Why Did The Canadiens Hire Claude Julien?

The Montreal Canadiens fired head coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with Claude Julien simply because they could. Habs’ GM Marc Bergevin saw an opportunity to make a move and he took it.

Despite what the analysts and Canadiens executives would like you to believe, hiring Julien isn’t the final piece of their championship puzzle, an upgrade that will bring it all together and propel them to yet another Stanley Cup. There is no grand strategic purpose or profound alignment of personnel and system with Julien behind the bench.

No, it’s none of that. It may turn into that in retrospect, hindsight is 20/20 after all. But I’m here to tell you that the Canadiens and Bergevin did nothing more than make a move for the sake of making a move.

The Habs themselves may even be convinced Julien is a better coach than Therrien, but he isn’t. The perception of Julien being a great coach is out there, for sure. But that’s what winning a Stanley Cup and almost winning a second will do for you.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not ripping Julien, he is a fine coach, a good coach, if a little set in his ways. I’ve watched him lead the Bruins from my perch in Boston for 10 years, I’ve seen plenty of Julien’s coaching ability, and lack thereof.

And he isn’t much of an upgrade, if one at all, over Therrien.

All I’ve heard over the past week is how smart the Canadiens are for snapping up Julien as quickly as if he were a rare slurred consonant. Hooray, they’ve got the great coach, the Stanley Cup-winning veteran with a steady hand and an elite defensive system.

Scott Matla, of SB Nation’s Eyes On The Prize and Habs superfan, (@scottmatla) writes “However, there’s more than just intangibles that Julien brings to the table. Since he took over in Boston during the 2007-2008 season the Bruins are fifth in the NHL in score-adjusted Corsi (shots attempts towards net, adjusted for the score) at 52.63%, by comparison in the same stretch Montreal is 18th, at 49.45%,”

Wonderful! The Bruins are always good at possessing the puck. The problem is they can’t shoot. The Bruins are dead last, 30th out of 30 teams in the NHL in shooting percentage at 6.23%. Montreal, by comparison, is 18th with 7.87%. Will Claude bring the Bruins’ terrible shooting percentage with him to Montreal?

You’ll get no debate from me about the importance of possessing the puck, but it’s about what you do with it that decides games and coaches careers.

I’m hearing a lot about the great Corsi and Fenwick numbers of the Bruins and how Claude is going to bring that possession game to Montreal and thereby improve the offense. Which, besides the coach, is getting the blame in Montreal for the recent slump (1-5-1 in the last 7 games) and general plateauing since the huge start to the season (13-1-1 to open the season, 18-18-7 since).

However, the relevance of Corsi and Fenwick, the darlings of new-age hockey statistics, is still not settled in the hockey world. The statistics generally track shot attempts and reward possession to the team doing the shooting. They then rank players and teams by those derived possession numbers, when and where per game and per 60 minutes.

The Bruins are ahead of the league in playing the puck possession game. This season they have a CorsiFor of 55.6%, first in the NHL. Montreal, though, is only two places behind in third with 52.4%. This remains consistent across the range of Fenwick and Corsi numbers – Boston is first, Montreal is not far behind.

Will the minor improvement in possession with Julien really matter that much?

Wasn’t it once thought that the great possession work of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand drove those great stats, anyway? Seems I’m getting confused who is to credit and who is to blame on a hockey team these days . . .

Not Marc Dumont, however, the managing editor at Eyes On The Prize. Wednesday on Montreal 690, appearing on The Morning Show with Conor McKenna, Dumont sees great upside to the move, “Basically, Claude Julien (or “Geeaine” as he seems to pronounce it) seemed to have found the perfect recipe over in Boston, except for the fact that the roster was, in my opinion, sub-par.”

Dumont then goes on to say that Geeaine’s possession system will now be able to utilize the better roster in Montreal, and therefore the Habs should control, “the vast majority of scoring chances.”

I’ll give him credit he is informed enough to recognize that possession numbers alone aren’t important.

Dumont says that Therrien was good at controlling possession, too, but the dump-and-chase offense of his was the culprit. Geeaine, er Julien, will have the Habs carry it across the blue line more often, he believes. You’ll see them dump and chase much less, he says.

Ok, so there we have Dumont putting it all down to Therrien’s dump-and-chase versus Geeaine’s carry-it-across system. According to him, the offense is to blame but Julien will fix that. Is that reason enough to drop your head coach like a bad habit and take up with the best available?

(By the way, Dumont sounds like one of those insufferable guys who pronounce people’s last names totally in their native language, but every other word is completely said straight. It’s annoying and distracting, stop it, please. Listen to him at the 3:25 mark and go from there. You’ll hear Claude’s new last name as well as Marchand’s, but when he says Spooner and Pastrnak he sounds as if he grew up in Billerica.)

What do the Canadiens say? Can we look to them for guidance as to why Claude was hired?

Maybe the man who did the firing and hiring himself, Bergevin, can educate us, “I saw in the recent performances that something was missing.,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday. He called Julien, “Strict, fair, and firm,” and said the players will be held accountable, implying that they were not so previously.

Bergevin sheds very little light on why he hired Julien, other than that a change was needed and Claude will hold the team accountable. Not much there.

The part about recent performances is the closest thing to the truth I’ve heard around from any of them.

Recently Carey Price has been awful and hasn’t been good since the new year. That is why Michel Therrien is out of a job today, and Claude Julien is gainfully employed (5 years and at least $20 million). No more, no less.

On Jan. 7, Price had a fine game turning away 33 of 36 shots for a .917 save percentage and beating Toronto 5-3. In the 14 games since then, Price has turned away 386 of 432 shots, .894, and gone 4-10-1. He’s been particularly brutal in the most recent three games, losing two of them while giving up four goals in each, with a combined save percentage of .862.

Price has a career .920 save percentage. He flashed a dazzling .933 in 2014-15 when he won the Vezina Trophy. The prior season – .927. Even in 2015-16, an injury-shortened season, he turned in a .934 in 12 starts.

To highlight just how bad he’s been note that in the current 2016-17 season, among goalies with at least 20 starts, Semyon Varlamov of the struggling Colorado Rockies has the worst save percentage with a .898. Even the worst starting goalie in the league is playing better than Price.

Filter out all the Corsi and Fenwick noise, ignore the red herrings about dump-and-chase and accountability. The Montreal Canadiens fired Michel Therrien because Carey Price is in a dreadful slump and Claude Julien became available. Nothing more, nothing less.

Marc Bergevin saw a public relations opportunity with Price and the team languishing and jumped at it.

Hiring the Stanley-Cup-winning Julien won’t make a bit of difference if Price doesn’t rebound.

Kudos to Josh Cooper, an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. He wrote the most honest thing I’ve read about any of this, “But really, unless goaltender Price returns to form, it may not matter who is behind the Habs’ bench.”

Follow me on Twitter @Jdanker22.

Joe Danker on Twitter
Joe Danker
Journalist - OverTime.News
I am a freelance sports writer and on-air sports talk radio personality based in Boston. My focus and expertise is Boston sports, but I branch out into MMA and Olympic subjects as well. In addition to my work for OverTime.news, I have a blog called Title Town, which is all about Boston sports - find it here: http://titletownboston.sportsblog.com.

Joe Danker

I am a freelance sports writer and on-air sports talk radio personality based in Boston. My focus and expertise is Boston sports, but I branch out into MMA and Olympic subjects as well. In addition to my work for OverTime.news, I have a blog called Title Town, which is all about Boston sports - find it here: http://titletownboston.sportsblog.com.

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