Claude Julien may very well turn the Montreal Canadiens into a Stanley Cup contender but in the series against the New York Rangers, one thing became very apparent.
He didn’t know how to adjust.
And I don’t mean in terms of style or system. He didn’t know how to adjust because he simply didn’t know his players well enough.
The dream of many Canadiens fans when the hiring was announced on Valentine’s Day was that they would follow the model of the last team to fire Michel Therrien, and win the Stanley Cup that same season.
Since 2000, that has happened four times. But Julien was in a situation that none of those before him were put in.
In 2000, Larry Robinson was an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils before taking over for Robbie Ftorek. In 2009, Dan Bylsma took over for Therrien but he was the Pittsburgh Penguin’s AHL head coach before taking over, a recipe that was repeated in 2016 when Mike Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston.
Those men didn’t have to learn a new organization. They had coached many of those players before. They knew the system, and didn’t need to take much time to make significant changes.
Julien wasn’t just an outsider. He was coaching a division rival just a week earlier. Even the one time that an outsider took over and won a Cup that same season - Darryl Sutter with the 2012 Los Angeles Kings - Sutter was out of hockey for almost a year, and he wasn’t a head coach prior to that; he was a general manager.
General managers have to get a sense of what other teams have, and it would be easier for him to jump into that situation as a coach than Julien who didn’t have that front office experience.
I would be surprised if, on the date of his hire, Julien could have named five players playing for the St. John’s IceCaps, never mind their strengths, weaknesses and what they could bring to the team.
Julien’s main goal was to try and change the way a team played with 24 games before the playoffs - and he also had to make sure the team made the playoffs.
The fact that he went 16-7-1 is pretty remarkable. He turned the Habs into one of the best teams in the league since February 14. But the playoffs are a different animal. And Alain Vigneault knew what he had in Pavel Buchnevich. Vigneault knew what line changes to make to spark his top players.
Julien was almost frozen by uncertainty. He tried Alex Galchenyuk on the top line when he first took over, and quickly moved him off of it. He never saw Nathan Beaulieu with Shea Weber at the beginning of the season. He saw Alexei Emelin and then switched him with Andrei Markov.
He didn’t know much about the players he had in the press box, and he certainly wasn’t prepared to take a player from the IceCaps playoff run and throw them into the fire.
And when push came to shove, he didn’t know how his players would react to falling behind, and it turns out, they reverted to a system that wasn’t really his. The confusion of the players made the team look lost at times. And that is no fault of them or the coach. They didn’t know Julien’s system enough to improvise, and when they panicked, they reverted to what they knew for the last five seasons.
Now, obviously Marc Bergevin could have helped his coach out by making decisions for him, and, say give the youngsters a chance instead of piling veteran fourth liners on top of each other.
But it’s easy to understand why that didn’t happen. Bergevin needed to make sure this team made the playoffs, otherwise he would be out of a job. They weren’t in a position to take risks, so they played it safe, and safe in this instance was death.
The good news in all of this, is that if luck was different, they still could have won the series. They almost did despite the luck.
Julien has proven to be a good coach, and he has proven to give younger players an opportunity. A full training camp under Julien with all of the organization’s players and time to implement his system will be hugely important.
If the biggest problem is that they didn’t use the talent they had their disposal, and not the talent itself, that’s alright.
There were reasons - good or bad - that the Canadiens didn’t use the talent at their disposal. The good news, despite how the season ended, is that there are reasons to be optimistic for next season.