Coaching Change: The Time Has Come

If there’s one certainty in professional sports, it’s that coaches will get fired and replaced at some point in time. There’s usually no predetermined timeframe to do so either. When they get hired, coaches know that one day, they will get canned and that, whether it’s their own fault or not. This doesn’t mean that the coach being replaced is a bad coach as many Jack Adams Award winners have been fired at one point or another in their career. It simply means that either the message gets stale, or that the team has taken a different direction.

Before we start, let’s get something clear: Claude Julien is a good coach. He’s had a few good runs and even won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins. But like every coach, his time has come… at least in my opinion. For one thing, NHL hockey is based on results and while his General Manager Marc Bergevin decided to take a turn for youth back in the summer of 2018, Julien has made more than his fair share of questionable decisions. His handling of the young guys on the team has been somewhat mind boggling to many of us as well.

Times have changed

The best NHL coaches in today’s NHL, with perhaps the exception of John Tortorella in Columbus, are all able to adapt and all are excellent communicators. In the past year or so, we have seen many coaches fired for being too “old school” and underlying “abuse” issues. You see, the old Scotty Bowman (in the 70’s) and Mike “Iron hand” Keenan are over. Today, you need good communicators. Coaches who can somewhat understand and relate to today’s millennials. Julien is not one of them.

If you need persuading, just look at the difference, in Laval, between Sylvain Lefebvre‘s coaching style and Joël Bouchard. Many players have spoken up against coaches who don’t communicate with them. You see, the hard line worked well in the 70’s and 80’s but today’s society is soft… very soft and feelings do get hurt. In the past, we were told to “man up”, use our frustrations as additional motivation to improve and prove the coaches wrong. I don’t know if the culprit is the participation trophy era but today, they fold like cheap blankets and pout if they feel like they’re not being treated fairly.

Julien in for Therrien

Back in the 2016-17 season, Julien was hired to replace Michel Therrien. While I’m certainly not a Therrien fan, one can question how well the switch has been, how effective the coaching change has been. Here’s a look at both coaches’ records on each, their second stint with the team:

A young team getting younger

When Bergevin sold his reset to team President Geoff Molson, we knew that there would be growing pains. With youth comes inexperience, mistakes and all is part of a young player’s development. For the most part, Julien likes his veterans. After all, coaches at the NHL level are paid to win games. If a coach feels like rookie mistakes are costing his team’s games, an old school coach will minimise them by sitting their young guys. A more progressive coach will communicate the mistake and not only provide them with solutions, but he will put them back on the ice in hope that they learn from them.

In game one against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Canadiens’ top centre and penalty killer Phillip Danault received three minor penalties so the coach was forced to give more responsibilities to rookie centre Nick Suzuki. The young man, to his credit, seized the opportunity and was the best Habs’ forward that game, finishing the night with more that 23 minutes of ice time. This wasn’t Julien’s plan but he was forced by circumstances to trust in a young player. Look how well it turned out.

Dominique Ducharme teaches Joel Armia and Jesperi Kotkaniemi

In that game, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who has greatly improved since his stint in the AHL under Bouchard, scored the game’s first goal in the first period. He had a few good shifts, while playing with defensive specialists Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron. Yet, he finished the night with a mere 13:49 of ice time. Only Dale Weise had less ice time amongst forwards.

In game two last night, Kotkaniemi scored the Canadiens’ only goal yet, he was limited once again to 10:21 of ice time from his coach. KK is doing well even if his linemates aren’t doing so well. Think about it: he has as many goals as Sidney Crosby, with less than half the ice time! In the meantime, you have one of the Habs’ most talented forwards playing… on the fourth line. What would be so wrong with moving Max Domi back to left wing and play him with Kotkaniemi? Julien could keep one of the two defensive specialists, Lehkonen or Byron, to their right yet, give KK some skills on his line, to complement his offensive creativity.

Giving youth some experience

The Canadiens, not expecting to be in the playoffs, unloaded at trade deadline. Ilya Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson, Nick Cousins and Marco Scandella were traded for picks. When asked about it before the series against Pittsburgh started, Julien had this to say:

“Unfortunately, we didn’t have a crystal ball, but we let a lot of good players go just before the trade deadline that you wish you still had had you known that was going to happen,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. “But, again, everything has a purpose and a reason. What that’s going to do is it’s going to allow us to give some of our younger players some experience, which they probably wouldn’t get if we had kept those players. So you take what you have. I think we have a great opportunity here, honestly, to grow as a team. And the only way to grow is to go out there and go out there to try and win and move forward here.”

The Ouellet experiment

Let’s make something clear: I have nothing against Xavier Ouellet (or Dale Weise for that matter). But prior to this series against the Penguins, the 27 year-old rearguard had one whole playoffs’ game experience in the NHL. Yet, Julien decided to put 22 year-old speedster Victor Mete on his wrong side, making the lefty playing right defense, in order to insert Ouellet in the line-up. Worse is that Julien has not one, but two young physical defensemen in Noah Juulsen and Cale Fleury, both right-handed, sitting on the sideline.

How can those kids show what they can do if the coach prefers using veterans with no future on the team ahead of them, depriving them from invaluable experience? What’s the worse that can happen? Are we that afraid to think that they can’t step up their game, learn from their experience and benefit from it? What if a more progressive coach was to put Domi to the left of Kotkaniemi? What if that coach was to relinquish the fourth line centre spot to one of Jake Evans or Ryan Poehling instead, perhaps on a rotation basis? Perhaps a younger coach, one who understands and has experience coaching younger players, someone like Dominique Ducharme, would know how to put the team’s youngsters in a position to learn and win? Go Habs Go!