Habs GM Marc Bergevin played a big card on Wednesday with the firings of Claude Julien and Kirk Muller with Dominique Ducharme and Alex Burrows taking over the vacated roles. Was this the right move? Our writers offer up their thoughts.
Terry Costaris: The last time that we had a discussion about Julien, I believe was in March of 2020, when it looked like he was nearing his tenure as coach of the Montreal Canadiens. At the time, I said that there was no point in firing him, given his huge contract and term; he was hardly the source of all the Habs’ troubles and he was a good but not outstanding coach. One year, one plague later, I would argue pretty much the same things.
All coaches have a limited shelf life. If they’re stuck with bad goaltending, then their best before date gets dramatically lessened. If Carey Price had had his ‘A’ game this season, Claude Julien would still be working. Yes, he had the Jake Allen option but using it would have been career suicide for multiple reasons.
In sports, like life, we all build up some political capital. It’s there to sustain us when things go south. The multiple losing streaks of last year had drained much of what was in Julien’s account.
I’m also going to speculate that there likely was a psychological dimension to this firing. I’m not sure that Julien was 100% mentally there after he experienced his heart issues.
Laying on an operating table on the brink of death and having some stents placed in him can be a traumatic experience. Every weird sensation around the chest or experiencing sweating or indigestion after a cardiac event could induce some forms of panic. Not everyone immediately walks away from such an ordeal without some psychological fallout and steps right back into an extremely stressful job.
Now throw in the mentally challenging COVID environment that he worked in, where he is surrounded by scores of people inches away from him and his vulnerability to this potentially deadly disease, one can see a dangerous mental cocktail playing in the back of his head.
Perhaps – again I’m speculating here – Claude Julien was not the same person from a mentally resilient standpoint that he was last year. It takes a special person to block out what happened to him.
Even if these matters took up just 10% of his mindset, then this once “good” coach would have dropped down to that of an “average” one relative to his counterparts.
Hockey, like all other professional sports, is a game of inches and perhaps he just wasn’t fully there from a competitive standpoint.
Please don’t read too much into what I’ve just said. I don’t have any insider information on this matter. None at all. I just thought that I’d offer a purely speculative theory as something for further consideration. That’s all.
Now, with regards to Dominique Ducharme, he really was the only option to take over the helm for the Montreal Canadiens.
The 14-day quarantine component, combined with the length of time that it takes any new, competent, bilingual coach to come up to speed combined with the extremely compressed schedule, all dictated this decision.
Ducharme has some of the necessary credentials but let’s not kid ourselves, this hire is a Hail Mary of a gamble by Bergevin. And it may ultimately cost him his job.
An ideal coach has learned all of his mistakes with other organizations and is a truly finished product. Once again, Montreal is doing the developmental work for some other NHL franchise in the future.
In a normal season, Ducharme would not have had to contend with such a compressed schedule as well as the physical and psychological challenges that COVID-19 has had on his players. Expecting him to perform well with a green assistant non- X’s and O’s coach and a mediocre defensive one is truly a big ask. I hope that he can at least get himself a team of psychologists and analytics specialists to help him out.
The worst-case scenario in all of this is that Montreal will plummet in the standings. This might not be a bad thing.
If there ever was a year to financially tank due to lost gate receipts from a plague rather than fan apathy, I guess 2021 would be the ideal one to do so. The consolation prize would be one more chance at stocking up its prospects shelf and shedding some heavy contracts.
We sure live in interesting times. And what is happening here in the Habs universe has added further interest to all that surrounds us.
Good luck Ducharme. Please defy the odds to pull off Bergevin’s Hail Mary pass.
Allan Katz: To come up with a fresh perspective on this situation is not easy. Simply speaking – THE RESULTS WERE NOT THERE. So old-time clichés are thrown out like needing a new voice, losing the room, needing a more progressive leader. We could blame the players, but you can’t trade a team, never mind Price.
Since the new staff is so fresh and their NHL track record can hardly be analyzed, we can only guess how the new team will do. I’d like to stay positive about their potential, but that’s what I do, so I wish them the best. The Old Guard (aka the King) is dead; long live the King (the new Guard).
I do have one original perspective. Since I’m in the middle of a project comparing the Habs with the Lakers I can comment about this. For decades the Habs and Lakers were champions. Both would have short periods between dynasties and then they would get back on track. And then came a fallow period for both teams: The Habs issues have gone on since the early ’90s and the Lakers, since Kobe being defeated by Father Time, have been horrendous.
