Coaching the Montreal Canadiens is never an easy job. It’s an even harder job once you get to the post-season. Add in the fact that you’re an interim head coach, that your team has a worse record than under your predecessor, and there’s a week break before the first game against an historic rival...
You get the point.
Canadiens interim head coach Dominique Ducharme raised eyebrows when he announced that Alexander Romanov, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Cole Caufield would not dress for the first game of their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The decision puts players like Jon Merrill, Brett Kulak, Corey Perry, and Eric Staal firmly in the spotlight.
There is no denying that Perry and Staal struggled down the stretch, as did a lot of their teammates battling through a condensed schedule and a reduced roster. They were both acquired for their veteran leadership, and are among the six Stanley Cup champions Marc Bergevin added to the roster since last off-season.
The reason for putting them in the lineup is that they will be able to lift their game in the post-season. There is the very real possibility that they will not be able to, and the slow finish to their season was indicative of that. If that’s the case, there’s a simple solution: Kotkaniemi and Caufield.
It’s easier for Ducharme to test the veterans and see if they are up to the pace of playoff hockey after a week off and practices than to have them as the backup option. You acquired these players for the playoffs, give them an early chance to see if they are up for it.
Best-of-seven series are not decided by the first game. It requires four games to win the series, and more often than not it is decided by adjustments after the first game. That’s where Ducharme will be tested.
There are already calls that Ducharme is being interfered with, or that he is out of his element.
“A series is not just one game,” Ducharme said. “We will need our depth. We have good players throughout our lineup. I expect that we’ll use 14-15 forwards and seven or eight defencemen.”
He also had something very interesting when he talked specifically about Kotkaniemi, who also struggled down the stretch.
“He had a tough end of the season,” Ducharme said. “At a certain point, when you have a nail that’s crooked and you keep hitting into the wall, it will stay crooked. We didn’t have time during the season to straighten out the nail due to the injuries and the schedule. We had to keep hitting it in. Now, with a week of preparation, it’s about putting [Kotkaniemi] straight again.”
Joël Bouchard and Ducharme say they think the game the same way (and Ducharme has started to bring out some metaphors as well). While Ducharme has kept his cards close to his vest, he did say that when Romanov, Kotkaniemi and Caufield do enter the lineup they will be better prepared than they would be if they played Game 1. This is something that Bouchard has talked about at length with his lineup decisions. Developing young players is about more than having them play.
Bouchard will say they need to play well and you need to put them in positions to succeed. Playing for the sake of playing does not help development. Players with the Rocket, and even Caufield after sitting out games while on the taxi squad have said watching the games helped them prepare to play.
If you think this is putting the current team ahead of player development, there seems to be evidence within the Canadiens organization that this is anything but.
When (not if) Caufield, Kotkaniemi, and Romanov get back into the lineup, Ducharme is likely thinking they’ll be in a better place to succeed and that, by extension, will put the team in a better place as well.