Should Canadiens stick with Ducharme as head coach?

Should Canadiens stick with Ducharme as head coach?
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During their end-of-season press conferences, the Canadiens reflected on their run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final, with some talk of the future. Plenty was clarified, including Corey Perry not being ready to retire. But one thing that’s not yet fully clear is if the Canadiens will lift the “interim” tag and make Dominique Ducharme their full-time head coach.

Granted, it sure seems like things are headed in that direction.

As Sportsnet’s Eric Engels reports, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin described a contract for Ducharme as “one of the first dossiers to sort out.”

(Younger readers should use that line to put off errands. “Don’t worry, Mom, cleaning my room is ‘one of the first dossiers to sort out.'”)

Such a delay opens the door for an obvious question that’s also difficult to answer. Sure, it sounds like the Canadiens are likely to stick with Ducharme as their head coach … but should they?

Here’s why it’s such a tough nut to crack.

Ducharme getting the ‘interim’ label removed as head coach likely just a matter of time with Canadiens

From a PR perspective, giving Ducharme the upgrade by lifting the “interim” tag as head coach probably feels like a no-brainer.

To put things mildly, Marc Bergevin’s found himself on the hot seat often. You almost assume his pants all have griddle marks. So, he likely feels indebted to many involved in this stunning Cinderella run.

(C’mon, it’s kind of odd that a GM of the Year nominee fired his head coach during the same season, right?)

So, expect Bergevin and the Canadiens to keep Ducharme as head coach. It’s fair to wonder if that’s for better or worse, though.

Modest returns during the regular season — at best

When Bergevin fired Claude Julien in February, the Canadiens were a respectable-but-underwhelming 9-5-4. From a regular season perspective, Ducharme’s rendition of the Canadiens didn’t exactly light the NHL on fire. They didn’t even go the compromised NHL version of “.500,” as Ducharme’s version went 15-16-7.

In 2020-21, and really since Bergevin made the Hail Mary hire of Julien in February 2018, the Canadiens developed a pattern. They frequently hogged the puck, playing great (if maybe lacking some creativity) at even-strength. Generally, they fell short because they couldn’t finish enough chances, and because Carey Price didn’t play like a $10.5M goalie often enough. Julien also lost his job, it seemed, due to “meh” special teams.

During the regular season, things stayed generally the same for the Canadiens under Ducharme. You could probably boil modest underlying dips down to circumstances such as Brendan Gallagher‘s injury.

In other words, Ducharme’s not going to use the regular season as a talking point in contract negotiations.

How much did Ducharme drive the Canadiens’ run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final

Instead, Ducharme will trumpet his coaching job in the Canadiens’ run to the Stanley Cup Final.

But how much did that truly have to do with Ducharme’s own work? That’s a tough call, even by the already difficult standards of gauging an NHL head coach. (It’s not as obvious as, say, an NFL coach either being a hoodie-wearing genius or totally overmatched.)

[Stanley Cup notebook: Nikita Kucherov’s press conference, more]

You can play the “Who really knows?” game with just about any series. The biggest shoulder shrug comes from the Canadiens’ upset of the Golden Knights.

  • On one hand, the Canadiens genuinely outplayed an outstanding Golden Knights team. It wasn’t just a fluke, and that’s a testament to Montreal’s structure.
  • But, uh, how much of that was Ducharme vs. Luke Richardson? (And, yeah, even Claude Julien?)
  • After all, Ducharme was isolated from Game 3 of the Semifinal to Game 3 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final after a positive COVID test. Ducharme could absolutely help plan between games, but it only makes his impact cloudier overall.

This doesn’t mean Ducharme wasn’t an asset for the Canadiens. It’s just not easy to separate Ducharme’s impact from, say, the arrival of “Playoff Carey Price.” Combine those thoughts with stuff that just happens during these runs (John Tavares injury, Mark Scheifele suspension), and the muddiness only escalates.

2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Three
(Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will Ducharme get the most out of young Canadiens like Caufield, Suzuki?

So, it’s difficult to measure success properly. That’s not outrageous. Just look at the Lightning, where you can get into a fight over giving more credit to Steve Yzerman or Julien BriseBois.

But if there’s one area where it’s easier to gripe about the Canadiens, it’s in some of the lineup decisions from Ducharme & Co.

Sure, it was nice to see Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield emerge. They weren’t unleashed instantly, though.

Ducharme and the Canadiens resisted injecting Caufield into the lineup until they started to get in trouble vs. the Maple Leafs. When Julien left, Ducharme seemingly constructed a different doghouse for Jesperi Kotkaniemi. If you have a great explanation for why promising defenseman Alexander Romanov only played four playoff games beyond “he’s young,” I’d love to hear it.

The Canadiens’ refusal to play Tomas Tatar was downright bewildering, if not aggravating. Yet, at least in that case, it’s not worth fretting about. He’s virtually certain to leave as a free agent.

Propelling (or at least not stunting) a youth movement

If the Canadiens stick with Ducharme as coach as expected, then it is crucial to watch how he brings along young players.

The early returns remain troubling, even if the Canadiens enjoyed that run. Will Ducharme give Suzuki, Caufield, Kotkaniemi and others room to grow?

(Frankly, some coaches give younger, creative players really short leashes while looking the other way regarding veterans who should “know better.”)

Really, this is an area where Ducharme has the chance to truly be an upgrade over Julien. Stemming from at least his Bruins days, Julien received criticism for the ways he handled young players. While just about every coach wants to limit mistakes, you also lower your ceiling if you don’t find the right balance.

Is Ducharme the right choice as Canadiens coach? Truthfully, it’s too early to truly tell. The Canadiens just have to hope that Ducharme can prove that their magical run wasn’t merely a one-time illusion.

(Then again, maybe the real magic trick is to hypnotize “Playoff Carey Price” to show up more often during the regular season.)

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.