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The Case For Claude Julien

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With questions rightly starting to bubble up concerning David Quinn’s job security, a prime replacement has recently entered the market

Montreal Canadiens v New York Rangers - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Following Alain Vigneault’s dismissal at the conclusion of the 2017-18 campaign, the Rangers hired David Quinn to represent something of a 180° spin in attitude from his predecessor. Vigneault’s more laid back, turn the other cheek approach was replaced with a more hard-nosed, in your face, blue collar-esque attitude that harkened back to the John Tortorella days.

Those all sound like nice platitudes for a team to display. Nobody wants to get pushed around, and anything less than 100% effort out of players is unacceptable. However, Quinn’s brand of hockey has resulted in many more of the negative consequences of those platitudes than the positive attributes.

The Rangers have been among the dregs of the league in even strength shot attempts and scoring chances since David Quinn took over. The team ranks 24th in Expected Goals For%, 28th in Shots For%, and 29th in Corsi For% dating back to the 2018-19 campaign. Things are even uglier on the defensive side of the puck, where Quinn’s squad ranks 30th, 27th, and 30th in the defensive components of those metrics.

While the 2018-19 team was a group of players that Scotty Bowman himself couldn’t get much out of, things were supposed to be different after the multitude of high profile acquisitions the team made over the following summer. Artemiy Panarin and Jacob Trouba were veteran acquisitions that signaled the end of the tear down phase of the team’s rebuild, while Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox’s arrivals symbolized the fruits of the Rangers’ labor of tearing things down.

New York Rangers v Washington Capitals
In spite of posting an MVP-caliber season during his debut campaign on Broadway, Artemiy Panarin didn’t have enough help to lead the Rangers to any team success.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2019-20 team was significantly better than their counterparts from the previous season on paper, but aside from career years from Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, the numbers didn’t bear that out. Shot attempt numbers marginally improved, while expected goals results hovered around the same number, but Quinn’s team found themselves in the bottom five in the league of both metrics once again thanks to horrendous defensive performances.

While improvements have been made this season in the expected goals department, the Rangers are still among the lesser teams in the NHL in terms of shot attempts. 25th in Corsi For% and 29th in Corsi Against/60 represents year three of a bad trend. In Quinn’s defense, the situations surrounding Panarin and Tony DeAngelo, as well as the effects COVID-19 has had on the Rangers roster hasn’t done him any favors.

However, this isn’t about the 19 games the team has played during this truncated campaign. It’s about the totality of the last two plus seasons of Quinn’s time in New York, and the opportunity that arose last week after the Montreal Canadiens relieved Claude Julien of his head coaching duties.

To put it mildly, the decision makers in Montreal were off their rockers if they thought firing Julien was the solution to their struggles leading up to the decision. The team began the season well, but fell into a 1-3-2 rut over a two week span, with the final two games being an overtime loss followed by a shootout loss to the lowly Ottawa Senators.

At the time of his firing, Julien had the Habs playing like the most puck dominant team in the league. The team was 2nd in Corsi For%, and led the league in both Shots For% and Expected Goal%. The North (All-Canadian) Division is arguably the weakest in the league, so those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. When you combine those numbers with his previous body of work, a very clear picture gets painted.

In the same time span the Blueshirts have been getting buried at even strength on a nightly basis, Julien’s Canadiens have been a team doing the burying. Since 2018-19, only the Carolina Hurricanes have a greater share of shot attempts than Montreal has had. Only the Vegas Golden Knights have a greater share of expected goals than Montreal has had. No team has had a greater share of shots on goal than Montreal has had.

Montreal Canadiens v Vancouver Canucks
There’s a case to be made that Claude Julien turned the Montreal Canadiens into the most puck-dominant team in the NHL prior to being unjustifiably fired.

This is a team that normally plays in a division with three of the league’s most efficient on-ice teams. The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Toronto Maple Leafs are all objectively more talented than Montreal has been in season’s past. Western powerhouses like the Avalanche, Golden Knights, and St. Louis Blues fall into that same category. In spite of that, Julien’s Canadiens were arguably the most puck dominant team in the league during that time span.

Montreal has had some nice players up front like Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, and Arturri Lehkonen on the wings but Philip Danault was the only strong pivot they’ve had for the last several seasons. Signing Tyler Toffoli and the emergence of Nick Suzuki have given them more depth, but they’ll still be the 4th most talented team in the Atlantic Division at best once the league returns to its normal alignment next season.

So if Julien is this awesome coach that teams should be banging down the door for, why did Montreal fire him? Why did he miss the playoffs his first two full seasons and was on pace to miss a third time prior to the playoff expansion last summer? A lot of it falls on their former “franchise” goaltender Carey Price.

A goaltender’s number one job is stop pucks, and in spite of what you might hear from TSN and Sportsnet, Price has been very bad at stopping pucks for the last several years. His contract year of 2017-18 saw him finish towards the bottom of the barrel in terms of overall save%, (54th/60) Goals Saved Above Average, (56th/60) and dFSV% (57th/60).

With as good an opportunity to cut bait as ever, Montreal rewarded Price’s abhorrent season with an eight year, $84 million contract. Shockingly, the then-31 year old goaltender with a history of lower body injuries was unable to return to form, and currently owns the worst contract in the league. Winning games is difficult when you commit eight figures per year to a goaltender, even more so when that goaltender isn’t worth the contract.

Price hasn’t been the worst goalie in the league levels of bad since re-signing, but he was rocking an .893 SV% at the time of Julien’s firing. He generally finds himself in the middle third of important goaltending stats among the top 60 netminders over the last two plus seasons. Suffice to say, goaltending submarined the Canadiens for a majority of Julien’s tenure behind the bench.

Washington Capitals v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

All of this doesn’t even get into Quinn’s questionable player deployment over the years. Brett Howden has spent his entire NHL career skating more than his play merits. Jesper Fast and Ryan Strome are NHL-caliber players, but logging consistent minutes in the top six is above their pay grade. Julien Gauthier may or may not have a future with the Blueshirts, but having him watch Kevin Rooney and Phil Di Giuseppe from the press box isn’t how the team will find out.

The Rangers moved on from Alain Vigneault in 2018 because the franchise was moving in a different direction. There would’ve been more logic behind firing him following the 2017 playoffs rather than when they did if performance vs expectations was the issue at hand. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. The issue now is that a top coach has unexpectedly hit the market. Quinn’s seat has gotten hotter this season, and the more poor performances the team displays, the hotter it will get.

When the Canadiens hired Julien four years ago, the team was in first place in their division and was on pace for a 99 point regular season. Julien was out of work for a week between being fired by Boston and hired by Montreal. The Rangers, like every other sports organization, look to improve their team whenever and wherever possible. That normally comes in the form of players, but it’s currently available in the form of an upgrade behind the bench.

If Julien is interested, the Rangers should make it happen.

*Data via Evolving Hockey