Claude Julien finally finished the coaching shuffle that started when he took over as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens on February 14, 2017. After keeping the same assistant coaches that worked under Michel Therrien for the rest of the 2016-17 and 2017-18 campaigns, there was a change for 2018-19 when Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson joined Kirk Muller on the bench.
Not coincidentally, there was also a full change at the American Hockey League level. Joël Bouchard said prior to the season that the two staffs met to create an organizational mindset.
It would be understandable, and I would argue expected, for Claude Julien to dictate the team’s style. After all, the saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks exists for a reason. But Julien and the rest of the coaching staff changed the Canadiens’ style into one tailored to the team’s strengths and the direction the NHL is going.
“You have to evolve,” said Canadiens director of player development Rob Ramage after the team’s development camp about the current state of the game. “Big defencemen ... Look at St. Louis. They weren’t killing guys but they can track now. The big guys, they can move. Before, guys couldn’t skate. If you can’t skate in this league now, it’s over. You’re playing alumni hockey with me.”
The same applies in a certain way to coaching.
The changes were the major reason for the Canadiens exceeding all expectations. Since Hockey Reference started tracking advanced statistics in 2007-08, the 2018-19 Canadiens had the most shot attempts on net of any Montreal team over the 12 seasons. Not only that, but they beat the previous team record by 393 attempts (4.79 per game). The 4,542 shot attempts at even strength were second most of any NHL team since 2007-08. Only this year’s Toronto Maple Leafs had more.
And it wasn’t simply the Canadiens going all out offensively. They were still very solid defensively. They controlled almost 54% of shot attempts, also their highest mark since this has been tracked.
You likely didn’t need these numbers or this table to prove this concept. The eye test works here too. The Canadiens were fun to watch last season. No longer did they seem incapable of moving the puck or generating offence. They were able to use their strength — their speed — to an extent we haven’t seen in recent history.
I’m not going to go in detail of what changes were made. Marc-Antoine Godin of The Athletic did a really good job of that already ($). But suffice to say that Julien understood he needed to make changes. He hired new people and listened to them, and implemented them with his solid defensive structure still a trademark.
It was the defining moment of the Canadiens’ season, and while they fell short of the playoffs the foundation was put down. Much like the roster tweaks made by Marc Bergevin, the bones of the system are solid.
The Canadiens didn’t have the success they wanted last season, but they still had one of the most successful non-playoff seasons in NHL history. That is a hollow victory to be sure, but there’s no reason to believe that this season’s performance is a flash in the pan. The challenge is now to take the next step.
It couldn’t have been easy for Julien to change the style of his team in his 16th NHL season as a head coach but he did, and it’s a major reason for the optimism surrounding the organization.