What was old is new again. Claude Julien is back behind the bench, and the Montreal Canadiens have cut ties with Michel Therrien. The now former head coach leaves the Habs as the fourth winningest coach in franchise history, though his legacy might not paint him in such a positive light.
Claude Julien, at first glance, will be less controversial, more respected, and likely more successful. This personnel change is far more important than any transactions that can happen between now and the trade deadline.
As the bye week began, the EOTP crew prepared to generate a lot of trade deadline content (stay tuned, there are still lots coming!). Although the question remained whether or not it was worth trying to add to this roster with the former coach in play.
With this change taking place, the landscape for potential deals changes a great deal. It’s too early to carve it in stone, but the dismissal of Therrien and the arrival of Julien will have a greater impact on the club than any trade could.
The Montreal Canadiens are in an open window of contention and the time to win is now. If things kept going in a downward direction, a small trade would not have held a big impact. The summer saw the big move of trading P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, and there wouldn’t likely have been another trade of that magnitude during the season, due to a lack of improvement and tight salary cap situation.
If Therrien was still the coach, Bergevin would be on the phone with 29 other general managers, trying to find a solution to the slide his team was experiencing. Dealing from a position of weakness and desperation would not have done well and wouldn’t guarantee the righting of a sinking ship. By bringing in a new coach, Bergevin gives himself some flexibility to believe in his current roster, which is now firmly his roster, and can focus on making the smaller, lower-impact move he’s been very successful with in his trading career.
The direction the Canadiens over the last few weeks has been concerning, and oddly reminiscent of last season, except Carey Price is not injured. There has been a criticism of Therrien’s ability to adapt, whether that’s adapting to an in-game situation, or his overall strategies. During the off-season, he seems to develop excellent initial game plans for his roster, but come January when other teams have assessed the system and developed a way to counter the Canadiens, Therrien often appeared to lack the immediate answer to respond in kind. In games, fans have seen the former coach rely on his line blender as a means of correcting what is wrong; the Habs have often been a team who plays well early in a game and either sits on a lead in the third or runs out of gas. The same can be said about their overall season performance: fast out of the gate, and struggles are inevitable once other teams adjust.
Julien is a well-respected coach who boasts a better winning percentage than Therrien in regular season, in the playoffs, and a Stanley Cup championship. He has built a reputation for a coach who can extract the most of his players, and has made some mediocre teams good, and good teams great. In recent years he’s known to be a coach that leans heavily on players that deserve more ice time, regardless of their age.
Language issues aside, Julien is one of the best coaches in the league. His dismissal from the Bruins was hasty and it may come back to bite them. Only 20 coaches in NHL history have more regular season wins than Julien - only four of whom have a superior points percentage: Mike Babcock, Ken Hitchcock, Joel Quenneville and the legendary Scotty Bowman. The fact that he speaks French is just a bonus.
Player utilization was also a heavy critique under Therrien. Look no further than Alex Galchenyuk last season, who despite all his talent and potential, was kept on the third line, and on the wing for long stretches, which is clearly not the ideal scenario for a player that you expect to perform as a number one centre. David Desharnais was relied heavily upon during Therrien’s tenure, and through no fault of his own, wasn’t always able to perform at a level his deployment would demand. Phillip Danault has been a huge surprise this year. Is he actually a first line centre in the NHL? Probably not. Alexei Emelin playing beside Shea Weber is not the ideal first pair.
Meanwhile, Claude Julien is a coach who relies heavily on his best players, and plays top forwards 18-19 minutes per game. Galchenyuk is averaging a hair above 16 minutes this year, which he can likely expect to go up now (happy belated birthday, Alex!).
It’s possible, even likely, that when the Canadiens take to the ice again on Saturday, Galchenyuk would find himself pivoting the top unit.
The Canadiens could still make a move prior to the deadline, but there’s no immediate need to make a change, let alone a significant one, until the new coach determines who “his guys” are. There’s still a few days to kill before the Habs play again, but there’s a growing sense of optimism that this coaching change immediately makes Montreal a contender again.