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Micro Analysis: Claude Julien still has the ear of his team

Investigating the issues that have allowed the losing streak to reach eight games, including those attributed to the coaching.

Montreal Canadiens v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

I don’t think anyone would have foreseen an eight-game losing streak with the way the team was playing in the early part of the season. November was supposed to be the easy month of the schedule. Instead, it buried the Habs.

It wasn’t just in the standings. A mountain of doubt is now pressing hard on the shoulders of players. Confidence is gone, creativity slowly erased, and team play is on the brink of being replaced by individualistic attempts that would only further sink a team lacking the talent necessary to win this way.

It’s bleak.

It’s always more productive to look to the future, forget the past and try to start anew. But now we are at a point where we need answers.

What are the problems? Injuries for one. Jonathan Drouin looked like a key member of the team in his start to the season. Paul Byron ... less so, but we know what he brings to the team on an average night: speed and intense pressure away from the puck. He’s a perfect fit for Montreal. With those two players gone, the team’s identity faded.

On top of that, key players aren’t necessarily producing. Max Domi looks too often to be doing his own thing, without as much consideration for the movement of his linemates.

The big, but useless slapshot he took on a two-on-two with Nick Suzuki at the end of the game was telling of a player a bit too in his own head right now. A Domi at the top of his game would have criss-crossed with his partner to push back the defence and create space for a better shot. The play was available, but he chose the desperate option.

There are also little sequences like this one:

There, Suzuki won a race to the puck on the back boards and rimmed it around to Nick Cousins on the far side. He then neutralized the stick of an opponent, picked the puck back up and tried a pass to Domi. The play missed, and the puck ended up behind the net. Domi retrieved it.

The entire Bruins defence was standing inside the slot. There was no play possible back in front. Suzuki realized this and moved to the corner to give an option to Domi, but the centreman was hyper-focused on making a scoring chance happen right away. He juggled with the puck trying to send it back to the slot, but got swarmed by both Bruins defencemen and lost possession.

I guess it was premature to point out a forming chemistry between Suzuki and Domi. They each have talent, but Domi’s lack of patience in the offensive zone often kills plays before they can be established, and Suzuki doesn’t really have the speed to gun up the ice with Domi and take advantage of re-forming defences.

A compromise will have to be made between the two, otherwise they will continue to play below the expectations of their respective high talent levels. The entire fault shouldn’t rest on Domi and Suzuki. The members of the top line have acted like shadows of their former selves in too many recent games. They also need to better support each other. But, moving on from individual player, let’s look at the group as whole.

The last problem could be coaching. Mike Babcock was fired because of his lack of adaptability. He was stubborn, inflexible, and generally thought his way was the right way even in the face of accumulating evidence to the contrary. I don’t think the strategic aspect of the game is necessarily the problem with the Habs like it was with Toronto (on top of the many other stories that came out...). Julien’s staff remains flexible, adaptable, and generally try to change strategies when on-ice results falter.

They completely overhauled the Habs’ forechecking and breakout systems after their disastrous 2017-18 season. Julien brought in new perspectives and seemed to have bought into more modern ways to play the game. But even on a game-to-game basis, we see new strategies from the coaching staff. They match their lines to reduce the team’s weaknesses and protect youngsters, and they come up with neat little set plays that give the Habs an advantage the odd time.

You don’t have to look very far to see proof of adaptability. Last night against the Bruins, the Habs ran a faceoff play where they iced the puck toward Zdeno Chara’s corner and had a forward gun for it, taking advantage of his slowness. That gave the Habs possession a couple of times deep in the zone. It didn’t lead to a goal, but it could have. It’s about using every asset you can.

Last night also saw a more important change: defencemen were much more conservative with their pinches. Odd-man rushes had been a pretty big problem for Montreal in the last couple of games. Communication between forward and defencemen continuously broke down. A blue-liner would go to stop a rim to the weak side (the side of the ice the puck wasn’t previously on) and either the high forward wouldn’t come down to cover for his defencemen or that forward would also pinch up, leaving an opponent behind, ready for a stretch pass.

The coaching staff obviously tried to fix it. The system had been working really well up until now. Surely the team only needed practice time to reinforce their previous good habits. But it didn’t work; Montreal kept hemorrhaging goals.

So last night against the Bruins, the high forward on the forecheck stayed even higher, and defencemen didn’t pinch unless the puck wasn’t at all contested. It drastically diminished the rush offence of Boston, and we barely saw any odd-man rushes.

This could simply be Habs players deciding to play extra-conservatively and not a change of on-ice strategy. It’s always hard to know exactly what is attributable to individual players’ movement and what is the strategic foundation. That being said, due to how widespread the retreating forecheck was during the game, and how good a fix it represented for the Habs’ main issue in recent games, attributing it to a change of system seems logical.

As fate would have it with the recent stretch of bad luck, David Pastrnak still found a way to abuse Montreal’s forecheck. He slashed across the Bruins’ blue line on a breakout, snuck behind the Habs’ least-drilled blue-liner, Gustav Olofsson, received an indirect pass, and Shea Weber was late to catch the prolific scorer in his own slash across after a line change.

One mistake and a goal.

Still, for the majority of the game, the Canadiens contained an offensively talented Boston formation. They didn’t score as many goals as when they were free-wheeling and aggressively challenging the opposition, but they stuck to their plan and it worked for 50 minutes.

They didn’t seem like a formation that has lost faith in their coaching staff. They didn’t seem like they had given up on their season. The multiple dives to block shots and desperate races to tie up sticks in the slot were great examples of mental engagement and collective belief in their abilities, even after suffering loss after depressing loss.

For a long stretch, they looked like a team that thought they could pull off the win. Until the Bruins came back, and Nick Cousins took that penalty. Then the sky came down again.

It was a deployment mistake to send Cousins out there again in hindsight. Only two things could have happened: either he would play extra hard to redeem himself for his mistake, or be too much in his own head, miss a defensive assignment, and sink the Habs even further. Again, with how everything is going right now, the second one obviously happened.

So, do the Canadiens have a coaching problem?

Claude Julien’s staff have obviously been far from perfect, but they have proven that they can adapt, and the players still show that they believe in the strategies drawn up in practice. I don’t think the heads behind the bench should fall just yet — at least not all of them.

That being said, the slope the Habs are on is getting steep. The longer their slide goes on, the harder it is for Montreal to help each other up and start the climb all over again.

“The answer is in the room” is not what anyone wants to hear right now, but with the current state of the team — not a contender and not in a rebuild — major help is not to be expected. The Habs likely have but themselves to count on to stop their fall.

It’s a big challenge, but the team has proven their tenacity and resilience in even the recent past. It has to start with a first step up against the Islanders on Tuesday.