Anyone with a little bit of living and experience under his belt will tell you that in life, timing is often everything. As a hunter, you can be the best shooter, have the best spot for a tree stand and the best technique, your timing has to be such that the animal is there when you’re there, doesn’t catch your smell and no distractions come to spook it. To get a job, you can be the most qualified, the best in interviews, but if there’s no job opening, or if it requires you to be bilingual and you’re not (zing), you won’t get it. It’s the same thing in hockey.
I can’t help but feel for Dominique Ducharme, who took over the head coaching job of the Montreal Canadiens in February of last season. And honestly, his timing totally sucks! I can’t help but think that his regular season’s record has less to do with his qualities or capabilities as a head coach as it does to circumstances. And judging him on his record is, in my humble opinion, very unfair.
Last regular season
As everyone knows, Ducharme was one of Claude Julien’s assistant-coaches to start the season. The team was up to a 7-1-2 start in the first 10 games, but went on a 2-4-2 stretch (.375 pts%) before Marc Bergevin decided to fire Claude Julien. The need to win was high as Bergevin had signed some key free agents in the off-season and the win-now pressure was on. The Canadiens “benefited” from an entire week off when Joel Armia and Jesperi Kotkaniemi tested positive for COVID, and the GM even left Julien in position at the time.
On February 24th, Bergevin announced that Dominique Ducharme would be taking over as interim-coach for the rest of the season. Bergevin explained that he could have made the change during that week off, but he was hoping that Julien and his coaching staff could turn things around during that week. It didn’t happen.
Further, the Canadiens had to make up for the lost time in an already compressed schedule. So the NHL rescheduled their games and the team had to go through an incredible, never seen before, stretch of 25 games to be played in a span of 43 days. This schedule left literally almost no practice time for Ducharme to implement his system, while coaching a fatigued team facing more rested opponents. The team got decimated by injuries as a result. Still, Ducharme and the Canadiens managed to hold on to the last playoffs’ spot of the Canadian division.
Ducharme then had a week or so to find the balance between getting enough practice time to work on the system, provide enough rest for his team and for injured players to heal up prior to puck drop for the first series against the division leading Toronto Maple Leafs. But at least, they would finally be facing a team with the same amount of rest in between games as they do, creating a more even playing field.
Injured players came back (although some not totally healed, but it’s playoffs) and after falling behind 3-1 in that series, the Canadiens completed the upset by winning the next three games to eliminate Toronto in game seven.
The Habs then went on a roll, sweeping the Winnipeg Jets and allowing them a bit more rest before the next series. Heavy underdogs, the Canadiens went on to upset the Vegas Golden Knights to reach the Stanley Cup finals, before falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning, a superior team who happened to be $18 million over the salary cap due to players returning from LTIR.
But this playoffs’ push, when Ducharme was on a more even playing field as the other coaches, with a more complete line-up, earned him a new three year contract and the interim tag being removed from his title.
We know what’s been happening so far this season, right? It was announced that Shea Weber has career-threatening injuries. We knew that Carey Price needed surgery but weeks prior to camp opening, he surprisingly checked himself into the NHL and NHLPA Players Assistance Program for substance dependency. Joel Edmundson wouldn’t start the season due to a knee injury while Paul Byron would also be out after being operated on his shoulder. A third of the season in, none of those guys have played a game yet.
Days before the season opened, newly signed Mike Hoffman hurt himself and missed the first few games. He came back and just when he was finding his touch, got hurt again and missed more time. With Carey Price already out, Jake Allen suffered a concussion and missed a week of action, forcing the Canadiens to play Samuel Montembeault and Cayden Primeau. Jonathan Drouin missed six games after getting a puck to the head. Mathieu Perreault needed eye surgery and missed 16 games. Jake Evans missed four games.
To make matters worse, the Canadiens found out last week that Brendan Gallagher and Sami Niku tested positive for COVID and would miss ten days, completely away from the team. Jeff Petry, rumoured to playing hurt all season, is finally unable to play and the Habs have also lost Josh Anderson, who will be out two to four weeks. As a matter of fact, the Canadiens had $44 million of salary out of line-up in their last game against the Nashville Predators. That’s 54% of the $81.5 million cap limit in the NHL. Now word on the street is that Tyler Toffoli could be out for several weeks and Joel Edmundson, who was skating, will also be out long term.
Safe this season
During is first press conference, Jeff Gorton stated that there would be no coaching change this season. Dominique Ducharme appears to be safe for the time being. Gorton acknowledged right from the get go that the Canadiens are going through a irregular storm where everything has gone wrong for them. He is in the process of evaluating the team, speaking to everyone, and will make decisions based on his findings when time comes.
As Alain Vigneault was fired in Philadelphia, many pundits on social media have been wondering if Gorton wouldn’t be tempted to fire Ducharme and replace him by the more experienced Vigneault. They cite the fact that they were both in New York with the Rangers. What those people forgot is that it’s Gorton who fired Vigneault back then. Changing coaches won’t change the outcome and why rush to it when you don’t even have a GM in place, who will want to have a say in the coaching staff?
Ducharme is not perfect but he’s a smart coach with tons of potential. He’s still a rookie coach in his first complete season as a NHL head coach. He will make decisions that are unpopular with players, fans and members of the media. If we’re being honest here, we’ll recognize that we’ve second-guessed every single coach and their decision, rookies and veterans. Unfortunately for Ducharme, fans and media are throwing the book at him for his regular season’s record since taking over. It’s not pretty. What they’re ignoring in all of this is that the only time he had a complete roster to work with under more normal circumstances, was during this playoffs’ run.