In a surprise move, the Canadiens replaced coach Michel Therrien with Claude Julien — legitimately one of the best coaches in the game.
The Montreal Canadiens have been around for more than 100 years and you can count the number of coaches who haven’t been able to speak French almost on one hand. Of the 31 men who have stood behind the Habs’ bench, six have been Anglophones, not including Babe Siebert, who was named coach in 1939, but drowned the summer before the season without ever coaching a Canadiens’ game.
Prior to firing Michel Therrien and replacing him with Claude Julien on Tuesday, of the six people coaching the Canadiens – the head coach, the associate coach, the three assistants and the goalie coach – five of them were French speakers. The last English speaker in the to win the Cup with the Canadiens was Al MacNeil, who was a mid-season replacement in 1970-71 and was demoted to the Canadiens farm team after feuding with Henri Richard.
There’s a reason for this. The Canadiens are not only deeply steeped in Francophone culture, but the vast majority of their fans are French and their games are carried on French networks. It would be unacceptable to the fan base to have a coach who doesn’t speak their primary language. When Randy Cunneyworth was hired as interim coach in 2011, the Quebec culture minister said she expected the Canadiens to rectify the situation and there were calls for a boycott of Molson products and protests outside the Bell Centre. Then-GM Pierre Gauthier actually apologized for hiring a unilingual coach and owner Geoff Molson was moved to issue a statement that read: “It is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach.”
Hiring a person who doesn’t speak French to replace Therrien, who did but was losing games, was never, ever in the cards in Montreal. So when Julien and his Stanley Cup resume became available just one week ago when he was fired by the Boston Bruins, GM Marc Bergevin acted decisively, as he often does. Coaches of Julien’s ability and pedigree with the ability to speak French don’t come along very often and if you know deep down you’re going to need one, getting him is the obvious course of action.
That’s because not only were the Canadiens getting a Francophone coach, they were also getting the best coach on the market. Of all the coaches who are currently looking for work, not one of them was a better fit for this team, or any other NHL team, than Julien. And that’s important because it relieves the Canadiens of the criticism that this was merely a public relations exercise. Given the way teams have been energized by coaching changes this season, there’s little reason to believe that a new man behind the bench will not motivate the Canadiens to play better. The fact that he’s legitimately one of the best coaches in the game makes it even better.
When Julien was fired by Bruins last week, they were, by basically every measure, the best possession team in the NHL. That’s because as flawed as the Bruins were, Julien had them playing with the kind of structure that allowed them to be competitive. The Canadiens need a lot of the same and they need someone who will push any forward not named Max Pacioretty or Alexander Radulov be more accountable and productive.
A couple of things you can probably expect from Julien is that he will allow Carey Price to play himself out of the funk that he appears to be in of late. With Tim Thomas and later, Tuukka Rask, Julien leaned on his No. 1 goalies heavily. He’ll likely put, and keep, Alex Galchenyuk at center and provide some lineup stability to a team that has seen its coach constantly juggling players to try to find the right mix.
And there is, of course, precedent for firing Therrien and bringing in a mid-season replacement, then having success. The Pittsburgh Penguins did it in 2008-09 when they canned Therrien and hired Dan Bylsma, who led the team to a Stanley Cup championship. The last time the Canadiens fired Therrien and replaced him with Julien in 2001-02, they were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and they responded by earning the last post-season berth and upsetting the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.
What makes all of this so interesting is that the Bruins, who were on the hook for Julien’s salary for the rest of this season and all of next season, allowed him to be scooped by a division rival. Had the Bruins waited until the off-season, there would have been a number of teams that likely would have been interested in hiring him. But the Bruins, led by owner Jeremy Jacobs, are a bottom-line operation and if they could save a few bucks this season by letting him go to Montreal, well, that’s how they do things in Boston.
The only way it could blow up in their face now is if somehow the Canadiens and the Bruins end up meeting in the playoffs. Can you imagine the headlines in Boston if the Canadiens were to continue their playoff mastery of the Bruins with a former Bruins head coach behind the opposing bench?
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