Price and more: What Canadiens must fix after firing Claude Julien

People in the hockey world are still trying to come to grips with the Montreal Canadiens’ decision to fire Claude Julien on Wednesday. Don’t blame those who are still stunned and shaking their heads.

But there are plenty of people who are pointing fingers. There’s no denying, for one thing, that everything basically flows back up to GM Marc Bergevin. He’s the one who hired Claude Julien in the first place; remarkably, Bergevin’s seat seemed pretty hot then.

With eight years at the helm, some wonder if Marc Bergevin’s run out of chances as Canadiens GM.

That might be true, but it’s also possible that Bergevin’s already dug the sort of hole a new GM would struggle to get out of.

Bergevin already committed more than $18 million of the Canadiens’ cap space to Carey Price and Shea Weber through the 2025-26 season. For better or worse, this team’s locked down Brendan Gallagher, Josh Anderson, Jeff Petry, and Joel Edmundson to significant term.

It’s fair to wonder how much a new Canadiens GM could do — unless that person could convince someone to take on Carey Price’s $10.5M cap hit, and somehow convince ownership, fans, an opposing team, and Price (no-movement clause) to sign off on a trade.

In the grand scheme of things, the Canadiens made their bed with Bergevin. If big changes are coming, they’ll require major, invasive surgeries.

But what about the short term? What about problems the Canadiens could conceivably fix after firing Claude Julien, and tabbing Dominique Ducharme as interim head coach?

Carey Price hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype

If you want to study the power of perception vs. production, look no further than Carey Price. Many in the hockey world cling to the notion that he’s the No. 1 goalie in the world — or close — yet he’s rarely put together the numbers that justify that hype.

For all of the grief that Sergei Bobrovsky receives as an expensive goalie dragging his team down, Price has struggled to live up to his (cough) price tag for years.

And you can’t really blame Claude Julien’s system. When you dig deeper with stats that attempt to separate a goalie from their environment, Price doesn’t look any better.

But you don’t have to go too deep to find troubling numbers with Carey Price.

As mentioned earlier, the ideal fix might be to trade the problem away. After all, consider how stubbornly “hockey people” cling to the notion that Carey Price is the best of the best. He tied for second with Connor Hellebuyck in Craig Custance’s January “goalie tiers” poll of hockey people (sub required), earning this glowing review from an anonymous goalie coach:

“Every goalie school across the world has clips,” The goalie coach said. “If you could build a goalie, that’s what it looks like …”

So, if you’re running the Canadiens in “NHL 21,” maybe you trade Carey Price to an unsuspecting video game GM. In reality, that would be a PR nightmare for Marc Bergevin. And again, if you could clear that hurdle, Price has a no-movement clause, and other teams have … you know, capologists. Generally speaking.

Maybe just use Price less often?

Whether it’s Dominique Ducharme or a more long-term coaching solution, someone has to get more out of Carey Price.

Or perhaps they need to get more out of the goalie position?

Bergevin made the intriguing decision to not only trade for Jake Allen during the offseason, but to also extend his contract. That’s quite the leap of faith, considering Allen hadn’t stopped a single puck for Montreal at that time.

It’s very early, but so far, that’s looking like a worthwhile gamble. While Allen’s record isn’t over-the-top (4-2-1), he’s carried over his strong work from last season. So far, Allen sports a fantastic .932 save percentage, and he’s basically been lights-out where Price has been shaky.

So … really, the biggest gain for the Canadiens might not be about “fixing” Price, but instead turning to Allen more often. Maybe Ducharme feels less obliged to start Price, and more willing to make it closer to a platoon situation?

Until Price actually backs up the hype, the Canadiens should really consider more of a timeshare.

That’s one major area where Ducharme might find gains compared to Julien, but there are others.

Not-so-special teams

For the most part, the numbers indicate that Claude Julien got a lot out of this Canadiens roster. For some time, the Habs have been a team that dominated puck possession, but couldn’t quite put it all together.

Beyond fixing/sitting Carey Price, Ducharme might be able to make a big difference in one spot: special teams.

Heading into Wednesday, the Canadiens converted on 18.18-percent of their power plays (vs. a 21.27 league average) and killed 76.4 percent of their penalties (league average: 78.7). So, both units rank comfortably below league average.

On one hand, that might boil down to personnel. For all the praise Marc Bergevin received for his offseason moves, the Canadiens still profile as a “volume shooting” team. That quantity-over-quality approach can be useful, especially at even-strength, but might not be the best mix on the man advantage.

That said, maybe Ducharme can help the Canadiens kick one of the telltale habits of a bad power play: too many point shots.

Yes, Shea Weber’s shot is terrifying. You know what can be even scarier, albeit in a subtle way? Uncertainty.

The best power plays use deception and quality puck movement to create lanes. They get defenders out of position, and create Grade-A scoring chances. By settling for point shots — even cannons from Shea Weber — you’re telegraphing your next play. The Tecmo Bowl players in the audience know how poorly that can go.

If Ducharme can improve one or both of the Canadiens’ special teams units, they could go back to looking like a dangerous team.

Most signs point to this not being Julien’s fault

It’s telling, really, that Claude Julien got fired while Montreal sits in playoff position, with a +9 goal differential.

If anything, Julien might have done such a good job that he set expectations too high.

Time and time again, a shaky goalie can cost a coach their job. Maybe Carey Price can’t ever be worth the $10.5M he’s costing the Canadiens, but Montreal has to hope that he’s at least OK. Or have the courage to turn to Jake Allen instead.

Dominique Ducharme could conceivably improve the Canadiens in ways Claude Julien could not. But, barring a turnaround from Price, most of the improvements would likely be baby steps, not giant leaps.

(And it’s quite possible they’ll only get worse without Julien, a justifiably respected NHL head coach.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.