When Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin told reporters this week that coach Claude Julien will be back behind the bench in Montreal next season, eyebrows were raised. The Canadiens have had a forgettable season, and with the playoffs falling farther from reality with each passing game despite the struggles of other division rivals, fans have been clamoring for change.
The fact of the matter is Julien hasn’t mustered much success since taking over in 2017. The Canadiens have missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons and were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers in 2016-17, a season in which Julien took the reins from Michel Therrien and Montreal won the Atlantic Division, but it was the weakest division in league that season and the playoffs were an abject failure. This season has been no different. The Canadiens sit sixth in the wild-card race, two points behind the Florida Panthers and seven back of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are third in the Atlantic. It’s going to take a major late-season push to change the post-season outlook.
Granted, injuries have an issue in Montreal this season. Paul Byron and Jonathan Drouin missed significant time, with the latter sidelined 41 games total after suffering an ankle injury last month. When Drouin was out from Nov. 18 through Feb. 7, the Canadiens posted a 15-18-3 record, 33 points and were 24th in the NHL, a significant change from the 11-5-4 record Montreal had posted across the first 20 games with Drouin in the lineup. But unlike the Pittsburgh Penguins or Columbus Blue Jackets, two teams plagued by injuries this season, the Canadiens don’t have the depth to cover for a depleted lineup. The poor play of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the inconsistent season Max Domi has had and mediocre special teams have also played a part in the Canadiens’ disappointing performance.
Among the biggest concerns, however, are that the Canadiens are still without a true No. 1 center, a left-handed defenseman to play alongside Shea Weber and a backup goalie on which the the Canadiens can rely.
With all due respect to Philip Danault, who has played fantastic for the Habs over the past few years, he’s not a top-line pivot on any contending team. Second-line, sure, but barring the rebuilding Ottawa Senators, Danault isn’t quite the caliber of any other first-line center in the division. There’s no quick-fix solution, though. Keeping Nick Suzuki down the middle means keeping Max Domi to the wing, which isn’t where he’s most effective. Kotkaniemi isn’t ready. The same goes for Ryan Poehling. One way or another, the Canadiens need to find an upgrade down the middle.
As for the crease, Carey Price hasn’t been the world-beater we’ve seen in the past, but he hasn’t been the issue this season, either. At 5-on-5, Price’s .921 save percentage ranks 25th of the 53 goalies with at least 25 games played. The same can’t be said of the backup situation, though. Charlie Lindgren, Cayden Primeau and Keith Kinkaid, who was originally tasked with solidifying the backup position, have combined for four victories in 13 games. That hardly instills confidence.
What has brought these issues at center, on the blueline and, to a lesser extent, in the crease to the fore is the lack of success Bergevin has had on the draft floor. Of the 39 players drafted between 2012 and 2018, Victor Mete, Artturi Lehkonen and Charles Hudon are the only players with at least 100 games played who remain with the organization. That doesn’t include Noah Juulsen, the only first-round pick from 2009-2016 who is still a Canadien, though injuries have limited him to 44 career games. Development has been a concern, and while it’s unfair to grade the past two drafts yet, there’s significant work that needs to be done. The 14 2020 picks that have been accumulated – not to mention another 10 in 2021 – will give Montreal the chance to throw additional darts at the board, but it’s turning around and developing the assets into NHL-caliber talents that is the next, and most important, step.
This is all to say that Montreal’s situation is a complicated mix. The blame can’t be placed on the shoulders of one person. Bergevin could have easily criticized Julien for the Canadiens’ struggles this year and moved on. It’s not as though the coaching market is bare right now (Gerald Gallant, anyone?). But Bergevin has decided to keep with the status quo and give a vote of confidence to the team’s leader at a time when very few have. Now, he has to hope it pays off.
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