BROSSARD, Que. — It was the line of the night, uttered by Dominique Ducharme to reporters at Madison Square Garden after his Montreal Canadiens lost for the 14th time in 18 games this season — this one 3-2 to the New York Rangers.
“We have to execute (when) we have the puck,” the coach started. “You have to make some plays. With the skills NHL guys have, we work pretty hard to get the puck back, so once we have it, we need to keep it.”
And then out it came from the coach: “I’d love to be able to come up with a system for that, but I don’t have one.”
Ducharme has been remarkably patient since taking over for Claude Julien last February.
He kept his cool when Joel Armia’s contraction of COVID-19 presented the biggest hurdle imaginable to him instituting significant change — 25 games crammed into 44 nights with no time for practice — and he even managed to stay even keel about missing part of the Stanley Cup Semifinal and Final due to his own bout with the disease.
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But frustration clearly got the better of Ducharme on Tuesday, after he never really allowed it to bubble to the surface through the first 17 games of what’s almost guaranteed to be a lost season.
He wasn’t wrong about what he said.
However, whether or not it serves him, or the Canadiens, well is certainly debatable.
Some will interpret that comment as Ducharme not having an answer for the team’s biggest problem, which isn’t a good optic for any coach.
But I think the bigger concern is how players might see a comment like that, because it’s the kind of comment that can be viewed as creating separation between yourself and the group in being accountable for the problem.
During a frustrating and down 2019-20 season for the Canadiens, there were a couple of times when Julien lost his cool and said some version of “I can’t get on the ice and play the games for them,” and that didn’t sit well with the players then. Nor should it have.
Ducharme can certainly be forgiven for bending to frustration this time, after the Canadiens made enough mistakes to lose by a much wider margin than they actually did in New York.
But he’d be wise to avoid doing it in like manner moving forward. He’s at the start of a three-year contract with the Canadiens and is trying to obtain maximum buy-in to his system and his way of doing things, and that will be more challenging to do if he starts treating it this as an “us” and “them” situation.
That said, there are countless more examples of Ducharme standing by and with his players and frustration is only natural to come by when results don’t come despite progress within the process.
Brendan Gallagher was certainly feeling it in New York when he punched Barclay Goodrow in the face and got himself ejected with 28 seconds remaining in a game the Canadiens were only trailing by a goal.
“Obviously, I can’t do that,” Gallagher said on Wednesday. “I’m fully aware of that. It’s the end of the game and we’re trying to come back. There was a lot of stuff that went into it. I just took a shot, a little crosscheck to the head, and there’s 20 seconds left and there’s a lot of stuff that kind of builds into that and I’m aware.”
The abuse Gallagher takes in a given game will certainly frustrate him at times, but it’s probably fair to suggest notching three shots on net and six attempts without scoring in Tuesday’s game frustrated him too.
That the 29-year-old has produced just three goals on 43 shots for the lowest shooting percentage of his 10-year NHL career (seven per cent) has to be part of that buildup he’s talking about, and it’s a perfect example of good process unfortunately not leading to good results.
When good process doesn’t generate good results — the Canadiens have played much more to their identity and been much more committed to their system but have only generated one win in their last six games — it leads to confidence eroding.
That’s why those mistakes in execution Ducharme said he doesn’t have a system to correct keep happening.
And the frustration on his part has to be that he knows the players will have a harder time buying into the process if it continues that way.
Fortunately for Ducharme, he has players like Gallagher to lean on to ensure that doesn’t happen.
“Sometimes the road is tougher than other times, and right now is obviously a tougher road back for us. We’ve put ourselves in a deep hole and we’re paying for it,” Gallagher said. “But as soon as you lose that mindset, or you start worrying about results over process, is when those bad habits start to kick in again. We feel we are building. It’s taking some time for the results to come, but it’s important for us to stay on that path and understand that you really do have to have that short-term mindset and making sure that we are just focusing on the process and the journey that we’re on here.”
That’s the type of support Ducharme needs.
In my opinion, he’ll have a better chance of keeping it by avoiding saying what he did in frustration on Tuesday.
Enter Mattias Norlinder
Mattias Norlinder, who was drafted 64th overall in 2019, will make his long-anticipated Canadiens debut against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday at the Bell Centre.
