Let’s get one thing clear before we start. There is no indication, as far as I know, that the Canadiens are looking at a coaching change at the time of writing this. There are plenty of speculations starting to circulate on social media, but Jeff Gorton’s last words were that he would stick with Dominique Ducharme for the rest of the season at least.
Further, Ducharme has been given a very bad hand for his opportunity to show what he can do, as everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The only time he had a relatively healthy team with remotely even schedule was in last year’s playoffs. No, you cannot blame him for his regular season’s record and take the credit away from him in the playoffs. It’s either on the coach or not.
For the sake of this exercise, we will speak hypothetically and pretend that Kent Hughes will decide to go with a new coach by next summer at the latest. But first, we must, once again, refresh the memory of some about the reality of the Montreal market. Anytime there’s a GM and/or coaching change, it’s the same routine and some people will never learn. So there it is… again.
You can kick, you can scream until your face turns blue, you can have a temper tantrum like a 3 year-old at Walmart not getting his way, it won’t change the fact that one of the key criteria to coach in Montreal is bilingualism. Just as we’ve seen some xenophobes in Quebec upset that Kent Hughes was hired as GM, we are sure to see other xenophobes believing that because someone speaks French, they’re not as qualified. The exercise here is to show that it’s not the quality or quantity of potential candidates that are lacking.
Experienced NHL head coach
We don’t know the criteria Hughes would be looking for so let’s look at different levels of experience. First, we’ll look at coaches who have had different level of experience coaching in the NHL. In no particular order:
- Patrick Roy: Yes, he will be interviewed, even if only to appease the masses in Quebec. But in my opinion, he’s not the strongest candidate, far from there. Roy coached the Avalanche for three seasons from 2013 to 2016, even winning a Jack Adams Trophy in the process, but that was before handing in his resignation late in the summer, in mid-August, leaving Joe Sakic in a bind to try to find a coach.
- Alain Vigneault: Vigneault was recently fired by the Flyers. He started his coaching career in Montreal in 1997. He now counts 1,341 regular season’s games and over 700 wins, good for 8th all-time in NHL history. He was bench boss of the Canadiens, Canucks, Rangers and Flyers.
- Guy Boucher: Boucher is currently an analyst on RDS. He has coached the Lightning for three seasons, and spent three more seasons as the Senators’ head coach. In total, he has coaches over 400 NHL games. Excellent technical coach, his message appears to go stale in a hurry.
- Marc Crawford: Crawford is in his second season as Assistant Coach of Derek King for the Blackhawks, joining the staff on June 4, 2019. Crawford has 19 seasons of NHL coaching experience including 1,169 games as a head coach in the NHL. He won a Stanley Cup as head coach of the Colorado Avalanche during the 1995-96 season.
- Alain Nasreddine: Nasreddine had a short stint as interim coach when John Hynes was fired by the Devils in 2019. He is currently learning under Lindy Ruff as his assistant coach in New Jersey. He spent five seasons as an assistant coach under Hynes with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) as well.
- Bob Hartley: We all know Hartley’s resume. He won everywhere he’s been. But it is unlikely that the 61 year-old will want to take over from his good friend Ducharme. Hartley has said in the past that he was done coaching. But if the Canadiens want him enough, they could try to sway him.
I would have liked to put down André Tourigny but he’s currently the head coach of the Arizona Coyotes.
In another category of experience, you have the NHL assistant coaches who have not been head coaches at the NHL level yet. Again, in no particular order…
- Mario Duhamel: Duhamel joined André Tourigny and the Coyotes from the Ottawa 67’s where he served as an associate coach under Tourigny since 2017-18. He had previously joined the Colorado Avalanche as the team’s video coach under Patrick Roy for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Tourigny was also an assistant coach on Roy’s staff for those two seasons.
- Alex Tanguay: Tanguay is in his first season as assistant coach in Detroit under Jeff Blashill. He has spent the last two years as an assistant coach with the American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild.
- Pascal Vincent: Vincent is one of Brad Larsen’s assistant coaches in Columbus, appointed in the summer of 2021. He jointed the Blue Jackets after spending the past 10 years as a member of the Winnipeg Jets organization, including five as head coach of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose from 2016 to 2021.
- Alex Burrows: If we’re going to put assistant coaches, we have to include Burrows. He was named assistant coach on February 24, 2021 after two seasons as an assistant coach with the AHL’s Laval Rocket.
AHL head coach
The last category is head coaches who are coaching in the American Hockey League but have yet to be given an opportunity at the NHL level. I have three candidates for you.
- Benoit Groulx: Groulx has been the head coach of the Syracuse Crunch, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s AHL affiliate since the 2016-17 season. He has taken the Crunch to the playoffs every season there has been a postseason, highlighted by a trip to the Calder Cup Finals in his very first year.
- Joël Bouchard: Bouchard, as we know, was the head coach of the Laval Rocket from 2018 to 2021. He left on a lateral move to coach the San Diego Gulls, the Anaheim Ducks AHL farm team, this past summer after Ducharme was named head coach in Montreal.
- Jean-François Houle: Houle was assistant coach of the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL from 2015 to 2021, before accepting the head coaching job in Laval this past summer. In spite of having several players being called up to play in Montreal this season, the Rocket is battling for a playoffs’ spot.
So there you have it folks. We are just at the halfway point of the season, the Habs having played exactly 41 of its 82 games. The team is sitting dead last in the NHL as we know, mostly due to injuries and COVID. The team has the most man games missed to injuries, and the most players having missed time by being on the COVID protocol list (28).
But if the Canadiens’ new management decides to make a coaching change, I would think that most of the above-mentioned candidates will be getting a phone call for an interview. In my humble opinion, the top-3 front runners for the job would be:
- Guy Boucher
- Benoit Groulx
- Pascal Vincent
And an honorable mention to Joël Bouchard, but while Marc Bergevin is gone, Geoff Molson is still there and Bouchard’s departure might be too fresh in his memory. As a dark horse pick, I would go with Alain Vigneault. Yes, been there, done that, but he’s not the same coach as when he first was in Montreal. I’ve seem him adjust here on the west coast when he coached the Canucks. He had a defensive system but when they got the Sedin twins, he was asked if he could have a more offensive style. And he did, and the Canucks had some pretty good success.
Either way, yes, the Canadiens might be cutting some good candidates like Paul Maurice, but it’s not the quantity or the quality of bilingual candidates that’s lacking. It will be up to the interviews, to see who fits Gorton and Hughes’ vision best. That is if they don’t decide to stick with Ducharme, of course.