In February of 2004, I made my first Canadiens trip in a couple of years. A smashed hip and a couple of surgeries had kept me off the road and a pair of games in Florida, followed by a stint at spring training seemed like the perfect way to get back in the swing.
I covered a loss to the Panthers in Sunset first, then drove to Tampa, where I had lunch with Claude Julien before the game against the Lightning. I had talked with Julien several times, but it was my first chance to get to know the man. While Julien could be as cautious as any coach when the cameras were rolling, over lunch he was as blunt as a coach can be in assessing the players he had. Blunt and funny, especially in assessing the players he had.
When I asked about one player in particular, Julien offered a pithy, profane crack, knowing full well I would never be able to use it. So it goes.
Coaches are politicians. They have to be. First, they have to keep twenty-some players happy, or at least sufficiently content to compete. They have to please upper management – including both the owner and the GM, who themselves may not be on the same page.
They have to deal with ink-stained wretches, and TV analysts with egos the size of Niagara Falls, and reporters asking sneaky trick questions. And they have to keep the fan grumbling to a reasonable minimum, which may be the toughest challenge of all.
But on that afternoon in Tampa, Julien left the politician at home. He was what he is: honest, straightforward, plainspoken. I liked the man enormously. I still do.
A neighbor of Julien’s once wrote to tell me what happened during the offseason one year, when the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens saw another neighbor struggling to build a deck. Claude strapped on his tool belt and went over to help. Now try to imagine Michel Therrien doing that.
Julien is a hard-working hockey lifer, a coach who will give you absolutely everything he has, season after season. You will never see a video clip of Julien bullying a player, as Therrien once did to P.K. Subban. He will never let his own ego get in the way, as Mario Tremblay did with Patrick Roy, with disastrous consequences.
Claude Julien is the salt of the earth. But that doesn’t mean he should go on coaching the Habs indefinitely – which brings us to his current dilemma.
Julien began this season with a couple of handicaps: Despite upgrades at several positions, he had little time and exactly zero exhibition games to integrate the new players and be prepared for a brutal six-game road trip to open the season.
The Canadiens passed that test with flying colours – literally. They were flying, the most dangerous offensive bunch seen in these parts since Tremblay ran Pierre Turgeon out of town.
We all knew they weren’t going to go on winning games 7-2 but it was great fun while it lasted.
Then the Canadiens hit a wall. They stopped scoring but they kept taking penalties, which they struggled to kill. Carey Price played like the Price of the last regular season, not the Price of the summer bubble – which is beginning to look like precisely that. A bubble, a phantom, not what Price is today.
Newly acquired forwards Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli kept flying and scoring but some guys who have been around a while did not, especially Phillip Danault. Tomas Tatar and Artturi Lehkonen were healthy scratches.
Victor Mete whined about not being in the lineup, produced one good game against Toronto after he was inserted, then went back to showing you why he wasn’t playing in the first place.
Jonathan Drouin kept picking up assists but, with his reluctance to dive into the heavy traffic, he was rarely a threat to score.
And Julien could not find the answers for any of it. Even with the newly acquired firepower, the Canadiens are 1-for-18 on the power play over the last eight games. They haven’t won two games in a row since they beat the struggling Canucks the first two days of this month.
I always say that to know what kind of team you have, the best approach is to toss out the silly loser points and look at the standings as they should be, in terms of wins and losses. On that scale the Canadiens are 9-8 through 17 games – and falling like a stone.
Julien knows what’s at stake. When it comes to coaches, GM Marc Bergevin is loyal to a fault. He is the antithesis of Bob Gainey, who fired Guy Carbonneau after a tough win in Dallas at a point in the season when no one expected Carbo to walk the plank. Bergevin stuck with Michel Therrien far too long and replaced him only when Julien himself became available.
This is a different situation. Bergevin believes, with reason, that his brilliant off-season moves built a contender. With a short 56-game season, the Canadiens are already down to 39 games and well past the quarter pole.
Tuesday night, the Habs are up against a tough, determined bunch in Ottawa again, followed by two in Winnipeg against a talented Jets team. They will have to go with Jake Allen, who was absolutely superb against Ottawa Sunday and deserved a far better fate. If Carey Price wants to pout, he’s going to have to pout. There isn’t time to worry about his ego.
Again and again in overtime against the Senators, Allen made the kind of saves that usually put wings on the skates of his teammates. Instead, the Habs looked either gassed or disinterested or both.
Another loss to Ottawa and Bergevin will have to make a move. Like it or not, Claude Julien has never been the most imaginative coach and he seems to have run out of ideas. Given that time is short and the schedule intense, the most likely move would be to promote either Dominique Ducharme from the Canadiens staff or Joel Bouchard, who has been doing an excellent job in Laval.
Or Bergevin could make a huge splash by bringing in Patrick Roy. We all know how that’s going to end (with Roy taking a hissy fit and steaming off into the sunset) but if there’s one man who could turn around a team in a short season, it’s Saint Patrick.
And it would be worth the price of admission to see the fireworks between Roy, the greatest money goaltender in the history of the game, and the sometimes lackadaisical Carey Price.
The safe bet? Joel Bouchard will be coach of the Canadiens by the end of this week.