The Montreal Canadiens have had unexpected success this season. Their 6-2-2 record places them a few points from the top of the Atlantic, and the team has proven its ability to compete against some of the best formations in the NHL.
The changes made to the roster in the off-season, especially finding quicker players with a lot of energy in Max Domi and Tomas Tatar, can partially explain this excellent start. They are respectively first and third in scoring, and have found chemistry with other key members of the team. They have grown into pillars of the Habs’ top two lines.
Overall, however, the remarkable adjustments to the systems seem to be an even bigger driving force behind Montreal’s success.
The Habs are all about effective transitions now. They ask their players to move the puck quickly and to pressure it just as fast when they don’t have possession, the objective being to get it back as soon as possible to skate the other way. The players are engaged and support each other on the ice, making the argument that the additions to the coaching staff might have been just as, if not more important than the individual players acquired.
From what was gathered in interviews in the last few months, Dominique Ducharme had a strong voice when it came to finding solutions to the problems the team suffered from last season. He was recruited for his fresh perspective — an outsider view — and his strategies that earned him many wins with the Drummondville Voltigeurs.
With the current results and the observable changes in the Habs’ play, it’s a safe bet to say that he was listened to in the war room during the summer.
Victor Mete said new Habs system is similar to what he played with Team Canada at world juniors last year with Ducharme as head coach— Stu Cowan (@StuCowan1) October 24, 2018
Even outside of the general system now employed by the team, the Habs seem to be taking more pages out of Ducharme’s playbook at the start to the season.
I wrote an article this summer on the coach’s tendency in the QMJHL to match his players to the situations that fit them best on the ice: using his best defensive skaters against the other team’s top line and his best offensive ones against the opposing bottom six. This is nothing out of the ordinary as this is what many coaches strive for, but Ducharme often took it a step further.
He continuously shuffled his lines to get ideal or balanced matchups, having his players go through entire periods with different linemates every time they stepped onto the ice, even pulling out certain elements after a few seconds or after a faceoff to get the most advantageous deployments.
In the end, coaches can have an impact on the game in only a limited number of ways, but Ducharme fully maximized what he could do to walk out with a victory at the end of the night.
Take a look at this sequence from Drummondville’s playoff run last season. The team is visiting the Victoriaville Tigres, and thus don’t have the last change.
Joe Veleno (#90) was Ducharme’s best offensive player and Yvan-Gabriel Mongo (#92), his best defensive one.
As Veleno’s line skates out, ready for a neutral-zone faceoff, the Tigres respond with their top offensive line. You can see the Drummondville centre look to the bench to read his coach’s directives. He takes the faceoff and immediately heads off to be replaced by Mongo, who will now pivot Veleno’s line against the trio of Vitaly Abramov.
After the threat from the Tigres’ best skaters passes, Veleno is immediately put back on the ice in a weaker matchup to try to generate offensive opportunities.
Drummondville continued to match Mongo against Abramov all series long, having their most experienced centre play on many different lines during away games to conserve this ideal matchup as much as possible.
On Saturday in Boston, Montreal had to face one of the best lines in hockey. Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand have been quite unstoppable since placed together. It was then a challenge for the bleu, blanc, et rouge to contain them.
Phillip Danault, Montreal’s best defensive centre and their most talented man on the dot, represented the team’s answer to the high-powered offence that the Bruins trio can generate. It was clear after a few minutes that the coaching staff was going to play the Danault card as much as they could. We started seeing some of the same strategies Ducharme employed in the QMJHL.
As the Bruins came in with a plan to prey on youngster Jesperi Kotkaniemi, wanting to use their biggest threats against him, the Habs countered that by sending Danault between Kotkaniemi’s usual wingers when Boston’s top line was ready to step on the ice. This gave Kotkaniemi easier matchups once the trio of Bergeron was off the ice.
The Habs’ player movement was not limited to that set strategy. In approximately three minutes in the first period, Montreal made five line changes, consistently bested the Bruins in the matchup war, showed the efficiency of their system, and scored their first goal.
At 13:08, on an offensive-zone faceoff, Paul Byron, Danault, and Brendan Gallagher skated to the dot. They were met with the Krejci trio: the Bruins’ second line.
The play went back and forth, but at the end of his shift, Gallagher made a last effort on the forecheck and steered the puck to one side of the ice as the play descended through the neutral zone in control of the Bruins, and the Jonathan Drouin - Domi - Artturi Lehkonen line came onto the ice to force a dump-in.
The team operates a quick transition out of the zone like we have seen many times from them this season; this particular time with the help of Carey Price. Krejci’s line was caught deep on the forecheck late in their shift, and were forced to backcheck and play against Montreal’s fresh elements. Drouin beat his man to the slot on the attack, and redirected the puck on net for a great scoring chance.
The Bruins, seeing the Habs roll their lines, sent Bergeron with his wingers out on the next shift, expecting to face the bottom of the Habs’ lineup. But they were instead met with a different configuration of the Danault line, who was back on the ice with Byron and a new partner: Joel Armia. Montreal anticipated the deployment and used their best defensive elements again against the opposing top threats after giving them a short rest.
A little later, after a matchup of the Habs’ fourth line versus the Bruins’ third, the coaching staff made another quick line change to catch Boston’s fourth line with some of the Habs’ top offensive elements: Gallagher and Tatar. The fourth line was the only one left in the Bruins’ sequential deployment.
This counter led to Montreal’s first goal, as Gallagher was first on the puck in the offensive zone and managed to dangle his way to a shooting position, beating Tuukka Rask with a well-placed wrister.
There were many more examples of good line- and even player-matching in the game. With some good planning, Danault was consistently used against Bergeron and Krejci and the bottom-six of the Bruins had to face the top offensive threats of the Habs on more than one occasion.
This game was a good example of how to maximize the talent that a team has to give the best odds of winning.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Ducharme was heavily involved in the strategy. It fits his style, and he was brought in to take care of the forwards and for in-game adjustments that could exploit the weaknesses of the opponents. That is exactly what the Habs did all game long.
With the uphill battles that the Habs will have to face, we could see the heavy matching come back in upcoming games. It often requires more involvement out of certain players, but it can pay off — as it did on Saturday — if the players know their roles and act accordingly.
The Habs might not win on talent alone, but the good news is that with their new resources, they might collectively have what it takes to be victorious more often.