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Motivated Claude Julien may be what Canadiens need

Montreal hoping new coach can help struggling team find its identity

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

When the Montreal Canadiens change coaches, the debate often goes beyond what it would in any other NHL market. It isn't enough to ask if this was the right time, if the outgoing coach deserved to be fired, if the incoming coach will be an upgrade. You have to ask if the Canadiens hired the best coach available or just the best coach available who speaks French.

Not this time. When general manager Marc Bergevin replaced Michel Therrien with Claude Julien on Tuesday, he seized a rare opportunity to check every box.

The Canadiens were first in the Atlantic Division but fading so badly goaltender Carey Price told reporters they seemed to have lost their identity. Therrien had his chance, lasting almost five seasons. Not only was Julien a clear upgrade, he was the best coach available regardless of language -- or one of the top two with Ken Hitchcock -- and happened to speak French too.

 

READ: Claude Julien NHL timeline

 

What's more, Julien has coached the Canadiens before. He has replaced Therrien in Montreal before. He spent 159 games behind their bench (72-62-10-15) from January 2003 to January 2006 in his first NHL coaching job. So he knows what he's getting into.

He has far more experience and credibility now at age 56 after one season with the New Jersey Devils and 10 with the Boston Bruins. He led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011, the Final in 2013 and the Presidents' Trophy in 2013-14.

Video: NHL Now: Canadiens fire Therrien, hire Claude Julien

He must be motivated. The Bruins fired him a week ago and had him under contract through next season. He could have taken his time and waited for the right opportunity. For him to take this job he must see what Bergevin sees, a chance to boost the most storied franchise in the League to its first Stanley Cup since 1993.

Bergevin traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber last summer. He no doubt has been looking to make personnel moves and will continue to do so up until the NHL Trade Deadline on March 1. But for a variety of reasons, most notably the tight salary cap and the looming expansion draft, trades have been difficult to make. Changing coaches is easier and can make a big impact, as Therrien knows all too well.

Three of the past eight Stanley Cup champions changed coaches midseason. The Pittsburgh Penguins replaced Therrien with Dan Bylsma in 2008-09. The Los Angeles Kings replaced Terry Murray with Darryl Sutter in 2011-12. The Penguins replaced Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan last season.

Video: Kevin Weekes on the Canadiens' new head coach

Four teams changed coaches this season before the Canadiens did Tuesday. The Panthers went 11-10-1 under Gerard Gallant; they're 13-10-9 under Tom Rowe. The next three teams have gone 16-3-2 combined under their new coaches, though it's early. The Islanders went 17-17-8 under Jack Capuano; they're 8-2-2 under Doug Weight. The Blues went 24-21-5 under Hitchcock; they're 5-1-0 under Mike Yeo. The Bruins went 26-23-6 under Julien; they're 3-0-0 under Bruce Cassidy.

Often coaches take the blame for problems that run deeper, but sometimes the same players respond better to a different voice or are called to attention by a change, simple as that. The irony is that Bergevin saw that firsthand Sunday when the Canadiens lost 4-0 to a Bruins team jolted by Julien's firing.

The Canadiens started 13-1-1 but have gone 18-18-7 since. They are 6-10-2 in their past 18 games, 1-5-1 in their past seven with three shutout losses. They have looked tired and flat lately.

But they still have Price in goal, Weber on defense, Max Pacioretty up front and enough depth to perform better than they have been.

Video: Arpon Basu on the Canadiens' coaching change

They are enjoying their five-day bye this week. When they return against the Winnipeg Jets at the Bell Centre on Saturday (2 p.m. ET; CBC, SN, TVA Sports), they will be rested and healthy. They will have a new coach who has won the Stanley Cup and preaches discipline and structure. They will be expected to regain their identity or forge a new one, and quickly.

The Canadiens are not the favorites to win the Stanley Cup now that they have Julien. But there is no reason they can't make a run. If they get hot, who knows? We can only hope the hockey gods are playful enough to give us a Boston-Montreal series, so we can see Julien lead his new/old team against his old team in a new chapter of the rivalry. The press conferences alone would be entertaining, in two languages.

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