New head coach Dominique Ducharme in teacher mode with Canadiens

·5 min read

Dominique Ducharme had a realization when he picked his up car from the Bell Centre over the weekend.

Life — especially in hockey — moves fast.

An assistant coach enjoying a certain level of anonymity when the Canadiens embarked on a recent four-game road trip, Ducharme was already five days into his tenure in the top job following the firing of Claude Julien once the team arrived back in Montreal.

"It hit me that I'm coach of the Montreal Canadiens," Ducharme said of that parking garage moment of clarity. "It's special. It obviously changes for me."

One thing that never changes, however, is the pressure in a hockey-mad province.

"I was raised here as a Canadiens fan," added the native of Joliette, Que. "I knew when I was hired I'd have eight million assistant coaches. It's good, though. That's passion.

"One of the reasons that makes playing in Montreal special is the passion."

The changes in Ducharme's life he can control is the product on the ice. The Canadiens entered the season with sky-high expectations, and while they got off to a hot start, the club has produced just one victory in its last eight games.

And it's up to a 47-year-old bench boss — he has the interim tag, at least for now — to get things back on track.

"Lots of listening, lots of learning," Montreal defenceman Joel Edmundson said of the sessions with his new coach. "You've just got to be an open book every time you come to the rink."

Ducharme wants his iteration of the Canadiens to play faster and with more purpose. Defensive zone coverages have changed from passive to aggressive, while keeping the puck instead of one-and-done attacks is a focus at the other end.

"It's tough to come into a situation where you don't have a training camp where you can set your systems," Montreal winger Jonathan Drouin said. "We're trying to change things as we go. It's hard for him to change 10 things at once. It's too much info for players to grab."

Drouin, who won a Memorial Cup with Ducharme in 2013 when both were with the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads, said communication is key with his old/new coach. With that in mind, Ducharme stopped Monday's practice and spent a solid five minutes explaining one particular drill when he didn't think the players fully grasped the concept.

"He wants to make sure everything's clear (so) you're not thinking," Drouin said. "It's just go play hockey, be creative, use your instincts, but have a system.

"It's easy to play hockey that way. I think it's going to just get better and better when we start figuring out the systems. It's going to become habits for everyone and it's going to be easier to just play."

Montreal blew a 3-1 lead on the way to losing 6-3 to the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday in Ducharme's NHL coaching debut, but there was lots to like about the rematch 48 hours later following a practice and morning skate where class was in session.

Despite losing 2-1 in overtime to stretch its current winless streak to five (0-2-3), the Canadiens dominated much of the night. Shot attempts were 78-38 in Montreal's favour, including an absurd 45-8 at 5 on 5 over the final 40 minutes, while scoring chances stood at 17-1 in the third period.

"We took steps forward before the last game," Ducharme said. "We weren't perfect, for sure. But our goal is to take that and be even better."

Montreal started the season 7-1-2 and was atop the all-Canadian North Division before dropping eight of the last 10 games, including three of four to the lowly Ottawa Senators — defeats that likely cost Julien his job.

"We're going through some adversity," said Edmundson, a member of the St. Louis Blues when they changed coaches before winning the Stanley Cup in 2019. "It's good to experience adversity.

"It makes you a stronger team down the line."

While the Canadiens showed life in Manitoba, some issues run deep and might not be fixable in a few practices. Heading into Monday's action, the club ranked 18th on the power play, 22nd in penalty killing and 28th in faceoffs.

But Ducharme said he's already "ahead of schedule" with a lot of what he's looking to implement — especially at 5 on 5 — as the Canadiens prepare to host the Senators on Tuesday.

"I thought it would be longer on a few things," he said. "Our guys really care. They care, they're buying in, they're all in and they're really committed."

The power play is now in the hands of former NHL winger Alexandre Burrows, who was promoted from the AHL's Laval Rocket when Julien and associate coach Kirk Muller were let go. The 39-year-old scrapped and clawed his way to the big time as a player, eventually finding a spot alongside future Hall of Famers Henrik and Daniel Sedin on the Vancouver Canucks' top line.

"He has a great energy for every guy that comes to talk to him," Drouin said. "It makes you bring that energy out. He's been doing a great job. He (was) a smart player. You don't play with the two Sedins for that many years without being smart.

"It's nice to have that experience."

Ducharme said the goal is to have his players act and not react to what's in front of them.

"We create a habit, we create that something that it becomes an instinct, it becomes second nature," he said. "We're trying to get that going and I think it will impact the pace of our game and the way we play as a team and how in sync we are."

Ducharme's life has changed immeasurably over the last week. Sunday was the first time he's had a chance to take a break and reflect.

"It happened so quick," he said. "Relaxing a little bit, it was a good thing. I needed that. Everything was so intense for three days.

"It was a little bit crazy."

And it's only just begun.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2021.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press