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An analysis of Dominique Ducharme’s coaching style

Investigating how Ducharme handled his forwards in the QMJHL playoffs to gain some insight into what he will bring to the Canadiens this season.

Canada v Sweden: Gold Medal Game - 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

Dominique Ducharme was announced as a new addition to the Montreal Canadiens’ coaching staff a few months ago. It was a welcome change after a disappointing season. The team was in need of new blood, and bringing a different perspective behind the bench contributes to a fresh start for the organization.

The pedigree of Ducharme made him an ideal candidate. After multiple successful seasons in the QMJHL as a head coach, and his role on Canada’s under-20 team the past two years, winning gold this past January after losing to the US in the final in 2017, he was knocking on the door for his NHL chance.

It was a good move from Montreal to be able to snag one of their local talents, giving him the experience of the NHL and an occasion to learn from an experienced staff, while also adding a valuable resource for Claude Julien. Ducharme will be another voice on a team that can now count on five different coaches.

There will be a lot of different opinions behind the bench, but the duties assigned to Ducharme fit him very well. He will be on the lookout for any in-game adjustments that could be made; moves that would help Montreal take advantage of the deployment of opposing teams while also maximizing the talent of their own group. It appears he will be handling the forward corps of the Habs. This role usually falls to the head coach, choosing lines and matching them accordingly on the ice, but Ducharme will surely have input in the process, with his past accomplishments speaking of his ability to perform that job.

His 2017-18 Drummondville Voltigeurs had a good defence, but were certainly defined by their offensive capabilities, finishing atop of the QMJHL in goals, averaging a staggering 4.07 per game.

Part of that success is attributable to their dangerous power play. It was also at the top of the league, operating at 28.1% as the team scored 75 of their 277 goals with a man advantage. But it was really by dominating the shot counter and funneling pucks on net that the team managed to fuel its offence. The club finished third for shots for and had the best shot differential in the league at the end of the season.

Ducharme could count on a good cast of players: the Voltigeurs added the highly touted Joe Veleno at the trade deadline and had one of the best young defencemen in the QMJHL in Nicolas Beaudin, plus a goalie with a lot of potential in Olivier Rodrigue. Yet the scoring remained relatively spread out between all players during the season.

This is often the mark of a well-oiled machine, a team that gets the contributions of everyone and is not being carried by the talent of a few highly skilled players; one that has bought in and is willing to execute every night to earn its success.

Ducharme isn’t someone who is content just building a culture and developing familiarity between his players, only giving them a structure in which to play on a given night. He is a very active coach in-game, tweaking his matchups and his lines to place his team in the best position to succeed.

When he senses that his group has the talent advantage and is dominating the play, he is not one to change a formula. But faced with an uphill battle, he pulls out every card he has to try to walk out in the tunnel at the end of the night with another win.

Many of his moves could almost be called micro-management, with each player’s strengths and weaknesses taken into consideration in his on-ice deployment.

Bench management

The QMJHL playoffs, where every inch matters, gave us a great chance to look at and evaluate how he handled the players he had at his disposal.

The Voltigeurs met the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the first round of the playoffs, an adversary they managed to overcome in five games. It wasn’t an easy series, but it didn’t represent the challenge of the Voltigeurs’ next round opponent, the Victoriaville Tigres.

The Tigres traded for one of the top forwards in the Quebec Major Junior circuit, Vitaly Abramov, in the quest for a deep playoff push. Victoriaville could also count on Maxime Comtois on their first line, and the second-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2017 was a player Ducharme knew well from last year’s gold medal-winning team at the World Juniors.

The head-to-head matchup didn’t favour the Voltigeurs, as they had lost their previous three contests to the Tigres. So, after rolling his lines in the first series versus Cape Breton, Ducharme decided to play a slightly different game against Victoriaville, with a mind to shut down Victoriaville’s first line and create favourable matchups for his best players.

Two of the coach’s choices defined the series.

The first was the deployment of Veleno, Ducharme’s strongest offensive player. Unfortunately, despite being seen as a future NHL centre, he had problems in the faceoff dot winning just 46.25 % of his draws. Ducharme counteracted this by moving his star player to the wing for the majority of the series, only using him at centre for offensive draws.

Playing along the wall in the defensive zone had the additional advantage of allowing Veleno to use his skating ability to push back the defence and create offence on the rush after receiving a breakout pass.

