If you’re a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, there’s a good chance there’s a good chance you’re fairly concerned about the way your team has cratered of late. But what probably has you more worried is the fact that, prior to an error-filled 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, followed by a 3-2 overtime loss to the worst team in the NHL the next day, the Canadiens had a full six days off. In a schedule like this season’s, that represents manna from heaven and an opportunity to work on what ails you.
But after that break, just as they did going into the break, the Canadiens have looked really bad, a polar opposite to the team that came out of the gate with a 7-1-2 record and was leading the NHL in goals. Perhaps you’re rather worried about the fact that the Canadiens don’t play the Vancouver Canucks again until March 8. But most of all, you’re probably worried about the man behind the bench and what the future holds for him. If you’re like a large segment of the vocal crowd on social media, you’d probably like to see Claude Julien doing something else, anything else, than coaching the Montreal Canadiens. It’s always difficult to tell with the Canadiens, and even more so with GM Marc Bergevin who has a history of being very patient with coaches, but it would not be a stretch to imagine that Bergevin’s patience must be getting thin these days.
Because after the summer Bergevin had and the players he procured for the roster, the Canadiens were supposed to be much better than this. But here they are, looking very much like the regular-season team from the 2019-20 that had so much trouble generating offense and was a non-playoff team until the pandemic put them in the playoffs, where they went on a pretty remarkable run. If the Canadiens are indeed a declining asset this season, some of the responsibility for that falls at Julien’s feet.
In his post-game comments after the Canadiens lost to the Ottawa Senators Sunday, Nick Suzuki did a pretty good job of summing up the reason for their lack of success of late. “I think we’re pretty much all up in our own heads right now,” Suzuki said. “I think we’re just overthinking it, playing not to lose, and that’s never a good thing to do. At the start of the season, we were really energized and everyone was having fun. That got away from us.”
Now juxtapose that with Julien’s comments after the game. When asked about playing not to lose, Julien said basically said the Canadiens have to play not to lose. And remember, this came after a game in which they were out chanced by the worst team in the NHL by a 21-6 margin in high danger areas. “We’re playing high-risk hokey at times and we’re making some decisions that are high risk and it end up costing us,” Julien said. “We just need to settle down here and play a more stable type of game.” Then he went on to say: “I don’t know if it’s about loosening things up. It’s about tightening things up a little bit. When you’re pressing, you take gambles and when you’re gambling most of the time if ends up working against you. We have to simplify our game, keep it simple and just grind it out.”
Do those comments sound as though they’re in sync to you? It appears there is, at the very least, a disconnect between the way the coach wants the game to be played and how they’re playing it. Nobody is about to suggest the Canadiens should abandon all sense of defensive discipline and score their way out of trouble, but it’s pretty clear the balance between playing responsibly and creating enough offense to win games is simply not there at the moment. And again, some of that has to be on the coach.
There’s nothing to suggest that Julien is in any immediate danger of losing his job. And he has established himself as an outstanding NHL coach. And at some point, the players, particularly the veterans on this team, have to take some of the responsibility. It’s not on Julien that you don’t seem to know which Carey Price is going to show up from game to game, or that captain Shea Weber looks a step behind, or that veterans Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher have struggled.
But this is a team that remade during the summer to be a contender. And it should be in the North Division, which, with the possible exception of the Toronto Maple Leafs – yes, possible exception – does not have an elite team, nor one that is particularly keen on taking care of its own end of the ice. Since Julien took over in 2017, the Canadiens have made the real playoffs just once and that came last season, in a year they wouldn’t even have been invited to the post-season dance under normal circumstances.
People are getting impatient in Montreal. But the only one whose patience level really matters here is Bergevin. With assistant coach Dominique Ducharme or minor league coach Joel Bouchard available as an interim, you’d have to think the leash for Julien to turn things around can only be so long.