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Julien hasn’t yet had the impact Canadiens were hoping for

The Canadiens are 10-5-1 since Claude Julien took over behind the bench, but the offense has dried up and that could be cause for concern with the playoffs around the corner.

The hiring of Claude Julien by the Canadiens was a move that was almost universally lauded. Montreal had found themselves in a tailspin in February, dropping seven of eight games to start the month and were looking to shake things up. And with Julien hitting the open market after being dropped by the arch-rival Boston Bruins, the Canadiens made a play on the coach, hiring him while simultaneously relieving Michel Therrien of his place behind the bench.

It was a bold play by a team already in a post-season position, but one made with the thought that hiring the best coach available to replace a sitting-duck would bring vast improvement. 

There were certainly some early returns when it came to bringing in Julien. After losing two of his first three games back in Montreal — he had previously coached the club from 2002 to 2006 — Julien’s Canadiens went on a run. Beginning with a Feb. 25 defeat of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal won each of its next six games and seven of its next eight. But over the past five games, the Canadiens have been off and on, inconsistent in both wins and losses, and it seems like whatever impact Julien was supposed to have immediately hasn’t yet taken roost.

When Julien was brought in, the belief was he could turn a team headed to the post-season into an absolute juggernaut. In Boston, he had been the victim of bad luck, with the Bruins playing incredible hockey but failing to be rewarded, firing blanks en route to one of the league’s worst shooting percentages. If anything had cost Julien his spot in Boston, it was the failure of the team to find the net, despite the fact they were dominant. Montreal arguably boasted more offensive talent, however, and the hope was Julien could get the Canadiens firing on all cylinders.

Simply put, that hasn’t been the case. The Canadiens’ record has been decent, no doubt, with and few will complain about Montreal going 10-5-1 in their past 16 games. But the Canadiens’ 34 goals since Julien’s hiring are the second-fewest in the league, and, frankly, Montreal’s underlying numbers at 5-on-5 have been worse under Julien than they were when Therrien was running the bench.

The sample sizes are different, to be sure, with Therrien coaching first 58 games of the season and Julien taking over for the past 16, but the results have been interesting. In many aspects, Julien’s Canadiens have been similar to Therrien’s group. The difference in Corsi for percentage, for instance, is a mere .05 percent with the new-look Canadiens clipping along at 52.38 percent compared to the 52.43 percent possession rate they boasted under Therrien. In terms of actual shots for percentage, Julien’s group has an edge of nearly one percent. Not a great spread, but a spread nevertheless.

Where greater variances can be seen is in the Canadiens’ ability to find the back of the net under Julien. With Therrien at the helm, Montreal had the fifth-best goals for percentage in the league at 55.2 percent, boasting the eighth-best goals for (2.44) and second-best goals against (1.98) per 60. And while goaltending and defense has been similarly strong under Julien with the Canadiens allowing only 1.84 goals against per 60 since Feb. 14, the offense has all but dried up at 5-on-5. In fact, the only teams worse than the Canadiens have been the Colorado Avalanche, New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings, and the 1.77 goals for per 60 rate has marked a significant drop off.

Part of that can no doubt be blamed on the fact that, once again, Julien is watching his team control play without being able to find the net and his scorers’ shooting percentages have dropped almost across the board. The Canadiens had a 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 7.9 under Therrien, which put them right in the middle of the league. However, since Julien took over, Montreal has only been able to capitalize on 5.8 percent of their shots. Only the Kings and Ottawa Senators have been worse since mid-February, this after Julien watched the Bruins post the league-worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage ahead of his firing.

Part of that can be chalked up to puck luck and individual struggles. Max Pacioretty has only scored twice at 5-on-5 under Julien. Alexander Radulov has one goal and four points. Alex Galchenyuk leads the Canadiens in points over the past 16 games, but only two of those have been goals. But there may be a reason why the Canadiens’ offense has struggled so mightily to score, and that’s their lack of scoring chances since Julien’s hiring. Under Therrien, Montreal was the fifth-best chance generating team in the league with 9.1 scoring chances for per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Julien’s Canadiens are clipping along at 7.8 chances — eighth-worst since Feb. 14.

This isn’t an all-new phenomenon for Julien’s teams. Since the start of 2014-15 up until his firing, the Julien’s Bruins were the third-worst chance generating team in the league at 6.8 per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. The only clubs worse over that same span were the Avalanche (6.3) and Devils (6.7). It just so happens that Boston also had the sixth-worst shooting percentage from October 2014 up until Julien was relieved of his duties.

Julien’s teams in recent years have always had a certain aspect of give-and-take, however. The offensive chances are given up in favor of slowing down the opposition. So, despite Julien’s teams in Boston having among the worst chance-for percentages and shooting rates, they were always competitive thanks to a defensively sound style of play. Under Julien since the start of 2014-15, the Bruins 6.5 scoring chances against per 60 were the second-fewest in the league. It allowed Boston to maintain a chance-for percentage of 50.9 percent.

Unfortunately, Julien hasn’t been able to have his defensive structure take hold quite yet in Montreal and the Canadiens are allowing nearly half a chance more per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than they were under Therrien. Digging deeper, though, it’s evident that the chances against haven’t been all that great. Carey Price has seen all but three games since Julien got the gig, and he’s faced two fewer mid-range shots against per 60 minutes and high-danger shots have dropped ever so slightly. It has resulted in an increased 5-on-5 SP for Price.

The changes in underlying numbers, however slight, seem to indicate that Julien’s alterations to the Canadiens’ style of play haven’t fully taken hold. There are still some kinks to work out, it would appear, and maybe a full training camp and more time working with his team on and off the ice is what Julien needs. He doesn’t have that benefit, though, and Julien will need to work quickly in order to get his brand of hockey clicking in time for the post-season. 

Montreal is currently in a position to take the top seed in the Atlantic Division, and that could very well mean a date with one of the powerhouse Metropolitan Division squads. And no matter what the underlying numbers show when the playoffs start, most in Montreal will only care about one number: 16. As in, the number of wins Julien will need to guide these Canadiens to in order to bring home the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1992-93.

(All advanced statistics via Corsica)

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