In a perfect world, Dominique Ducharme would be to the Montreal Canadiens in 2021 what Craig Berube was to the St. Louis Blues in 2019. Or what Mike Sullivan was to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016. Or, for that matter, what Dan Bylsma was to the Penguins in 2009.
You get the picture. Underachieving team changes coaches mid-season. New coach brings in a fresh approach and the team goes on to win a Stanley Cup. The template for this move is one that is indeed tried and true. And that is exactly what Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin had on his mind when he fired Claude Julien after 18 games and replaced him with assistant Dominique Ducharme. With the additions, the Canadiens believe they are serious Stanley Cup contenders, particularly in a year when a path to the final four is more linear than it has ever been.
They’re not, of course. Ducharme probably already knows that, though, since he’s been around this organization for the past couple of seasons. But what he also knows is that if he can get this team re-energized, playing more to its identity and take it on a good playoff run, the interim tagged will be dropped. Essentially it’s his job to lose and he’s well aware of that, so he’ll do everything in his power to keep one of the 32 NHL coaching jobs long-term.
So the first thing Ducharme will likely do is read the room. And when he looks around that room, he’ll see a division that has a bunch of good teams and no great ones. He’ll see a division where there is not one elite defensive team and only one that has elite goaltending. He’ll see a division that is averaging 6.29 goals per game, which is by far the most in the NHL. And what he’ll likely do is take the shackles off this team. He’ll likely change up some of the line combinations and he’ll stress, like John Tortorella did with the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, that safe is indeed death. At least this season in this division. And that’s all that matters because so much of whether Ducharme is named the permanent head coach of this team will have to do with what happens in 2020-21.
Julien, a good man and a good coach who will almost certainly land on his feet, was ultimately done in because he was too cautious. The same night that Nick Suzuki said the Canadiens were playing not to lose, Julien basically said the Canadiens had to play not to lose. This was in a game where they were out chanced 21-6 in the high-danger scoring areas by the worst team in the league. There was undoubtedly a disconnect between the way the coach wanted his team to play and the way his players wanted to play. In this division, in this season, that’s not a winning formula. Artturi Lehkonen wasn’t always a one-dimensional defensive player, but he was cast in that role immediately by Julien and was rarely put in situations where he could create offense consistently. And in Julien’s last game, the hard-working and low-maintenance Lehkonen was a healthy scratch in favor of Corey Perry, who is clearly in the twilight of his career.
What Ducharme will likely ultimately see is that this roster, even with Bergevin’s off-season additions, is not a serious contender for a championship. At least not yet. Whether the Canadiens are prepared to admit it or not, they have a very serious Carey Price problem. And that problem is that as great as he was in the playoff bubble last summer, he has regressed this season and trending downward while having a contract that has five years remaining on it after this season with a $10.5 million cap hit. Suzuki and/or Jesperi Kotkaniemi may one day be the stud centermen the organization has been seeking for years, but they’re simply not ready to accept that kind of responsibility and pressure at this stage of their careers. Meanwhile, it’s looking very fortuitous for the Canadiens that Phil Danault turned down a five-year deal worth $30 million in the off-season. Shea Weber looks worn down and the Canadiens defense as a whole looks like a rather slow group that is vulnerable to being victimized by the creative, uber-talented and speedy forwards in their division. Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar are struggling.
And maybe, just maybe, the Canadiens aren’t quite as good as advertised, or as good as their hot start suggested, and that going from a non-playoff team under the traditional format to a legitimate contender requires more than two weeks of inspired play in a bubble, then signing a couple of proven veteran players and a backup goalie. Bergevin must also own this. The Canadiens have not drafted nor developed particularly well in recent years and if this foray with Ducharme doesn’t work out, the fingers must be pointed in the direction of the GM.
Ducharme is a sharp hockey mind who has a track record of success in junior hockey. He’ll almost certainly give the Canadiens an immediate boost and could carry them to some very real success in a season where conventional thinking can likely be tossed out the window. And that would certainly be enough to land the permanent coaching gig. But will he alone be the answer for an organization that is still lacking some very fundamental elements? Probably not.