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How much is Claude Julien to blame for the Montreal Canadiens season?

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You can’t fault the Habs coach for everything, but he deserves some blame

Montreal Canadiens v Vancouver Canucks

Let me get this out of the way quickly: This edition of the Montreal Canadiens is not a Stanley Cup contender, and isn’t particularly close.

Marc Bergevin has taken a roster that was two games from the Stanley Cup Final three years ago, and is staring at missing the playoffs entirely for the second time in three seasons.

He has let go of two of the best puck-moving defencemen the franchise has had since the days of Larry Robinson and Serge Savard, and has done nothing to surround the best goalie in hockey with a championship-calibre team.

When Bergevin fired Michel Therrien and hired Claude Julien on February 14, 2017, most fans thought it was the beginning of a new chapter. But after a hapless first-round exit and a very slow start to this season that sees them 28th out of 31 teams, it didn’t work out as planned.

While I said that the Canadiens are not a Stanley Cup contender, they are also not a team — on paper — that deserves to be running with the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, and Vancouver Canucks.

This team has flaws, being far from perfect, but it’s not as bad as their record shows. And that’s where Claude Julien comes in.

The centre situation

I understand giving Jonathan Drouin a try as the team’s number-one centre. I don’t fault him for that. I don’t even fault him for keeping Max Pacioretty with Drouin while it wasn’t really working.

And yes, both of those things may have contributed to the Canadiens’ slow start that they could not get themselves out of.

But as the team became more and more desperate, there were no excuses to not try Alex Galchenyuk at centre. Galchenyuk played three games with Michael McCarron and Torrey Mitchell. He played four more with Jacob de la Rose and Paul Byron. I’m fairly certain we can all agree that Galchenyuk is a better NHL player than de la Rose and McCarron.

After he finally moved Drouin to the wing, he replaced him at centre with de la Rose. When that didn’t work, he went back to Drouin at centre and placed Nicolas Deslauriers with him and Galchenyuk.

If you’re willing to try Paul Byron and de la Rose at centre, and you seemingly have run out of ideas, why hasn’t Galchenyuk gotten a look? Is it stubbornness? Probably. Because there’s no reason to not give it a try. After all, what’s the worst case? The team continues to lose? At least then you won’t have people asking about it anymore.

It begs the question why Julien would open the door to Galchenyuk at centre one day, to completely backtracking the next. It could be that it isn’t Julien’s call at all...

Making lemonade out of lemons

You won’t get me to defend the Canadiens’ group of defencemen. You definitely won’t get me to call it a better group than last year. But the fact remains, until recently, Julien didn’t play his best six defencemen very often.

He couldn’t find room for Brandon Davidson, and it took him way too long to warm up to the idea that Jakub Jerabek was better than Joe Morrow. I get that Julien knew Morrow and probably saw his potential. Again, this isn’t a deal-breaker, but he does need to trust his rookies. Jerabek has pro experience and Victor Mete, if he’s going to be in the NHL, may as well play big minutes. And he definitely shouldn’t play forward (yeah, that happened too).

On top of that, making Charles Hudon a healthy scratch so he didn’t have to bench Byron Froese, and promoting Nicolas Deslauriers to an offensive line have been questionable decisions as well.

These moves wouldn’t make all the difference in the world, but everything adds up. The Canadiens need to put their best foot forward and at this point of the season, they need to start thinking about the future.

The defensive zone is a mess

Like I said before, the personnel is not very good. But there’s still no reason for the Canadiens to be as clueless as they are in their own zone. There have been so many players left completely alone that I’m all but certain it’s a coaching issue.

Julien raised eyebrows when he didn’t bring any changes to the Canadiens coaching staff. It didn’t work. Julien’s teams have been known for being good defensively. This Canadiens team is very much not that. I’m not sure if it’s Julien not getting through to his players, or his assistants not passing the message along, or maybe just a lack of innovative ideas.

Whatever it is, the longer it goes on without a fix, the more Julien is to blame for it. I understand that he doesn’t have the best horses in the world, but the lack of structure in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill can’t all be blamed on that.

Julien wasn’t put in a great position. Just one week after being fired, he had to learn a new team and a new organization in the middle of a season where they were battling for a division championship. That’s tough for any coach.

But, while you can argue that the roster has gotten worse, the fact is that the team doesn’t look much more organized than it did last year and Julien isn’t putting it in the best position to succeed. And that, regardless of the roster he has is, in the words of his general manager, on him.