It’s amazing to think it wasn’t that long ago – a matter of weeks – that a lot of Montreal fans wanted coach Dominique Ducharme fired. And the consternation was, on a surface level, understandable: their beloved Habs were on the verge of being eliminated by the rival Toronto Maple Leafs and many questioned Ducharme’s deployment, particularly when it came to the team’s young guns.
Fast-forward to the present and Montreal is in the semifinal against Vegas. Ducharme’s boys made a massive comeback on Toronto before sweeping an unprepared Winnipeg Jets team. Will the Habs survive the Golden Knights’ onslaught? Game 1 didn’t go so well for Montreal, but it would be folly to count the Canadiens out until the final buzzer goes this season.
As for those roster decisions, they seemed to have worked out pretty well. Ducharme initially held Cole Caufield, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Alexander Romanov out of the lineup in the series against Toronto and once Caufield and Kotkaniemi drew in, they made immediate offensive impacts.
Caufield was part of the most important goal of the series in fact, hopping up on a 2-on-0 breakaway with bestie Nick Suzuki in overtime of Game 5, dishing to Suzuki for the winner and ultimately changing the tone of the series. Kotkaniemi’s four goals in the post-season ties him with a number of players for the team lead.
So was Ducharme wrong to hold them back, or did his strategy of allowing the kids to observe the pressure-packed series before diving in pay off? It’s impossible to say in hindsight: call it ‘Schrodinger’s lineup card’ if you will.
But I’m willing to give Ducharme the benefit of the doubt. After all, the man is a winner and someone who knows how to develop young talent. Ducharme won a Memorial Cup as coach of the Halifax Mooseheads back in 2013, leading a lineup stocked with the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and MacKenzie Weegar, with junior ace Zach Fucale in net. And sure, that’s a great team, but they had to beat a Portland Winterhawks squad in the final that featured Seth Jones, Oliver Bjorkstrand and three players who put up at least 110 points each in the WHL’s regular season: Brendan Leipsic, Nic Petan and Ty Rattie.
A few years later, Ducharme helmed Canada’s world junior entry and once again came away with the title, leading the 2018 edition to gold in Buffalo. Now, Canada always has a great roster for the world juniors but this particular edition wasn’t a sure thing. Yes, the Canadians had Cale Makar, Carter Hart and Drake Batherson, but they largely had success as a team: this was the unit that famously saw every forward score at least one goal, with Tyler Steenbergen’s first tally also serving as the game-winner in the gold medal game against Sweden. Tellingly, only one Canadian (Makar) made the media all-star team and no Canucks won a directorate award.
Which is all a long way of saying that Ducharme knows what he’s doing and he knows how to get the most of a roster – though Montreal’s surprising run to the semifinal this year should be all the proof you need of that.
Romanov, the exciting young rookie defenseman, has only played two games in the post-season so far, though his hit on Vegas blueliner Alex Pietrangelo will likely be shown on the Bell Centre Jumbotron for the next decade. This kid is the future of the Montreal blueline, but there should be an emphasis on future. He’s not ready to be The Guy yet and that’s OK. Right now, he’s getting a taste of NHL hockey at its most crucial and visceral and all of that will serve him well moving forward. Caufield and Suzuki are ahead of Romanov, but even they shouldn’t be counted on to provide the primary offense just yet; the fact they’ve been two of Montreal’s most dangerous offensive players speaks to how advanced they are and how lucky the Habs are to have them.
What is apparent however, is that the future is bright for Caufield, Suzuki and Romanov, while Kotkaniemi’s wonky development path seems to have been ironed out under Ducharme.
Win or lose against Vegas, this has been a great post-season for the Habs and Ducharme deserves some credit for his decisions.