The eventual first-round pick was also sent on the ice against bottom-six forwards and bottom-pairing defenders whenever possible, and pulled when the best elements of the other team came over the boards. This didn’t seem to be a testament to Veleno’s defensive capabilities — he was still used on the penalty kill — but more of a way to reserve his usage for when it mattered.

The second decision was Ducharme’s deployment of Yvan-Gabriel Mongo, who was Drummondville’s trusted shutdown centre. Mongo was not an offensive star, but in his fifth year in the QMJHL, he had the experience necessary to counter the top line of Victoriaville and was utilized against them as much as possible, likely seeing the most ice time out of all of the forward group.

Matching a checking line against the top offensive weapons of another team and trying to use your own best players against weaker opposition is nothing unheard of, but Ducharme was a level above that. He stuck to his plan fiercely throughout the series and forced his players on and off the ice to constantly get the matchup he had in mind, even if it meant not having consistent lines or making adjustments on the fly.

It was a series that Drummondville ultimately lost in the end, but it didn’t take away from the effort and the strategies employed.

In-game adjustments

Play #1

The notable difference between playing at home versus away for a coach is the ability to have the last change. It means that the visiting team has to select a line for a faceoff first, giving the other team a chance to counteract with its own matchup.

The clip below is from Game 3 of the playoff series versus the Tigres, played in Victoriaville. The line of Veleno (#90, at centre this time) is sent out to take a draw in the neutral zone, close to the offensive blue line. Ducharme likely assumed that they wouldn’t face the top line of Victoriaville, as it had just been on the ice the shift before last. But seeing the choice of Drummondville, the Tigres sent Abramov’s trio back in the fray.

You can see Veleno immediately looking to the bench to see what his coach wants him to do when Victoriaville’s strategy is revealed. They exchange a signal and the play starts. The Voltigeurs lose the draw and form their neutral-zone defence. Veleno takes a few steps forward to pressure the puck-carrier, but remembers what is asked out of him, and instead lets his teammate be the lower man on the forecheck.

Veleno instead skates to the boards and to his bench. He is immediately switched for Yvan-Gabriel Mongo (#92) as the play descends into the Voltigeurs’ zone. Mongo now anchors Veleno’s line in their defensive duties against Victoriaville’s top line.

After half a minute of play, and an offensive chance the other way, a change from the Voltigeurs is made. Mongo switches with Veleno once again. The forward is now set up to face the bottom six of the Voltigeurs after their own change.

Play #2

The reverse also happened.

Here, the third line of the Voltigeurs is replaced on a neutral-zone faceoff by Veleno’s line. Unsure of the deployment of Victoriaville, Mongo, who is much better at the dot, is again used in place of Veleno to take the draw.

When the Tigres don’t use their top line, coming back with the same trio as before, Mongo immediately switches out for Veleno after winning the faceoff, setting up the better offensive player to face them.

Play #3

In this sequence, Drummondville is at home in Game 1 of the Victoriaville series and has last change. The trio of Nicolas Guay, Robert Lynch and Cedric Desruisseaux is on the ice against the third line of the Tigers. The play turns into a defensive zone faceoff.

As Victoriaville keeps the same line on the ice with their bottom pair of defenders, this is a perfect time for Ducharme to use Veleno’s trio.

But he doesn’t use the trio of Veleno, Pavel Koltygin, and Desruisseaux that had been a line until that point of the game. Instead, he keeps Guay on the ice to replace Desruisseaux. Guay is more efficient on the dot than Veleno and can take the faceoff in his place. He was also a better offensive player than Desruisseaux in the playoffs.

The draw is lost, but after Drummondville retrieves the puck, Veleno makes a great pass to Guay on the breakout, who then sets up Koltygin to tie the game on a two-on-one. The choice of using Guay proves to be a good one for Ducharme.

Impact with the Habs

This heavy matching style has its downsides. Players often need to get in a rhythm to be involved in a game and prefer consistent ice time and linemates to an extent. It allows them to get more comfortable in their game.

Line-matching, or in the case of Ducharme, almost player-matching, requires a lot of awareness from individuals on the bench who can be called upon to jump on the ice at any moment on different trio setups. It wasn’t rare to see extended periods of time where lines were unrecognizable from shift to shift in the playoffs.

That said, with the lineup that the Habs will put out every night next season, such tactics could be very beneficial.

The team won’t be be without holes, but Ducharme’s advice, talent, and great mind for the game could become useful to earn the Canadiens some wins, keeping players in the roles that best fit them and working around the weaknesses of the lineup.