When Claude Julien was hired last February, many long-suffering Montreal Canadiens fans released years of pent-up angst. To them, Julien’s arrival (and the departure of Michel Therrien) meant freedom from “off-the-glass-and-out”; from dump-and-chase hockey; from “we’re a grinding team, just accept it!”
After all, Julien’s Boston Bruins were known for combining size and skill during the better part of a decade spent near the top of the former Northeast Division. They may have never been mistaken for having flair, but the Big Bad Bruins had efficiency and structure; something sorely lacking in Therrien’s Canadiens.
A month into 2018, suffice it to say that things have not turned out as anticipated or hoped. A tame first-round exit to the New York Rangers turned out to be a harbinger of the fate of the 2017-18 season, as Julien’s Habs find themselves outside the playoffs with little prospect for recovery. Is this a failure of Claude Julien Hockey, or are there other factors at play?
Has Claude Julien’s system taken hold?
When Julien was hired, we highlighted extensively that the incoming bench boss favoured a significantly different offensive strategy than his predecessor. Whereas Therrien’s Canadiens were very much content to shoot from the periphery and hope for a rebound, a screen, or a bounce, Julien’s Bruins worked to generate chances from the slot.
In October, it appeared that Julien had brought this “home plate area” focus over from Boston. The Canadiens were generating many high-quality chances, only to be stymied by poor finishing and even worse luck.
Now, nearing the conclusion of January, that no longer appears to be the case. The up-to-date heat map of the 2017-18 Montreal Canadiens (upper left) looks very similar to Michel Therrien’s teams (upper right), and bears little resemblance to Claude Julien’s (lower left) or Bruce Cassidy’s (lower right) Bruins teams.
What’s wrong with the penalty kill?
The other hallmark of Julien was defensive discipline, and nowhere did that manifest more obviously than on the penalty kill. Despite being one of the more penalized teams in the league, a robust PK allowed the Bruins to survive and continue playing their rough-and-tumble style. Indeed, when Julien assumed his place behind the bench last year, one of first noticeable changes was in the Canadiens’ penalty-killing.
However, again, this year’s penalty kill bears no resemblance to the PK that cemented the Habs’ playoff position during the last quarter of the 2016-17 season. Last year, Julien’s immediate adjustments did not decrease shot attempts against, but they did force them to lower-percentage areas — as noted by the decrease in expected goals against per 60 minutes, or xGA/60. This correspondingly resulted in a better save percentage, resulting in fewer goals against.
The Habs PK this season is allowing ~15 more shot attempts per 60 minutes of short-handed time than last season under either Therrien or Julien. These aren’t harmless shots from poor angles either, as this year’s xGA/60 is a full 1.5 goals above Therrien’s team last year and nearly 2 goals above Julien’s.
Finally, it has to be noted that the Habs PK is struggling worse in 2017-18 despite getting better goaltending than in Michel Therrien’s portion of 2016-17. In other words: this is not Carey Price’s fault.
Nor is this caused by Shea Weber’s prolonged absence, or even Marc Bergevin’s complete off-season retooling of the defence. In 2016-17, the Canadiens top four penalty-killing defencemen by TOI per game played were Weber, Jeff Petry, Jordie Benn, and Alexei Emelin. In 2017-18, that quartet consists of… Weber, Petry, Benn … and Karl Alzner.
As we can see from a side-by-side comparison, swapping Alzner for Emelin was not responsible for breaking the PK. The team is systemically worse across the board. The CA/60 stat is up for five of the six blue-liners (the sixth had high numbers to begin with), SA/60 is up for three of them, SCA/60 for four, and HDCA/60 for five.
Interestingly, Jeff Petry has shown the biggest decline in terms of goals allowed from last year to this year, and yet remains the Canadiens best penalty-killing defenceman by some distance, highlighting just how effective he was last season.
Marc Bergevin’s retooling has not helped matters. David Schlemko is no match for Andrei Markov, and Nathan Beaulieu is leagues ahead of Joe Morrow. But it’s difficult to pin the difficulties of the entire unit on the third pairing, especially since Julien (or whoever is in charge of deployment on the penalty kill) has cut back on their ice-time in favour of leaning on the top quarter.
So … what’s going on exactly?
That is the million dollar question: why does this Julien-coached team bear no resemblance to his track record?
Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any obvious answers, but just more questions.
- Is this roster not adequately constructed to play Julien’s system?
- Did Julien, ignoring his own pedigree, revert to a more Therrien-esque style as a response to the early struggles?
- Did the players instinctively revert to the ingrained Therrien system when things turned sour?
- Did Julien cede control of the penalty kill during the off-season?
- Did losing Markov have unforeseen ramifications on the penalty kill, even though Markov was not a regular penalty-killer after the addition of Jordie Benn?
Whatever the reasons happen to be, the coach needs to identify and address why this team is not playing Claude Julien hockey. Having a lame duck coach at the helm will relegate the Canadiens to mediocrity or worse for the entirety of Julien’s tenure.