The 21-year-old Swede came to training camp hoping to earn a spot on the team but was injured in the first week and only returned to playing for a three-game conditioning stint with the AHL’s Laval Rocket at the beginning of November. Now, after being recalled a week ago and traveling with the Canadiens through Detroit, Boston and New York, he’s finally getting a chance.
No matter what he does with it, Norlinder is going to be gaining valuable experience. If he’s going to become a player at this level — the impactful one he’s expected to develop into — jumping onto this moving train will provide long-lasting lessons.
Even just being in the Canadiens’ entourage for the last couple of months has already provided a few — especially with this train on a collision course with disaster.
“Always going to be tough moments in your lives, and you need battle through it,” Norlinder offered as a key takeaway from being around during this tumultuous time for the organization. “So, just keep pushing every day.”
As for the approach he’ll take to the challenge of playing in the NHL and against Crosby, whom he referred to as his idol before saying that, in Thursday’s game, “He will not be my idol,” Norlinder said he’s just going to keep it simple.
He’ll be paired with David Savard, who is confident in his abilities.
“I think he’s extremely solid, and from what we’ve seen in practice he’s a young player who’s extremely calm,” Savard said of Norlinder. “Oftentimes, young players like that can come in and immediately make an impact, so it’ll be interesting to see him continue to progress in his development.”
How can Norlinder do that?
“I think he’s just gotta take care of his defence first, and I’m pretty sure he’s going to jump every time he’s got a chance,” Savard said. “I played with a guy like (Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Zach) Werenski, who’s kind of the same kind of player, and I’m pretty sure that was the adjustment for him was to focus on your defence and as soon as this is taken care of you can, when you see a chance to jump, you can do it and be really good picking your spot. And I think that he’ll be completely fine with that.”
The idea is to see.
That’s why Ducharme is pulling Chris Wideman out and giving Norlinder a chance to show what he can do.
Even if the most likely result is that Norlinder returns shortly to Sweden to play for Frolunda, with whom he’s been quite successful over the last year and bit, the coach expects he’ll do everything he can to prove he belongs with the Canadiens.
“For him, I have no doubt that if you ask him what his wish is it’s to play here for the rest of the season,” Ducharme said. “I don’t think he’ll be playing with a Plan B in his mind. He wants to be an NHL player. For sure, it’s a peculiar situation because his injury didn’t enable us to see him in more than a game in exhibition and three in the AHL, but we want to see how he’ll react here. We have to see him in action to evaluate where he’s at and see if he ready for this. We want to see how he’ll continue to progress as he goes up a level. These are all things we need to see and can only see in a game.”
Updates on Price, Edmundson, Paquette and Perreault
Ducharme said Carey Price was back on the ice on Monday for the first time since returning from the NHL/NHLPA’s player assistance program earlier this month and is progressing through the four-phase plan outlined for him to return to games.
Based on what I’ve been told, I’m doubtful Price will be back defending Montreal’s net before December.
But just to know he’s trying to get back as soon as he can has to be seen as a positive as it pertains to the goaltender’s mental state.
Hopefully Price progresses physically, too, as he makes up for lost time in rehabbing from off-season surgery and in conditioning.
Either way, the players are encouraged just to have Price around.
“It’s great to see him,” said Gallagher. “Especially coming into the rink after an unsuccessful road trip, it’s nice to see a positive face.
“We’re here for him, whatever he needs. It’s going to be exciting to watch. Obviously, he needs some time here, but seeing him just work to get back to doing what he loves to do and what we love to see him do is nice.”
The Canadiens will also be thrilled to see Joel Edmundson back with them at practice, which will probably happen on Saturday, ahead of a game against the Nashville Predators.
Ducharme said the defenceman, who’s been out since the start of training camp with an undisclosed injury, will begin with non-contact work at the morning skate and hopefully get back into contract drills if he responds well to that step.
Cedric Paquette, who was injured against the Los Angeles Kings on Nov. 9, was on the ice by himself after Canadiens practice but won’t be prepared to return to play for another seven-to-10 days, according to Ducharme.
The coach also said that Mathieu Perreault — whose degenerative eye condition was discovered in late October, when he was experiencing double and blurred vision from what proved to be a detached retina — had to undergo a second procedure that will keep him out at least another couple of weeks.