Wednesday, 24 February 2021

The Fall Guys

In the hockey world, it's a known fact that one can't fire a team of players, so the coach is always the fall guy when the wheels come off. Good coaches are sacrificed as a wake-up call for underperforming players in the hopes of righting a sinking ship, and there's often a bump in performance for these players as they look to impress the new coach while trying to shake whatever funk they're in. Today, the metaphors gave way to Montreal Canadiens' GM Marc Bergevin firing head coach Claude Julien and assistant coach Kirk Muller in order to save a team free-falling down the North Division standings.

When the Canadiens face the Winnipeg Jets tomorrow, Dominique Ducharme will be the head coach while former Laval Rocket assistant coach Alex Burrows assumes the assistant coach role with the Canadiens. The lack of practice time with the squad means very little will change in terms of systems and styles, but it seems that there may be some roster shuffling involved for Ducharme's first game as the head man for one of the NHL's most storied franchises.

The Canadiens were 2-4-2 in their last eight games after getting off to a rather impressive 7-1-2 start, but after watching the aforementioned Jets and the Edmonton Oilers nudge Montreal into playoff peril thanks to that eight-game slide Marc Bergevin felt that something needed to be done to right the good ship Canadiens. Cue the firings.

"I would like to sincerely thank Claude and Kirk for their contributions to our team over the past five years during which we worked together," Bergevin said in a statement released by the team. "I have great respect for these two men whom I hold in high regard."

Apparently not in high enough regard to fix this struggling team following a 5-4 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators, yet still holding a winning record and a playoff position in the North Division. Apparently not in high enough regard to look at his $10.5 million goaltender's mediocre statistics and demand more from him. Apparently not in high enough regard to ask why a defenceman - Jeff Petry - is leading his team in scoring despite adding a pile of high-priced talent this summer.

While Marc Bergevin should be lauded for getting Jake Allen, Tyler Toffoli, and Josh Anderson based on how they've played, this team is a reflection of bad deals and poor signings from seasons past. There is far too much money skating for this roster nightly that aren't performing close to the money they're being paid, and it seemed like Claude Julien was doing all he could to try and find combinations to make these underperforming players successful.

One can look at the playoff success, or lack thereof, as a potential reason for the firings today. With the team plummeting down the standings, missing the playoffs was not an option for the Canadiens this season after all the off-season moves by Bergevin, so changing the voice in the room might be the impetus needed for the players to snap out of their current slide. While it seems unlikely that Ducharme's voice will be that catalyst, time will tell if this move was wise by Bergevin.

One thing is certain, though: the GM will not stand idly by as his team slides down the standings.

With the Jets in the comforts of home and playing fairly well, tomorrow's game will certainly be a challenge for the struggling Canadiens. They're going to need good goaltending and some opportunistic scoring if they hope to end this skid against a team neck-and-neck with them in the standings. A split in these two games would be seen as a positive right now for what appears to be a rather fragile Canadiens team.

If the Canadiens fall in both games, they'll play the Senators at home before welcoming the Jets once again for another two game set. Dropping eight points to the Jets would be catastrophic to their final standing in the North Division, so the Canadiens need to figure this out in a hurry if they're going to make a run for the North Division crown.

Normally, you'd trust Claude Julien's veteran coaching voice to find the path out of this jungle that the Canadiens are in, but that responsibility falls to a guy who has been a head coach at the QMJHL level as the pinnacle of his coaching career. It's a tall task, and it might be a gamble that wll eventually cost Marc Bergevin his job.

That's the risk you take in making coaches the fall guys.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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