When you still consider yourself the league’s signature franchise, maybe things just have to be weird. The pressure the team is putting on itself year after year just warps things, and that’s before you even get to the media that considers itself some sort of modern version of the Knights of the Roundtable. And when you’re having one of the worst seasons in team history, it’s not much of a surprise that things are past the breaking point.
At the base of it all, the Canadiens are still suffering from letting former GM Marc Bergevin steer their ship consistently into the rocks for so long. It’s what they’re going to have to extricate themselves from now. President Jeff Gorton and GM Kent Hughes made their biggest move yesterday in firing coach Dominique Ducharme. They replaced him on an interim basis with Martin St. Louis. Yeah, it’s a lot to take in, and we’ll take it in steps.
Ducharme was overmatched the moment he walked through the door a year ago, looking like a phase David Byrne was going through. Bergevin got ahead of himself by firing Claude Julien, a quality coach with pedigree who at the time had the Habs with a 9-4-5 record even with Carey Price having a sub-.900 save-percentage to that point in the season. But Bergevin, like far too many GMs still, didn’t know what to evaluate with his team or how to do it. Julien, as he always did with the Bruins and Habs, had Montreal second in Corsi-percentage and 1st in expected-goals percentage. What he didn’t have was the players to make that count, as Price wasn’t stopping anything and Bergevin didn’t provide any top-line scorers. Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson had heaters, but that was about it. Just a raft of worker bees that Julien could get to skate hard and do the right things, but didn’t have the finish. You can’t coach finish.
So Bergevin pulled the trigger on Julien, and then the Habs underlying numbers dropped violently for the rest of the season. They finished under .500 with Ducharme behind the bench, and only made the playoffs thanks to the head start Julien had provided. But then Price got hot in the playoffs, and with a little luck (like Vegas’s habit of spitting up against teams far less talented than them, or Toronto’s habit of choking on their own vomit) they made a run to the Final.
But anyone looking at the foundation would have seen it was completely rotted out, and Price wouldn’t be around this season to perform the acrobatics to cover up for that fact. Playoff runs, especially singular ones, aren’t indicative all the time. Again, there isn’t a genuine top-line player to be found. They’re last in goals scored. The defense didn’t have a top pairing player, especially with Shea Weber moving into “not retirement.” They give up the most shots and most goals per game in the league. When that’s your process, you get records like the 8-30-7 the Habs have. This was predictable, though maybe not to this extent.
And it’s all fallen apart, which makes it curious that they waited so long to fire Ducharme this season. It’s 45 games, at least 20 since it was apparent there were termites all over these walls. It’s been two months since Gorton replaced Bergevin. How much time did they need?
Still, you can see where Gorton and Kent thought that the least they could do for the rest of this season was get a fair evaluation of what they have, and maybe to instill some kind of change of attitude rolling forward. So they hired… someone who’s never coached at any level.
Maybe they think this is righting a wrong of the past. The Canadiens don’t just lust after stars from Quebec. They think it’s their divine right to have them (because once upon a time, it was). St. Louis was one of many where it was considered a crime that he plied his trade and Hall of Fame career in a place like Tampa instead of hockey’s Valhalla (even though Tampa has been a superior place to play for a couple decades now). It was a foregone conclusion to many Habs followers that he and Vinny Lecavalier would come north. It’s amazing that Vinny wasn’t hired as an assistant coach yesterday. Jonathan Drouin was Montreal’s make-up for it all. That worked out great, his 20 points doing wonders.
Maybe in a season that has been toast for months, it’s the perfect time to just try something. It’s not like it can get worse. Maybe St. Louis is the type to instill a winning culture to whatever players might actually be around when the Habs are good again. Could be he’s a diamond in the rough. Maybe he can prove he’s worthy of taking the job full time. And if he doesn’t…nothing lost.
But is he the coach to maximize these last 37 games in the development of Nick Suzuki or Cole Caufield? Alex Romanov? You don’t get these games back in their arc.
At least a No. 1 overall pick could be waiting at the end of it.
The Habs are in good hands with Gorton, who’s basically responsible for the Rangers revival but was fired before he could enjoy it. Maybe he’s just trying to weed out the weird that has kept the Habs down for…well, nearly 30 years now. They got here by not scouting themselves well enough. Perhaps it’s hard to see what you have in the mirror when it’s a funhouse version.