Before the season was suspended, GM Marc Bergevin indicated that head coach Claude Julien would be back behind the bench next season. Having said that, how long should his leash be? Our writers offer up their opinions on Montreal’s bench boss.
Terry Costaris: Claude Julien, as a coach, can best be described as “good but not great”. Good is not fireable but it means that he is not really much of a difference-maker.
When was the last time you heard anyone, including his supporters, say that Julien is innovative, proactive, gutsy, or commanding?
Sure he won a Stanley Cup but his team was one overtime period away from elimination by the Habs and Vancouver sustained some key injuries in the final. So it’s fair to say that he’s no Scotty Bowman.
At the same time, he is the safest choice to helm the Canadiens as far as bilingual coaches go.
Is Julien good enough to take a team into the playoffs if given the right horses? Probably. But let’s be honest. How many games has he been the deciding factor in Canadiens’ victories? How many has he been the deciding factor in Hab losses? Probably more but not to any major degree.
If I sound wishy-washy here it’s because the alternatives seem very limited. And then there are the financial considerations which are huge.
How much would this current roster benefit from a coaching change? Probably not much. Now would this change be worth as much as $32 million? How so?
For starters, the Canadiens would have to shell out $10M in salary over the next two years if Julien is fired. His replacement would command something in the $3-6 million range depending on experience. He would also have to be drawn from a very shallow pool of bilingual talent.
Molson could roll the dice and go super cheap and hire a very green coach at $1.5 million but likely lose about $10 million in playoff revenues for doing so.
So $10 million paying Julien to do nothing plus another $3 or $6 or $12 million in a new hire, is anywhere around $13 to $22 million in salaries over the next two years.
Now throw in perhaps $10 million more if the Habs still fail to make the playoffs under a new coach, and this decision could cost the Canadiens as much as $32 million. All for the sake of a change in scenery. That’s quite a financial gamble.
The Montreal Canadiens may have a book value near that of the Toronto Maple Leafs but its ownership does not have the deep pockets of a Bell Canada-Rogers Communications consortium. Firing Mike Babcock was a drop in the financial bucket decision for these economic behemoths.
Geoff Molson and his partners are rich but not uber-rich. They don’t own TSN and Sportsnet. The Canadiens’ ownership might become super wealthy when they sell the Habs and all of their various other enterprises but right now, they are small players relative to their competitors West of the 401.
And these are the financial implications of firing and replacing just one coach. If whoever is hired fails, Bergevin and his assistants would have to go next. This would, therefore, add considerably more millions into the equation.
One thing Molson is very good at is knowing how to make money. And a major way seems to be by not spending it. The numbers don’t make sense. Molson is financially tied to both Julien and Bergevin plus his assistants.
It would have to be some completely untenable situation with fans literally holding pitchforks in front of the Bell Centre to fire Claude Julien. I just can’t see this happening.
A more conservative measure would be to make a few more additions to the roster, hope and pray that their young prospects are a bit better and upgrade on assistant coaches Kirk Muller and Luke Richardson.
By doing so, the Habs should be good enough for a single playoff round to offset these costs and Geoff Molson would preserve his millions.
Allan Katz: Julien’s fate is obviously tied to Bergevin’s fate. Having said this, their fate is obviously tied to the results of next season. So what is a fair “line in the sand” to decide whether the team shows enough progress to stay the course or to start a house cleaning? Given the Habs do not make the playoffs next year what scenario would loosen the leash on these two twins? Personally I think the playoffs is the line in the sand but if a series of dynamics take place and the team falls short of making the playoffs maybe they both come back for one more try.
Those dynamics would be an explosion of promise from all the prospects that declares the Habs are ready to pounce. While unlikely it is possible that a plethora of talent demands, through stunning results, to make the hockey world go, “Wow this team has more blue-chippers than we thought.” Possible yes, probable no.
So what’s the X factor? The Habs badly need an experienced hockey executive to challenge the team beyond their set ways and whoever this might turn out to be will definitely affect Julien’s future. This executive will do an in-depth critique of the Habs organization and it’s possible he might only fire one twin before the other. If Mr. Exec thinks Bergevin has assembled a solid roster of NHL prospects, but needs, perhaps a younger coach more in touch with the sensibilities and skillsets of younger talent, Julien is gone. If Mr. Exec believes Julien is keeping a weakly constructed roster competitive through his system, while the team construction needs work, Bergevin is gone.
One small issue is that the Habs have not hired or hinted at hiring this veteran (or youthful) exec anytime soon. So basically it gets down to Bergevin panicking midseason and firing Julien, the team flourishing and all is well, or an imaginary gifted exec stirs the pot in ways we can only guess at. Chances are both are gone after or during next season or the Habs arise from the dust and emerge a contender.
