Rookie head coach Dominque Ducharme took over from Claude Julien midway through last season. Julien had a record of 9-5-4 whereas Ducharme led the team to an even worse 15-16-7 record. But as we all know, the Habs made it to the Stanley Cup Final which got Ducharme a new three-year deal – and deservedly so. After all, it’s not often a team makes it to the Cup Final. But can anyone really say that Ducharme made great decisions last year? Conversely – how many of his decisions left us scratching our heads wondering what we’ve missed?
- Did anyone (other than Ducharme) really think that playing Erik Gustafsson or Jonathon Merrill for seven or eight minutes a game was a better option than Alexander Romanov or Brett Kulak? Both of the latter played respectable regular seasons for the Habs and yet when it came to the playoffs, they were deemed redundant in order to watch a few minutes a game of error-prone hockey from the late-season additions.
- How about sitting Tomas Tatar for virtually the entire playoffs? Sure, he wasn’t playing his best hockey early in the Toronto series – but wasn’t the whole team struggling? As one of their top scorers over the last number of years, I was shocked he never got another opportunity, especially when the team was struggling to score in the Final.
- Despite playing inspiring hockey throughout the playoffs, Jesperi Kotkaniemi found himself watching from the press box at the beginning and the end when it mattered most. I imagine his thoughts in the press box were along the lines of “I hope another team offers me a contract this summer because this guy is clueless”.
- Playing Eric Staal. I get it – 10 years ago, he was great. But in 2021, he just looked lost out there.
After Game 1 against Tampa Bay, it was obvious that the Habs were not going to get their desired line matches that previous playoff opponents were so generous to give. The Phillip Danault line got massively outplayed against the Blake Coleman line, and the Nick Suzuki line didn’t fare much better against Nikita Kucherov’s trio. Instead of realizing this after the first game, it took Ducharme until Game 4 to make any lineup changes. Inserting Tatar back onto the top line maybe would have woken up the non-existent offence. Maybe pairing Josh Anderson with Suzuki would change the dynamic on that line? Why not give struggling Staal a seat in the press box and give the younger more energetic players (such as Kotkaniemi or Jake Evans) an opportunity to use their speed against Tampa Bay’s fourth line? We’ll never know how those roster moves would have worked because Ducharme stayed with the status quo for too long – even though it obviously wasn’t working.
All these questions only lead me to ask more questions and downright fear about what’s coming for the 2021-2022 regular season. It’s going to be a more competitive division with Toronto, Boston and Tampa Bay for sure. Florida is looking really good and Ottawa won’t be a pushover. I’m still trying to forget being swept by league-worst Detroit in the 2019-2020 regular season, so I’ll never take those games for granted. Unfortunately, there’s only one Buffalo, so the Habs will have their work cut out for them this upcoming season.
Now GM Marc Bergevin has done his job this offseason and I think he’s done a good job at putting together a well-balanced quality lineup.
- With Christian Dvorak, Mike Hoffman, and a full season of Cole Caufield, he has added some extra firepower to the team even after factoring in the departures of their free agents.
- They are arguably better down the middle with Suzuki and Dvorak and those two should produce more points than all the centres combined from last season. There is a little bit of a question of how Evans will do in a shutdown role but with less pressure (and the extra goals above) the Canadiens should be able to afford to give up a few extra as well.
- David Savard will be a fine replacement for Shea Weber. As much as I love Weber, he wasn’t exactly playing fantastic hockey during the regular season. (In the playoffs, he was much better.) A younger, healthier Savard should be a close to even replacement for Weber on the ice. However, off the ice, Weber’s leadership will certainly be missed.
The biggest uncertainty for me now is how will Ducharme coach this team.
How will he approach the defence pairings? He won’t be able to ride the top four defencemen for more than 50 minutes a game like he did in the playoffs for an entire 82-game regular season. If the Savard and Chiarot pairing doesn’t work out (it certainly doesn’t seem like an obvious fit), will he give Romanov more of an opportunity and maybe pair Chiarot with Kulak/Wideman to balance out the pairings?
With a deep and talented set of wingers, how will he build the lines? I see opportunities for three well-balanced scoring lines of interchangeable parts when everyone is healthy (Toffoli-Suzuki-Anderson, Drouin-Dvorak-Caufield, Hoffman-Poehling-Gallagher) and the NHL’s best shutdown line (Lehkonen-Evans-Armia). But how will the lines jell? Will he give the younger generation (Caufield, Poehling) an opportunity or will they find themselves sitting in favour of veterans like Mathieu Perreault and Cedric Paquette?
Ducharme helped lead the Habs to the Final and the rookie deserves another chance to coach the team. He’s got lots of offence with strong depth up front, the same great goaltending and a reasonable defensive core to work with. The question is how will he pull it all together? Will he frustrate and ostracize players like he did with Kotkaniemi and Tatar in the playoffs? Or will he find a way for everyone to have success, play their part and contribute to a well-balanced team? I’m hoping like any young NHL player that Ducharme will have learned from his mistakes in his rookie year and will come out a stronger, better performer. Only time will tell.