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.
While I think Bergevin has done a pretty good job the last couple seasons, especially this summer (minus Edmundson), you have to wonder how many more kicks at the can he gets. This is year 8 in charge, he already burned one core.
— Andrew Berkshire (@AndrewBerkshire) February 24, 2021
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.
If you don't know what I mean btw, Carey Price has cost more goals than almost any netminder in the NHL over the past 4 years and yet, in the most recent player poll (2020) he was the #1 choice of the players for a game 7 goalie. pic.twitter.com/hZ6SiAEN4B
— CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil) February 24, 2021
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.
In 183 games since 2017-18, Carey Price has a .909 save percentage and has a -38.6 goals saved above expected per @EvolvingHockey. When are we going to acknowledge that he isn't elite anymore?
— Harman Dayal (@harmandayal2) February 24, 2021
But you don’t have to go too deep to find troubling numbers with Carey Price.
Carey Price has allowed 4+ goals in 8 of his 16 regular-season starts over the past year pic.twitter.com/2ipQ3rwqKd
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) February 24, 2021
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.
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.
There's plenty wrong with the way the Habs play the game at 5v5 in my opinion – they take way too many point shots and rely on net-front scrambles and rebounds. The numbers don't lie in the past three seasons: pic.twitter.com/3K71T559uJ
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) February 24, 2021
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.)