Kevin Leveille: What happens when a team is in first place, replaces their coach and then goes through the total shift to ineptitude that we’ve seen from the Montreal Canadiens? Now, I was a huge advocate to the coaching change when it happened so mea culpa on that one. That being said, this is a result-driven league and though I’ve preached patience to many in this re-tooling phase (which I think the Habs have handled relatively well with a few exceptions), the Habs have to turn the corner at some point. For a more direct approach to my concrete answer, I return to my frustration at the trade deadline. I still disagree with how Bergevin handled that, but he sent a very clear message that his team is ready to turn that corner. Otherwise, he had some assets to be moved for massive hauls. He didn’t and now if the results don’t come in 20-21 some heads are required to roll.
This will start with Julien, and Bergevin does NOT have the luxury to wait until Christmas time to make that move. As the team stands now (because summer moves could change everything), Bergevin’s message is that he believes this is a playoff team, and so if they aren’t AGAIN next season, Julien is gone very early, and if a new coach can’t turn it around, Bergevin himself may very well be gone in April of 2021. If I’m wrong on this, it’s because someone, somewhere, has convinced Molson that taking a half-assed approach to both competing now and rebuilding now is an acceptable path to follow for as long as required until it works and that just doesn’t sit well with me.
Brian La Rose: The leash is still going to be pretty long. At this stage, I think Bergevin is hoping that by the time a coaching change is made, one or both of Dominique Ducharme and Joel Bouchard would be ready to take over that role. Neither is close to being ready.
For all of the criticisms on Montreal’s current assistant coaches, remember that Ducharme is one of them and if the assistants are part of the problem, then he is also part of the problem. I’m not sure that’s the fairest way to assess him so let’s look at it another way. Two seasons of professional coaching experience (as an assistant) doesn’t scream NHL-ready head coach in the making.
As for Bouchard, he hasn’t had a lot to work with yet in Laval and he hasn’t done much with in terms of success either. The whole fiasco with the veterans earlier this year tells me that Bouchard still has some work to do in terms of honing his approach towards certain players. If his ways don’t work with veterans trying to make it back to the NHL level, how will it work when he’s trying to motivate an underachiever that’s already there and has multiple years left on a guaranteed contract?
Both coaches have upside and are certainly worth keeping around. One could very well be the next coach of the Canadiens. But they’re not ready to take on that role and won’t be for a while yet. With there being so few viable options among bilingual veteran coaches (and while I don’t think a bilingual coach is necessary as I value communication with the players ahead of the media and fans, it’s clear that it’s a must for this team), there isn’t a viable option to replace Julien in the short term either. Barring something shocking, I don’t think he’s in any danger of losing his job anytime soon. A year from now, I think we could be writing about a contract extension, not a firing.
Norm Szcyrek: Coach Julien’s leash will likely be very long next season regardless of the situation the team finds itself in for a few reasons. First, it’s likely Marc Bergevin will only turn the head coach’s position over to someone with pro experience, based on his track record. He did as much when he hired Michel Therrien at the start of his Habs regime, and he continued the same when he fired Therrien to replace him with Julien. At this time there are few to no options in that category unless you consider Guy Boucher to be a candidate.
Secondly, the team will continue to be in a retooling/rebuilding mode given the direction of their youth movement. Although the hope for the team to improve over last season will be there, most everyone’s expectation is for the team not to be in a position to make the playoffs next season. That appears to include the team ownership, so it’s likely Julien will be safe since his five-year contract does not end until the 2021-22 season is completed.
Thirdly, Julien is a respected head coach who has had success winning in Boston and has been invited to the coaching staff of the last Canadian Olympic team. So the hockey community has admiration for Claude at applying his trade. I will also add that he did help lead the team to a good bounce-back season in 2018-19 when the team produced 96 points and narrowly missed making the playoffs.
Personally, I am not sure if Julien is the right coach to lead a young team back to a contender’s status within the NHL. Most of his success has been with experienced teams in Boston, and when that team was moving towards younger players, the Bruins faltered and he was relieved of his duties.
Dave Woodward: While I am confident that Bergevin’s assurances of Coach Julien’s return for the upcoming season are genuine, I am not all that confident that the Canadiens’ coach will have a long leash in 2020-21. The COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a more opportune time for either Bergevin or Julien as the Habs were playing out the string in yet another lost season under their leadership. The usual season-ending post-mortem and hand-wringing has, for better or worse, been avoided, thereby alleviating the pressure to remove either of them.
My own view is that Bergevin is the problem but Molson’s confidence in Bergevin (a GM that cannot draft and develop elite players to save his life) seems unshakeable. A slow start by the Canadiens this year could spell the end of Coach Julien’s second stint with the Habs, fairly or not. His likely successor is Assistant Coach Ducharme and Julien may make for a convenient scapegoat should the Habs falter early in the year. That will buy Bergevin, the ultimate survivor, even more time to continue to accomplish very little.