Think about what’s at stake as the interim coach prepares the Montreal Canadiens for a first-round game with the North Division champions of the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the last offseason, owner Geoff Molson authorized general manager Marc Bergevin to spend over $ 100 million building this list. The team was expected to come into the playoffs and deal damage to them, and every decision Ducharme made from then on will have a major influence on his ability to complete the second part of this challenge.
You have to wonder how much his whirlwind of the first few months as coach of the Canadiens prepared him for this. The former Team Canada bench coach recently described the experience as “playing the semifinals and the final of the junior world championships, but for three months” and on Wednesday he said crossing it had it. made stronger.
“Every situation as a coach at all levels is experience and it’s something you have to go through,” Ducharme said moments after the end of the regular season. “For me personally, as with other experiences, it makes me grow as a coach.”
He’s lucky he didn’t bury him.
The 48-year-old had to navigate the back half of the schedule without being able to perform more than a handful of practices – none of them on consecutive days. The Canadiens played 25 games in 44 nights, were missing some of their most important players for many of them and Ducharme had his hands tied by the salary cap and was unable to make a change when he had the most. need. He also said he had to carefully select when to push his players as he could see in their eyes that there was just too much they could take when mental and physical exhaustion set in.
It was an impossible situation, a Ducharme was severely limited in having full control over, and this was recognized by any rational person rating their record 15-16-7.
But all of that is behind him now, and those early decisions he must make, as the Canadiens return to training on Saturday in preparation for Game 1 of their series in Toronto, will be the subject of as much scrutiny as any. the others he will take in the future.
Ducharme must have them all. It can’t be about what Bergevin or anyone else wants, as only he will be the one wearing them when all is said and done.
So if he decides to start Eric Staal on Jesperi Kotkaniemi, or Jon Merrill on Alex Romanov, it must be because he believes Staal and Merrill will give the Canadiens a better chance of winning the first game and not because he feels he needs to support reflection on the decisions that brought Staal and Merrill to Montreal before the trade deadline.
We’re not saying that’s what Ducharme will do. And we don’t know if he intends to dress Joel Armia rather than Cole Caufield – he said on Wednesday he had yet to make a firm decision on his final roster positions – but whatever. he decides, he must be ready to adjust immediately if his decisions do not work. There’s no time in the playoffs to wait and hope that the original plan will be sorted out if he fails out of the gate.
Ducharme would be keenly aware of this reality after coaching Canada to silver and gold medals at the world juniors, after coaching the Halifax Mooseheads to the QMJHL President’s Cup and Memorial Cup and after having coached the Halifax Mooseheads in the QMJHL President’s Cup and Memorial Cup. took a seat in the front row to watch Claude Julien and Kirk Muller navigate. last year’s playoffs.
Julien made some bold decisions from the start to help the Canadiens pull off a remarkable upset against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The veteran coach promoted Kotkaniemi, who had finished the regular season in the AHL, and demoted Max Domi, who had the second-most goals and points over the Canadiens in the remainder of his two years in the league. the organization.
Along the way, Julien also pushed Phillip Danault to a line of control with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehknonen and relied heavily on rookie Nick Suzuki to take on the responsibilities of No.1 center.
Muller, succeeding Julien, who underwent emergency heart surgery after the Philadelphia Series opener, ruled ruthlessly and instinctively. In Game 4, he hooked heart and soul winger Brendan Gallagher to the bench and played Jake Evans in his place because Gallagher hadn’t scored in the playoffs before.
Muller was blasted for it after the Canadiens failed to tie the game, and Gallagher was visibly furious about it.
But Gallagher’s comments on it afterwards spoke of the logic that must dictate all the decisions a coach faces when the stakes are as high as they are in a given playoff game.
“I guess if the coach thinks other guys will do the job better than you, that’s his job,” he said, and he was right.
It’s Ducharme’s job to trust his instincts, plan each scenario and not flinch when an adjustment is needed. It won’t be his job for much longer if he betrays himself in this process.
The pressure of it all, with so much already invested in this season for the Canadiens and ahead of a game with one of the league’s most formidable opponents, can suffocate. It’s Montreal-Toronto for the first time in 42 years, with the national spotlight burning white and potentially burning anyone in its path.
But that pressure can also bring out the best in people. If Ducharme can keep his cool and rise above it, he will have the opportunity to consolidate his place behind the Montreal bench and continue doing what he has always dreamed of doing.