Both teams have made trades and adjustments to no avail. Even in the first year of LeBron things went from bad to worse. But last year, with Anthony Davis in tow, the Lakers were back on top. This year the Habs looked like they had a great team with a shot at the playoffs and maybe more and now maybe less. Likewise, the Lakers are in such a deep slump right now you have to wonder who will be blamed. Of course, the Lakers have last year’s championship to keep their coach a lot more secure and have injuries to blame for a lot of their troubles. The Habs are healthy, the team is better built than in the past and Julien has heart issues and that label of being a bit old school. Bergevin had no choice. Next in line to make a big decision is Geoff Molson who might have to shorten that rope on his GM right now as we watch how these changes all play out. Sports is filled with wild cards, but Julien’s lack of adapting to the North Division teams just as they figured out how to derail a potential juggernaut in the early-season-Habs doomed him to being let go.
Two teams, two extended slumps, but big differences: The Lakers have superstars and some depth and won it all last year. The fact they’re struggling does not really change the fact that ownership is still giving management and coaches a long leash. The Habs have nice depth, but no superstars; last season was a mixed bag at best. Ownership, for sure, approved the changes but also have to have a short leash for Bergevin and next, after him, Molson himself.
One final note, the Lakers had a huge housecleaning two seasons ago; everyone was fired from coaches to General Manager to head of scouting. Things took a year to work out, but then they did. Maybe a bigger house cleaning is coming soon to an arena near you.
Brian La Rose: I’m not convinced that this was the right move to make. Having said that, I’m not sure that there necessarily was a right move to make. I don’t care what system you run and who’s behind the bench, if your number one goalie has a save percentage below .900, you’re not going very far. To me, the more interesting thing is that the coaches responsible for the problems beyond the power play – Stephane Waite (goalie coach) and Luke Richardson (who runs the dreadful penalty kill and a back end that has looked clueless as of late) – are still intact. While this is certainly significant, it also feels like a half-measure.
While Ducharme is rightfully excited for this opportunity, this is hardly an ideal situation. Putting a rookie head coach in a must-win situation in a shortened season with a condensed schedule and being forced to do most of the work virtually is a huge ask by Bergevin. It’s why I effectively ruled out an in-season coaching change last weekend since it’s almost a no-win situation. (That prediction held up for all of 48 hours before going out the window…)
In a season like this, there are limited cards to be played. The offseason spending certainly bolstered Montreal’s roster but left minimal room for in-season flexibility and the quarantine rules make in-season moves way tougher than usual. This was the one big card Bergevin had in his hand. I’m just not sure that it’s going to solve enough of the concerns that this team currently has.
Kevin Leveille: I was a huge fan of the Julien hiring when it happened and I remain of the opinion that Julien is still a quality NHL coach. Having said that, seeing the same recurring problems (special teams and not being able to get out of a funk) from the past two seasons with a team that holds significantly more talent made me believe that his shelf life had expired. The frustration of watching the team not adapt to the opposition and not adapt to what player was going on a given night (aka playing favourites) remains what I believe was this coaching regime’s downfall.
While I believe that it was the right thing to relieve Julien and Muller of their duties, my true interest lies with the choice of keeping Ducharme as the interim coach and bringing in Burrows. Reports are already surfacing that the plan is for Ducharme to finish the season. Other reports are surfacing that suggest that Ducharme pushed for a more offensive style to start the season that was ultimately vetoed. By bringing in Burrows, I hope the Habs return to a more aggressive style on the PK, and more importantly, become a more dynamic group on the PP. The best power plays around the league have players away from the puck in constant motion to create passing lanes and not be as predictable as the current version. New faces, fresh philosophy and systems… optimism will be in full force moving forward, let’s see if the team can find the mojo they had to start the season!
Norm Szcyrek: I am very glad Bergevin decided to make the head coaching change. We all saw the fast-paced game the team was playing for the first 10 games or so of the season. When other teams applied different strategies against them, Julien did not make any adjustments to counter them and the team faltered into their current tailspin. The only changes he made were to juggle the forward lines a little. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I doubt Julien ever heard that quote because he appeared to be too stuck in his ways. It’s too bad that Muller was also let go, but as an associate coach and with more time employed by Montreal, Bergevin decided to pave the way for the new coach to take the reins.
Ducharme has a great track head coaching record before joining the Canadiens in 2018. He won the Memorial Cup in 2013 along with having a .667 winning overall percentage in the playoffs. His teams made the postseason six out of the seven seasons he worked in the QMJHL. He also led the Team Canada squads in 2017 and 2018, leading his teams to silver and gold medals. While in those roles, he was well-liked with his players and had a good reputation for generating offence especially on the power play. Both of those skills could be a great compliment for the Habs. The other coaching addition is Burrows, who was known as a tenacious player during his NHL career. He retired from hockey in the 2018 offseason and joined the Laval AHL team as an assistant coach. I am hopeful he will be an asset in this position, given he’s relatively young and can be relatable to the Habs current players.