The Case Against Montreal Canadiens Coach Claude Julien

The Montreal Canadiens are at a crossroads and face the real possibility of a lost season. Fans have blamed many. First and foremost, many have noted the failings of general manager Marc Bergevin. Criticism has also been heaped on players like Max Pacioretty, who has struggled and Alex Galchenyuk, who may yet be traded. Carey Price has had the worst season of his career. He hasn’t been helped by a defensive core which seems unable to defend. Thus far, coach Claude Julien has escaped a lot of criticism. That shouldn’t continue.

The Case Against Claude Julien

There are perhaps three major issues with the coach. Some come from his seeming inability to adapt his defensive system to Montreal. Others come from his inability to adjust to a more modern approach to the game. Third and finally, Julien has continued an opaque approach to information sharing with fans and the media.

Defensive Disaster

In the last two years, the Habs have traded P.K. Subban, Nathan Beaulieu and failed to re-sign Andrei Markov. At the start of the season, many fans worried that relying on a slew of slow-footed depth defensemen wasn’t a great idea. They were right. Enter Coach Julien’s defensive zone system. This system has been described as one in which:

Defensemen protected the front of the net and suppressed shots from the crease. The center supported the defensemen down low. The wingers’ first priority was to collapse into the slot. Goals against mattered less in the short term while players adapted to the system. 

Over time, Julien has used this system to deny shots on goal, win games, and bring a Stanley Cup to Boston. Aaron Ward described Julien’s defensive system a “major shift” for the Canadiens. To be successful, it requires communication and adaptation. With a year of Julien’s approach under his belt, Shea Weber is ready for a full year under zone defense. Early in the season, Julien noted that Karl Alzner was struggling to adjust. This remains the case today.

The Habs are the second worst team in the league defensively. Their defensive woes are a big reason why they find themselves out of a playoff position. Defensive coaches that preside over a team with an atrocious defense cannot escape blame for the fate of their team.

Failing to Adapt

Julien seems unable to adapt his old school approach to the new realities of the modern NHL. This is true for his stubborn adherence to an out of date defensive system. It is also true for how he approaches practices and some of the decisions he makes on the ice.

Martin Lemay pointed on TSN 690, after attending many practices this year, the Julien spends time arguing with Kirk Muller rather than leading high tempo practices. He also noted that after Julien left the Boston Bruins, new personnel stated their team was not in shape. Allowing your players to be anything less than game shape and not using practices effectively seems surprising for such a highly touted coach. Julien is not being given the discretion he enjoyed earlier in the season.

Julien has made other questionable calls. Last week he called up Nicolas Deslauriers and then went out of his way to note the momentum shifted against the Habs after Deslaurier fought. This was an odd choice. No one was surprised that calling up a physical player could lead to an on-ice altercation. Why bother to mention the fight? Wasn’t giving up two power-play goals in the third period a bigger issue?

Opaque Decision Making

Claude Julien’s insistence on sticking with his failed defensive system and geriatric mentality to on-ice operations have not put the Canadiens in a good position. His inability to explain his decisions results in strained credibility and may be why some are losing faith.

Earlier this season, Julien would not explain his decision to play Galchenyuk on the fourth line. Last month, Dan Milstein tweeted that Julien was the reason for the struggles and departures of so many Russian players from Montreal. Since then, Galchenyuk has played on the first line. It is still not clear what changed Julien’s mind about Galchenyuk.

Julien seems to be getting tired of being asked to defend his decisions. A common reply to questions from the media is: “Well, first of all, I don’t really have to explain it, but I will.” Julien said it twice this week. If you can’t defend your decisions, they probably weren’t good ones.

In a rare moment of honesty, Julien seemed to reflect wistfully on the days when a poor performance would mean punishing his skaters by forcing them to do tortuous and repetitive skating drills until they were exhausted. Unfortunately for coach Claude Julien, he didn’t have that option under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. Poor Claude. The old approaches are well….old.

Lots of Blame to Go Around

Blaming Julien for the state of the Canadiens is not fair. He did not build this team, and he cannot control the extent to which the players have the talent required to implement his system. However, the Claude Julien honeymoon is over in Montreal. The Habs defense needs to adapt and improve and Julien must support his players to engage in more creative and offensively-minded approaches. He needs to do a better job of explaining what ails this team if he is to be seen as a solution and not part of the problem.

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