Coaching any sport is not easy. You’re trying to get the best out of athletes who are different from you. Coaching hockey is even harder as you have a mix of skills and personalities from players often making more money than you. You need to not only find systems, but find ways for the players you’re coaching to buy into it. Then you have to try to keep 20-22 millionaires happy while finding the buttons to push to keep them motivated and performing at the top of their capabilities. Then, when you manage to do all of that, you have opponents using videos and tactics to break down and impede what you’ve set up with your own team. Great coaches find ways to make adjustments to what their opponents are doing to neutralise your team. Some have it in them more than others.
Claude Julien has experience. In fact, he has a lot of it. He’s even won a Stanley Cup when he led the Boston Bruins to the championship back in 2011. To say that he’s not a good coach would be ill intent. He knows what he’s doing. But how adaptable is he? How good at adjusting his strategies is he when teams manage to break down his system? That is perhaps one of his biggest weaknesses.
Who can forget when the Canadiens went eight games without a win last season? As if taking nine games to get back into the win column wasn’t enough, the Habs did it twice that season, ensuring that they would miss the playoffs. The Detroit Red Wings would do that and you’d say that it’s from a lack of skills. But the Habs had enough skills to avoid being in that position. Teams had adapted to them and they simply couldn’t find ways to couter what opponents were doing to them.
After a stellar start to this season, the team is in the midst of a three-game losing streak, and their last win was less than convincing against the lowly Ottawa Senators. Ironically, it’s the Senators who started trouble with Julien’s crew. The Habs were flying, the best offensive team in the entire NHL, when the Sens’ coaching staff figured out how to stop them. That’s what good coaches do. Not only didn’t Julien find ways in between periods to counter his opponent, he was incapable to find a solution on time for the next game and in a less than impressive effort, the Canadiens managed two points regardless.
Since then, they’ve lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers. Worse, they were shutout by Edmonton’s defense and… Mike Smith! Mike freakin’ Smith folks! That’s how inept at adapting this coaching staff has become. Every team will lose game and most will go through adversity in a season. But your job as a coach is to prepare your team. While I personally don’t buy into coaches having to motivate his players (who should be able to do that themselves), it is the job of a coach to provide them with breakouts and ways to attack, with game plans against each and every team. It seems like Julien’s game plan is the same every game. Work hard. But you can work hard and work badly at the same time.
When your team is struggling, it is crucial that your best players, the ones taking the most of the team’s cap space, step up their game and help the team snap out of a funk. Right now on the Habs, it’s not happening. Carey Price is the best paid goaltender in the NHL and right now, he’s far from performing like the best. Off the goalies with four wins this season, only Darcy Kuemper (11) has played more games than Price (8) to get there. Even his backup, Jake Allen, has four wins (in 6 games).
Off the goalies with at least six games, Price is 27th in saves percentage (.896) and 22nd in goals against average (2.84). Allen, on the same team, has a .933 saves percentage (2nd) and a 2.01 goals against average (5th). Fans are quick at finding excuses when it comes to their favourite player(s) but there is no excusing those types of performances when you carry a $10.5 million cap hit, or 12.9% of the team’s available cap.
Is it remotely possible that the Canadiens are starting to feel the effect of having too young of a centre line? With Phillip Danault highly underperforming this season, it seems to have exposed Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi‘s inexperience up the middle of the line-up. Jake Evans is doing well, all things considered, but he’s a fourth line centre, third at best.
It seems more and more like Danault should have accepted the Canadiens’ offer in the off-season as he’s certainly not doing himself any favours for a better contract. He might even have lowered the Canadiens’ offer with his play so far this season. Bergevin might be tempted to get some immediate help up the middle if the young guys don’t continue improving.
Getting it together
Marc Bergevin has done a tremendous job at putting together this team but it’s to his coaching staff and his best players to do what they’re paid for. If that doesn’t happen in net, the Canadiens have an option in Allen. If it doesn’t happen behind the bench, perhaps going with a more progressive and modern approach is what this team needs. Dominique Ducharme might have his own ideas and ways to get the team on the right track. Go Habs Go!