On Tuesday, the Montreal Canadiens dropped a bombshell, firing coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with Claude Julien, who was fired by the Boston Bruins last week. Julien, a Stanley Cup-winning coach with the Bruins, takes over the Canadiens, who are leading the Atlantic Division but have been struggling.
Scott Burnside and Joe McDonald discuss whether or not this move will change the culture in Montreal to help lead the team to success down the stretch and into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Burnside: No love for Michel Therrien in Montreal on Valentine’s Day. I feel bad for the veteran coach who, like successor Claude Julien, always seemed to be getting fired as the head coach of the Canadiens. Of course, Julien will now enjoy the same honeymoon period that all new coaches enjoy, but soon enough Julien will feel the same pressure experienced by all coaches in Montreal. And there’s a weird kind of symmetry to this whole thing. Therrien was on his second go-around as Habs head coach and now Julien returns to the high-pressure post he held for parts of three seasons more than a decade ago. What surprises me is that Julien would sign on for the pressure cooker of the Montreal job just a week after he was fired by the Bruins. Maybe the lure of returning to the most storied franchise in the NHL was too great. Maybe the fact the Habs are a first-place club was a factor. Maybe the chance at getting right back at the Bruins was also part of the mix. But you’ve known Julien a long time, Joe. What were your first impressions of the dramatic coaching moves that marked Valentine’s Day?
McDonald: Scotty, I’m not surprised at all that Julien would accept this challenge to return to the Canadiens only a week after being fired. The thing that does shock me is Bruins president Cam Neely would give the Canadiens permission to speak with Julien; Neely has a true hatred toward the rival Canadiens. But this could be a true sign of respect for Julien that Neely and GM Don Sweeney allowed him to explore other opportunities. In fact, according to a source, other teams were given permission to speak with Julien too. Regardless, it’s the right thing to do on the Bruins’ part. For the Canadiens, this is a bold and brilliant move by GM Marc Bergevin to hire Julien. Something needed to be done in Montreal and this move could be the reason the Canadiens enjoy a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Burnside: One of the interesting sidebars after Julien was fired was the fact that the Bruins were actually a good puck-possession team. The Canadiens, as you noted in a piece, hit the bye week in a bit of a funk. Goalie Carey Price has been sideways for a while, there have been injuries and there has been the schedule that has seen Montreal play seven games in 11 days, ironically finishing with a desultory 4-0 loss to the Bruins and new head coach Bruce Cassidy. Still, if people think Julien is going to introduce a new style of hockey to the Habs, they might be forgetting that Therrien -- at least when Price has been healthy -- has played a pretty impressive style of defensive hockey too. In spite of their recent trip sideways, the Canadiens are still eighth in goals allowed per game. Where do you see Julien having a big influence in terms of the Habs’ style of play, Joey Mac?
McDonald: Julien-coached teams have always had success when they stick to their structure. Yes, he values the defense-first mentality, but in Boston we’ve seen what happens when Julien has a world-class goaltender and a solid defensive core -- it results in a potent offense. He’s also taking over this team when the roster is healthy. Julien has instant credibility with the Canadiens and has worked with Price on Team Canada for the Olympics and World Cup. And I think it’s hysterical that he goes from coaching a team with Brad Marchand to one with Andrew Shaw. I also don’t think Bergevin is done making changes. He’s working the phones, trying to make his team better because a coaching change isn’t the only thing Montreal needs.
Burnside: The pressure is indeed on Bergevin to make this team better. If he can’t add depth up front and specifically down the middle, and this team gets caught by the Ottawa Senators (which could happen, setting up a potentially perfect first-round matchup with Boston) or if they win the Atlantic and are eliminated in the first round (which is another distinct possibility, given that there’s going to be an excellent Metropolitan Division team crossing over in the first round), then Bergevin is going to look like a guy who made a coaching change because that’s what the public demanded. But I don’t think he’s that kind of guy and I do think there is help coming in the form of a Martin Hanzal or someone similar before the March 1 trade deadline. But by making this kind of move, Bergevin set himself up as a fall guy in a town that loves to take its hockey people down. So, how do you see this playing out over the next few weeks and months?
McDonald: Julien is a much different coach now than during his first stint with the Canadiens. He has won a Stanley Cup and knows what it takes to enjoy success in the spring. The initial move will pay dividends for Bergevin and the Canadiens. It would be great theater if somehow the Canadiens and Bruins compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Julien would never admit it, but no doubt there’s a part of him that accepted this job with a sense of retribution. If Bergevin acquires other important pieces, and the Canadiens enjoy a deep run, the GM will look like a genius. If the team’s current tailspin continues, then he will become the fall guy. But there’s no doubt in my mind he made the right move by hiring Julien.