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A coaching change isn’t as simple as it looks

After another big loss, the knives are out for Dominique Ducharme.

Anaheim Ducks v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

When Montreal Canadiens executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton met the media for the first time on December 3, he was clear that there would be no coaching change for the rest of the season, saying that Dominique Ducharme’s job was safe.

A lot has changed since that day. Gorton now has a new general manager in Kent Hughes. On top of that, the team’s efforts and results have gotten progressively worse. Since the vote of confidence, the Canadiens are 2-10-5. Eight of those 10 regulation losses were by three goals or more.

Some of that was while the team was decimated by injuries and COVID-19, but since the team returned from their extended holiday break, they have won only one of their nine games (1-5-3).

The old adage is that you can’t trade 20 players, so the coach often is the first thing to change. The Canadiens’ schedule, which includes a mandated bye week with no games or practices after Sunday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, would provide a perfect opportunity. Marc Bergevin, after all, fired Michel Therrien and hired Claude Julien during a similar period.

While it may seem like the best, quickest, and easiest solution to change the immediate mood around the team, it’s not as simple as firing Ducharme and naming an assistant as his replacement, even as an interim coach.

The only French-speaking bench assistant among Ducharme’s three assistants is Alexandre Burrows. I doubt that the team would make the move to push him into the fire, especially since he has no head-coaching experience. Luke Richardson and Trevor Letowski both have such experience, but while Richardson filled in during Ducharme’s COVID-19 spell during last year’s playoff run (and Kirk Muller did so during Claude Julien’s health scare the year prior), this is a different situation. After the vocal minority’s reaction to Hughes’s hiring, I doubt his first major move would be to name a non-French speaker as interim coach.

All this to say that the next head coach, even in an interim role, would have to come from outside the organization (I don’t think Hughes will promote Jean-François Houle from the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket to unsettle both the NHL and AHL team). This also doesn’t mean a move is impossible.

One name that constantly comes up, as an example, is Guy Boucher. Boucher analyzes games for RDS, so he would have enough familiarity with the team to jump in if there’s mutual interest. This is just one possibility of someone who is available.

Another complication is the fact that Ducharme is in the first year of a three-year contract (as are all of his assistants). The team is also still paying the final year of Julien’s five-year contract signed in 2017. Money shouldn’t disqualify a move from being made, but it’s another thing to consider.

No matter what happens in the next week, it’s clear that Ducharme’s future is very much in question. After an extensive search for general manager that included over 10 candidates, it should be noted that the Canadiens have not had a full interview process to hire a head coach since Bergevin hired Michel Therrien 10 years ago. Claude Julien was hired at the same time Therrien was fired in 2017, and Ducharme was appointed interim head coach when Julien was fired last February. After a run to the Stanley Cup final, Ducharme had the interim tag removed without an extensive search. All are moves that made sense at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight may have left potential candidates out. Even if the team hires an interim coach for the remainder of the season, it would be a disservice to forego this another time.

Coldplay is often linked with the Canadiens organization, so it’s fitting to paraphrase their song The Scientist for this situation. It’s easy for people to say “just fire the coach” and there’s a definite argument for it. For new general manager Kent Hughes, nobody said it was easy but no one ever said it would be this hard.