Marc Bergevin is hoping a new bench boss can get through to the slumping Montreal Canadiens.
The general manager fired head coach Claude Julien and associate coach Kirk Muller early on Wednesday, and promoted assistant coach Dominique Ducharme to interim head coach.
“It’s not fun. It’s a tough part of my job. To walk into these two men’s room this morning, it was not easy," Bergevin said.
The move followed the Habs' 5-4 shootout loss to the Senators in Ottawa on Tuesday — Montreal's third loss in a row.
After the game, Julien said his team needed to play with more confidence.
“That’s what we’re struggling with right now and it’s showing in all parts of our game," he said.
The Canadiens (9-5-4) got off to a hot start this year, posting a 5-1-2 record in January and giving the Toronto Maple Leafs a run for top spot in the North Division.
The team has faltered recently, however, falling to fourth. In a pandemic-shortened 56-game season, Bergevin said he didn't want to wait to make a change behind the bench.
“The hard thing to watch is the swing from being a really good hockey team that was playing with pace, was engaged, playing to our identity, which is speed, then going to the other side to a team that’s looking for anything," he said Wednesday.
"We’re chasing our tail, we’re chasing the puck, we’re not in sync. And that was frustrating for me.
"If the message is the same and they’re acting differently, then change needs to be made."
Bergevin said he wanted to give Julien and Muller an "honest try" to fix things over the squad's recent six-day break.
“After that week off, I thought we would really come out flying, refocused, re-energized and back in sync. And I didn’t see that," he said.
Putting Ducharme in charge gives the players a "different voice," Bergevin said.
Ducharme joined the Canadiens coaching staff in April 2018 after 10 seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He won the Memorial Cup with Halifax in 2012-13 and has twice been Canada's head coach at the world junior championship, winning silver in 2017 and gold in 2018.
The Canadiens also promoted Alex Burrows to assistant coach. Burrows, formerly a winger for the Senators and Vancouver Canucks, has been a member of the coaching staff for the Habs' AHL affiliate in Laval, Que., the past two seasons.
Ducharme will "100 per cent" remain at the helm for the rest of the season, Bergevin said.
"Quarantine or no quarantine, (Ducharme) was my guy from the time I made my decision," the GM said. "The reason why, he’s a new model of coach, a young coach that came a long way, had success at the junior level, had success at the world junior level. I feel that a new voice is what the team needs."
Ducharme, who will make his debut when Montreal plays Thursday in Winnipeg, said he wants the Canadiens to spend less time in their zone, create more turnovers and give more support to the player who has the puck.
Taking on the role of head coach is much like sitting down to take an exam when you know you've studied hard, he said.
"I feel comfortable, I feel ready. I’m confident in the group, I’m confident in the guys I’m working with. And I'm ready to go," said the 47-year-old native of Joliette, Que.
Still, being appointed to the position came with a range of emotions.
"I'm losing two colleagues and two great people. … To see them leave, obviously, it’s a mixed feelings," Ducharme said. "But I’m proud to be here. It’s been a long road for me. I didn’t take the highway, I went the side road, but I’m proud of that. And I think it made me grow as a coach. And today I’m ready for it."
Julien returned to the Habs for his second go-round as head coach midway through the 2016-17 season.
He previously lead the team from January 2003 through January 2006. After being dismissed by Montreal in 2006, he joined the New Jersey Devils for a brief stint, then went on to coach the Bruins from 2007 until 2017, winning a Stanley Cup with Boston in 2011.
Julien, 60, had to leave the team during the first round of the playoffs last year in Toronto when he had a stent installed in a coronary artery. Muller took over the head coaching duties and the Habs extended the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers to six games before bowing out.
The Habs were the lowest-ranked team to qualify for the 24-team post-season last year and then upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round.
This season, a tightly-contested all-Canadian North Division has heightened the stakes for the seven teams north of the border, said Calgary Flames coach Geoff Ward.
“I think really what we’re starting to see if that the emotion of the Canadian division is starting to come to the front," he said. "And because of that, the rivalries are ramping up a bit and with the division being so tight, it can sway perspective very easily one way or the other.”
Ward said he owes Julien "a lot" and sent him a text Wednesday morning when he heard the news.
"He’ll bounce back, if he wants to and when he wants to. He’s a great coach. And somebody else now will benefit from what happened today," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press