PITTSBURGH — Head coach Claude Julien raised some eyebrows Wednesday morning when he revealed that veterans Karl Alzner and Tomas Plekanec would be healthy scratches for the Canadiens’ season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This wasn’t an easy decision and it’s a move that many NHL coaches wouldn’t have made.
On some teams, Alzner would have enjoyed protected status because he carries a cap hit of US$4.625 million a year. And some coaches might have been reluctant to bring an end to Alzner’s ironman streak. Prior to Wednesday, the defenceman had played in 622 consecutive regular-season games, the fourth-longest run among active NHL players.
And the decision to bench the reliable Plekanec had to be difficult because Julien and Plekanec have a history. When Plekanec made his North American debut with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs in 2002, Julien was his coach. They have a ton of respect for each other, but when it came time to formulate his lineup for the game in Toronto, Julien opted for younger, faster players.
The decisions were the latest sign that the Canadiens’ retooling is rooted in a meritocracy. Want a spot in the lineup? Work hard and produce in practice. Want more ice time, a spot on the power play? Earn it with your play on the ice.
The opening game offered some evidence that Julien is on the right track with his emphasis on a high-energy game that starts with an aggressive forecheck. There was no doubt the Maple Leafs had the superior talent, but the Canadiens were one goalpost away from stealing a win.
Paul Byron hit a post with the score tied 1-1 late in the second period and the result might have been different if he had scored.
As it was, the Canadiens showed that hard work and skating can overcome some deficiencies. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock gave the Montreal forecheckers credit for “being all over us” and the result was that Montreal outshot Toronto 36-26.
You could see Julien’s influence in the way this youth-studded squad delivered a fast-paced performance. He was involved as he tweaked lines and gave rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi some help by relieving him of faceoff duties during the third period.
Kotkaniemi made things happen when he was on the ice and, while there is an ongoing debate over whether he will spend a full season in Montreal, you get the feeling that Julien will do everything he can to make that happen.
In fact, Julien went out of his way to make sure Kotkaniemi started the season in Montreal. After last week’s pre-season loss to Toronto, Julien said that, as far as he was concerned, Kotkaniemi had done enough to stick around. We’re not sure where Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin stood on the matter, but Julien’s comments made it difficult for Bergevin to disagree.
Julien might be the most under-appreciated coach in NHL history. The first time he was in Montreal, he was sent packing after 41 games during the 2005-06 season even though he had a winning record. He had the New Jersey Devils in first place with four games left in the 2006-07 regular season, but GM Lou Lamoriello fired him because the guy with the reputation as a defensive coach wanted to open things up.
He lasted 10 seasons in Boston and there was one season when the Bruins were No. 1 in offence and defence. His head was on the chopping block during his fourth season, but he earned a reprieve when he led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup.
Last season wore on Julien. He wasn’t accustomed to losing and everything went wrong. But this is a new season and Julien appears energized by the challenge of working with young players who have embraced the idea of being the underdog.
And he also has to feel good that, based on the Toronto game, goaltender Carey Price is back to being Carey Price.