When Jeff Gorton took his place in the Montreal Canadiens organization he stated his intention to keep the current coaching staff in place until at least the end of the season. Now, admittedly there is no good reason to not take Gorton at his word. He hasn’t been the type to not speak the truth when addressing the fans and media. Gorton also made it clear that his first major task was to hire a new general manager for the Canadiens to work alongside him as they attempt to sift through the mess left behind by Marc Bergevin.
The GM does remain the biggest part of Gorton’s job, there are trades to be made and a lot of roster decisions that need to be analyzed by the front office staff, so getting them in place is imperative. However, right now there is a massive problem facing the Canadiens at all levels, and it’s that the coaching staff doesn’t seem to have any sort of clue on how to navigate this difficult season.
On their current seven-game losing skid, the Canadiens have scored a total of 10 goals while surrendering 24 against, and the team has the dubious honour of being the first team to 20 losses this season. Given that the likely end goal is to pick in the lottery and potentially add franchise-altering star like Shane Wright, losses are fine. What isn’t right is losing repeatedly in listless, dull, and flat out bad games where no one seems to be prepared for anything at all.
In fairness to Dominique Ducharme and his staff, the Canadiens lead the NHL in man-games lost due to injury, while also not having both Shea Weber and Carey Price at any point in time this year. Prior to the game against the St. Louis Blues, the Habs had just shy of $52 million on the injured list, they then added Jake Evans to that list as he is now day-to-day as well. As a coach, dealing with that many injuries is about as fatal a blow as one can suffer, but the problems extend beyond the injuries because even when the team was missing just Joel Edmundson and Price, nothing seemed right.
As of the writing of this article, the Canadiens power play ranked 30th in the NHL at 12.8%. Admittedly the injuries have hampered this portion of special teams, but the coaching staff wasn’t getting much in terms of production from either unit. It took nearly 30 games for the staff to put Cole Caufield and Mike Hoffman on the same unit, after putting both on separate units for most of the season. Even more boggling is that the staff doesn’t seem overly keen to utilize Caufield heavily on the man advantage, often leaving him off the ice in the most critical situations.
A penalty kill that was nearly unbeatable in the playoffs has been anything but this year. Checking in at 71.0% (30th in the NHL), it remains a frequent disaster on most nights, and it contained almost all of the same personnel as last year before injuries struck. At a certain point, the coaches of these special teams units need to acknowledge their initial plans aren’t working and things need to be altered. If your future in Montreal is on the line, why are you continuing to try to force a square peg into a round hole?
Perhaps the biggest sticking point with how this season has gone so far is the usage of young players or prospects. Throughout the slog of this season, the coaching staff hasn’t trusted the future pillars of the club to handle larger amounts of ice time. We’ve seen Caufield playing eight minutes a night, and Mattias Norlinder playing roughly the same as a seventh defender.
This season is all but lost barring an absolutely miraculous turnaround in the new year. The time is now to entrust the youth with more responsibility. If Ducharme is going to insist on doing the opposite, then Gorton and the next GM may be forced to go back on their initial words. The Vancouver Canucks fired their coach and GM, and have yet to lose under the newly hired Bruce Boudreau. Chicago, while still likely to miss the playoffs, has seen improvements since firing its coach as well.
If the Canadiens are going to be rebuilding around younger players, they need a coach who is willing to let young guys play in high-leverage situations. Ducharme currently isn’t doing that, hell he wasn’t even playing one of his healthy centres in his natural position, and the reasoning behind it doesn’t make much more sense either.
#Habs Dominique Ducharme why asked why Jake Evans is on the wing: "do you want to expose a young guy going toe-to-toe every shift with Patrick Kane & Jonathan Toews tomorrow? Or against MacKinnon & Rantanen? Or last night against Stamkos & Palat every shift?"— Priyanta Emrith (@HabsInHighHeels) December 8, 2021
That quote comes from a coach who sounds like he’s afraid to take chances, which would be understandable if the Habs were in the playoff hunt. The fact is that the Canadiens have won six games all year and it’s almost 2022. Poor excuses, poor tactics, and just generally head-scratching decision-making puts the new Montreal front office in a tough spot. They did say that the staff would be given until the end of the season, but if this is all they’re capable of with their futures on the line, it might be better to cut bait.