by Mathieu Chagnon, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

Claude Julien (Photo by TVA Sports)

On February 14th 2017, the Canadiens were on the second day of their five-day break. It was a timely pause as the team had lost six of their previous seven games, just an  overtime against the Arizona Coyotes. Perhaps it was nothing to panic about given that Montreal had a record of 31 wins, 19 losses and 8 overtime losses.

One call that day would turn the world of Michel Therrien upside down. That day, Marc Bergevin decided to pull the trigger, ending the coaching journey of Therrien with the  Canadiens, despite having a contract that lasted until the end of 2018.

“When he (Bergevin) told me, he wanted to meet with me within the next few hours … you know when your times as come to an end.” – Michel Therrien

A close look at the chain of events preceding that call should have helped the coach to see the conclusion that was writing itself. The said, it should be acknowledged that there are only a handful of coaches who survive in the NHL for as long as five years.

With a terrible end to the season just the year before, Therrien’s tenure could have been over much earlier. The 2015-’16 campaign started very strong. Even after the loss of Carey Price in November, the Canadiens still managed to finish the first two months of the season with a record of 18-4-3. But as the team moved into December, Therrien proved his inability to make effective coaching adjustments, accompanied by Mike Condon’s lack of experience.

The Canadiens went into a deep tailspin compiling one of the worst records (20-34-2) for the rest of the season. When the painful season came to an end, Montreal missed the playoffs and surprisingly, Therrien was given a reprieve. Conveniently, and perhaps falsely, the blame for the season was attributed to the injury sustained by Carey Price.

With the return of their superstar goaltender, the Canadiens had another wonderful beginning to the 2016-17 season. Concerns began to arise again in December as the Habs started to struggle. It was even more alarming, because contrary to the previous year,  Carey Price was healthy.

Price didn’t seem himself and wasn’t getting much help. From December 16th until the coaching replacement, Price had a save percentage of .895 and goals against average of 3.11. The defeats started to pile up. It could have been worse but for a number of overtime wins.

Despite Therrien’s struggling team and his inability to make adjustments, it is clear to me that the head-coach wasn’t expecting to be dismissed. He truly thought that bye week break would recharge the batteries of the players. Therrien had underestimated the seriousness of the situation.

“We were waiting for that pause (…) We were in first position and the first objective was to make the playoffs, so we were in A Very good position (…) With all the travelling and eight games in thirteen days, it’s demanding for the team and no time to practice (…) We were eager to see that pause.” – Michel Therrien

Meanwhile, in Boston, Claude Julien had watched his 10th season with the Bruins shortened. There was a feeling that the highly regarded coach would not remain unemployed very long. Marc Bergevin had to act quickly, and the interruption in the calendar gave him the perfect opportunity.

The post-mortem of this second Therrien era can be summarized as 194 wins, 121 defeats and 37 in overtime. He brought the team four times to the playoffs, losing twice in the first round, once in the second round, and once in the conference final.

It was a conference final against the New York Rangers that is remembered for the images of Chris Kreider sliding into Carey Price in the opening game of the series. Price was lost to injury for the remainder of the playoffs. It’s impossible to know if the outcome could have been different if Carey Price had remained in goal. History can reflect that Therrien was six wins short of bringing back the 25th Stanley Cup to Montreal.

As we know, Bergevin did act quickly and decisively to dismiss Therrien and hire Julien. It was like Groundhog Day seeing Julien replacing Therrien for a second time with the Canadiens. But this time it is a much more experienced Julien than the one who joined the team out of juniors for the first stint.

As the head of the Bruins, Julien presided over 419 wins (all-time leader for the organisation), 256 defeats and 94 in overtime. In nine full seasons, the Bruins made the playoffs seven times, winning the Stanley Cup in 2011. Julien also won the Jack Admas Trophy in 2009.

Taking over late last season, Julien make a few adjustments ensuring that the Canadiens made the playoffs, but he couldn’t guide his team to a first round playoff victory against the New York Rangers.

“When you start in the middle of a season you can do just few changes, you don’t want to shake up the team and confuse them (…) Now I got the chance to begin with a clean slate and build what we want to do with the team.” – Claude Julien

The two coaches had distinctly different approaches, particularly to five-on-five play. 

Under Therrien, the defensive zone coverage was man-to-man, having one player challenging the puck carrier while his teammates were placed to block the passing lanes or be available to receive an outlet pass.

In Julien’s defensive structure, there is much more pressure on the opposing offence. The defensive core tries to create an outnumbered situation for the puck carrier. It is designed to help win puck battles by adding defenders.

If the puck moves away, the players will sit back to protect the slot keeping a tight protective box, and the pressure will be kept at the location of the puck.

Julien has never had a team that was highly-ranked in the blocked-shot column. However,  Bergevin has provided his coach with defensemen who are willing to sacrifice their body. Opponents won’t just feel intense pressure off the boards, they will have tough time finding shooting lines too.

Another significant difference will be seen in the Canadiens zone entries. Under Therrien, Montreal relied on dump and chase. Julien will mostly employ a delayed-type of zone entry.

In short, this method means the puck carrier will gain the zone with possession of the puck and will wait for support. He will either curl back or slow down to create time and space to make a high percentage pass, mostly along the blue line.

It will be intriguing to see if Claude Julien will use the same playbook he used in Boston. Having speedy forwards at his disposal will be a good fit, forcing defenders to retreat into their zone. 

Julien’s approach to the game is much more in tune with today’s NHL and should be a good match for the type of team he inherited.



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