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The Canadiens Finally Accepted What They Are

MONTREAL, QUEBEC - JULY 02: Head coach Dominique Ducharme of the Montreal Canadiens reacts against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period in Game Three of the 2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Bell Centre on July 02, 2021 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens have gone, in the span of seven months, from Stanley Cup finalists to making Superfund sites like Buffalo and Arizona feel a little better about their situations by comparison. They have definitively answered any questions about whether that playoff run was a fluke and whether they should start rebuilding. I’m glad they have, and on some level they should be glad, too. Clarity is always welcome, and the suckier they suck this year, the shinier the legend of what Carey Price did last spring and summer.

But at least it was basically all Price, they can now admit, and part of that admittance is firing head coach Dominique Ducharme, who took over as interim in February, oversaw (or at least watched) the unlikely finals run, got the top job and a multi-year extension in the summer … and then promptly lost four out of every five games. Not great! Even less great is a current seven-game losing streak, which has seen the Habs surrender 33 goals in their last five, including a 7-1 humiliation at the hands of the nearly-as-woeful Devils on Tuesday. That’ll generally do it. But, it must be asked, did they err in not immediately blowing things up in the offseason, instead trying to rebottle lightning?

“At this point in the season, we felt it was in the best interest of the club to make a change,” GM Kent Hughes said in a statement, and he might’ve said that at any point in the season and it would’ve been fair. But Ducharme now ends a deeply strange Canadiens tenure (and perhaps head coaching career): In 83 games, functionally a full season, he was 23-46-14—but 13-6 in the playoffs.

The braintrust did not, perhaps, expect another playoff team this year, or at least they didn’t treat the offseason like they had one. They let veterans like Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, and Corey Perry leave in free agency and didn’t seem interested in replacing them. They lost Shea Weber and Carey Price and Joel Edmundson unexpectedly, and simply didn’t have the depth to make up for their absences. They seemed content to let their kids play, and develop. It was already, by all appearances, a tank-and-rebuild year. But Ducharme proved that if he was capable of losing games on a draft-Shane-Wright pace, he was perhaps not the man to look to for improvement.

Because the kids do not seem to be developing. Nick Suzuki, who looked like a can’t-miss star-in-waiting, has treaded water. Cole Caufield took a big step back and was briefly exiled to the AHL. Alexander Romanov has been hit or miss. Ryan Poehling has been scuffling in the bottom six and was to be a healthy scratch as recently as Tuesday before a lineup spot opened up. That last, I think, best sums up what damned Ducharme: He wasn’t able to help young players get better and wasn’t always willing to try. With the roster as currently constituted, that’s just about the one thing Ducharme couldn’t afford to fail at.

And so he’s gone, with three years still left on his, ah, three-year contract. That extension might look bad now and be the source of much mirth, but was it worth taking the chance that Ducharme really was a Hab whisperer? Sure, why not. Also, it’s Montreal. They can afford it, trust me. (It’s just $1.7 million a year, anyway.)

So the rebuild is here, if a surprise Cup final made it take a little longer than it might’ve to kick into gear. Jeff Gorton, the architect of the Rangers’ turnaround, is running hockey ops now. Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis has been named Ducharme’s replacement, though he carries the interim label and has no head coaching experience. There are two clear No. 1 prospects coming out in the next two years in Shane Wright and Connor Bedard, and the Canadiens have as good a shot at them as anyone. The team may be awful, which isn’t ever what you want, but at least it’s now been awful for long enough to be certain that the awfulness is no fluke. The switch behind the bench is a sign that the front office isn’t deluding itself anymore, and understands sunk costs, and didn’t need to wait until the offseason to admit it. If you wanted to be an optimist, you might argue the Habs aren’t late in starting their rebuild, but instead are getting a few months’ jump on it. If you wanted to be an optimist.