Replacing Julien with Ducharme, a setback for the future of the Canadiens
February 24, 2021, Claude Julien was fired by former general manager Marc Bergevin and quickly replaced by head coach Dominique Ducharme. It might not have been shocking at the time. The Montreal Canadiens had won one of their last six games before Julien’s dismissal, and the 61-year-old hadn’t exactly coached the team to a world record, going 129-113-35 in four years with the club. Sometimes a new voice is needed, and that’s the thought Bergevin acted upon when he decided to replace Julien.
âI cannot determine the exact moment when. It just adds up night after night. . . There are times when you have a backhand, and it’s hard to play the same way every night as you have seen. Each team goes through [it], but I have seen the repetition that has happened in the past. . . I just saw a model that I didn’t want to wait any longer.
Marc Bergevin on Claude Julien shooting in february 2021
The Bergevin “model” saw (above) is somewhat confusing. The Canadiens beat their opponents in 15 of their 18 even-matched games before Julien was fired. They were 9-5-4 and scored four or more goals in half of those games. For all intents and purposes, the team was playing decent hockey. Bergevin didn’t see it that way and replaced Julien with Ducharme – a move that could affect Montreal’s future. Here’s why.
Developing the hopes of Canadians
The average peak age in the The NHL is now 24 years old. The league is getting younger and faster. Having a deep prospect pool has never been more important than it is today. The Canadians aren’t among the best at it, but they have some promising young players – Cole Caufield, Alexander Romanov, Ryan Poehling, Joshua Roy, Sean Farrell, Xavier Simoneau and Kaiden Guhle, among others. With the way this season is going, the future is all Habs fans have to look forward to.
The first few years play an essential role in the development of a prospect. A single season can make the difference between a prospect becoming a role player or a star in this league. Good coaches find ways to harness the strengths of their players. They are not trying to change a player. They bring out the best of what this player already has. Looking at the Canadiens this season, it’s clear Ducharme is not that coach.
The Canadiens are playing horrible hockey under Ducharme this season. There is no creativity. No chemistry. No structure. They are boring to watch. The last time the team outclassed their opponent was against the Calgary Flames over a month ago. They are dominated almost in every game. But who is most affected by all of this? Perspectives. It’s hard to improve on a skill set when the team is just chasing the puck. There is no point in being called up to a big club if there is no opportunity to play with your strengths. The perfect example: Caufield.
Heading into the 2021-22 season, Caufield has been presented as a potential Calder Trophy contender. Expectations were unfairly high for the 20-year-old after his playoff performance. It has been a roller coaster made mostly of sleeping bags since this magical race. While fans saw some brilliant lightning bolts of No.22, those moments were few and far between. In 21 games this season, Caufield has registered a six-point pedestrian. While there is still hope the Wisconsin native will become an elite goalscorer, recent months have significantly hampered his growth. It only took half a season for Caufield’s star ratings to drop from 54% to 25% (depending on hockey prospecting), further underscoring the importance of those early years.
Sometimes the regression in outlook can be attributed to a player not going as planned, but if the whole team is playing worse than usual, where is the real problem? To refer to Tony Marinaro of TSN 690, if an entire class fails a test, the problem is not with its students; it’s the teacher.
One wonders if having a head coach like Julien at the helm would have better suited the growth of Caufield (and other prospects). Let’s take a look at the numbers.
Julien against Ducharme: the figures
The numbers don’t lie. They are what they are, and while there are other intangibles to gauge player performance, good teams usually have good underlying numbers and bad teams have bad underlying numbers. Julien never had enough credit for what he was able to do in Montreal with the lineup he had. The figures are staggering compared to those of Ducharme.
A coach’s job is to develop a system to give his team the best chance of winning, and one of the best ways to determine if a system is working is to look at expected goals – a model that determines the number of goals that a team should score based on the quality and quantity of chances that the team generates. It’s a simple but effective way to assess whether a coach’s fundamentals are working both offensively and defensively. The charts above are sorted by expected goals for percentage (xGF%) at 5v5, which measures the percentage of goals the team should have scored based on the odds for and against. There is a stark contrast between the figures of Julien and Ducharme.
Related: 5 Canadiens players who probably won’t return next season
From February 14, 2017 to February 24, 2021 (during Julien’s tenure), the Canadiens placed third in the league in evenly matched goals. In other words, they generated and prevented chances better than almost any team in the NHL. While Julien’s record does not reflect this, much of his results were out of his control. Montreal shot an abyss of 7.36% under the Julien regime, ranking 26th in the league. Shooting percentage and finishing ability are part of the game, but those aspects are dictated by skill, not training. The only thing a coach can do is help his players be in the best position to score. The rest is up to them. Unfortunately, the team failed to capitalize under Julien, but the chances were there.
Time and time again, Julien’s system emphasized solid defensive positioning and relentless forward failure. Almost all of the players he coached had an xGF% greater than 50%. He empowered players to be successful and helped develop good habits, which could have benefited prospects like Caufield early in their careers.
Instead, these prospects get Ducharme.
For a coach who claims to like offense, Ducharme’s system doesn’t really scream at scoring goals. Under the 48-year-old head coach, the Canadiens are defensively average and dismal offensively. There is no cohesion – as evidenced by their 21st standings in even-handed expected goals – and Montreal’s special teams are second-to-bottom in the league, behind the dreadful Arizona Coyotes. Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago game-per-game announcer Colby Cohen said he hadn’t seen a team play as passively as the Canadiens in a long time.
In all fairness, the Montreal roster looks more like an American Hockey League (AHL) team these days. It’s hard to imagine a coach would make this club a playoff team.
That said, even healthy regulars have seen their individual performance drop dramatically. According to Natural Stat Trick, Brendan Gallagher went from an average of 2.22 points per 60 minutes played evenly under Julien to 1.8 points per 60 minutes played under Ducharme. Jonathan Drouin from 1.68 points per 60 minutes to 1.43 points per 60 minutes. Jeff Petry from 0.93 points every 60 minutes to 0.66 points every 60 minutes. The list goes on.
Looking back, while the Stanley Cup race last season was fun, it was the worst thing that could happen to the Canadiens. From the underlying numbers to individual performances, Montreal has not been a good hockey club under Ducharme. The players are not put in a situation to be successful. It’s one thing to lose, but losing like they’ve done this season is hurting the team’s future. Habits are formed early in a young player’s career, and proper guidance is essential. Julien taught the basics during his stay in Montreal. Ducharme did not.
Jeff Gorton has a long list of things to do and in the offseason the search for a new head coach should be one of them. The future of Canadians depends on it.
Ryan graduated from the Ryerson School of Journalism in 2015 and contributes to the Montreal Canadiens section. He also previously worked for STATS LLC as a hockey reporter and for the Rant Media Network as editor.