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.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.