, you should be able to make plays,” Ducharme told reporters at KeyBank Center on this night. “They don’t have to be plays that end up on the plays of the week, but just efficient, intelligent, well-executed plays. … As soon as we get away from that, like I’ve said, there’s no system to (make up) for that.”
He’s not wrong, but the coach does have to come up with a system the Canadiens can execute efficiently over a 60-minute game — and over a stretch of them, if they want to do what appears practically impossible and go on a run to turn their season around.
Ducharme’s right; he can’t keep the Canadiens from making poor choices that lead to giveaways, especially when they have time and space to make better plays.
But even if it’s well into the season, it’s not too late for him to adjust the way they play in their own end.
Everything else flows from there.
“When you spend 45 seconds on defence,” said Jonathan Drouin, “you don’t have much energy to attack.”
That’s been the biggest problem the Canadiens have had this season, and no tangible changes have been made to the zone system they employ.
There were tweaks made during training camp, but we’re not alone in thinking an overhaul is needed.
“The personnel has changed so much since last season that it’s probably fair to say the system in their end isn’t suited to who they have now,” said a scout we spoke with on Thursday. “They have a different makeup at forward and they can’t quite execute the up-ice pressure the way they did in the playoffs. The balance isn’t quite as strong to roll the lines and create that pressure, and then everything crumbles.
“The puck gets to their end and they just look too hesitant in there. They shouldn’t look as confused as they do at this stage of the season. They should go strictly man-on-man, make the game a bit simpler.
“They won’t be perfect there because they’re at a deficit with some of the losses on the roster since the playoffs, but they can build something from a simpler way of doing things in their own end.”
Perhaps if they do, mistakes won’t be as glaring and costly.
Jeff Petry, who’s piled them up since the start of the season and made too many in Buffalo on Friday, said earlier this week the Canadiens are thinking too much and trying to play a perfect game.
It’s Ducharme’s job, with the help of assistant coaches Alex Burrows, Trevor Letowski and Luke Richardson, to simplify things for them.
None of them can get on the ice and play for the players, but they’ve got to be able to find more solutions than they have so far.