Former Canadiens coach Ducharme eschews blame for Caufield's rookie struggles

‘I was not holding him back’ the former Montreal Canadiens bench boss said recently on a podcast.

Cole Caufield’s underwhelming rookie season with the Montreal Canadiens in 2021-22 remains a widely debated topic amongst Habs fans, with many pointing the blame at former bench boss Dominique Ducharme.

Ducharme was at the helm for Caufield’s breakout performance in 2020-21, where he took the league by storm just months after winning the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s Player of the Year. That stretch saw him tally eight goals and 17 points in 30 NHL games - regular season and playoffs combined.

The diminutive forward was among Montreal’s most significant contributors amid the franchise’s surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final, which ended in five games at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But the 22-year-old struggled mightily in his first full NHL campaign the following season, posting just one goal and eight points across his first 30 games while averaging 14:42 per night. He did, however, score 22 goals and 35 points following Ducharme’s firing on Feb. 9, 2022.

Montreal Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme argues a call as Canadiens' Cole Caufield (22), Brendan Gallagher (11) and Chris Wideman (20) look on during third period NHL hockey action Tuesday, October 19, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Cole Caufield struggled mightily under former Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme, but the bench boss says that the timing of his struggles was merely coincidental. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Now, almost two years later, Ducharme commented on Caufield’s offensive woes while appearing on "The Sick Podcast with Tony Marinaro" on Monday, pointing to the young forward’s lengthy 2020-21 campaign and a training camp-related injury as likely causes for his cold streak.

"He fell while skating during the warm-up and hurt his shoulder," Ducharme said. “So he didn't have a training camp. He returned in time for the start of the season and he had a rough start. Confidence is very important for a maverick. I sat with him and I insisted on the positive, I reminded him that his friend Jack Hughes took a long time before taking off in the National League.”

Caufield’s struggles suddenly disappeared after Martin St. Louis took over as head coach, allowing him to salvage his rookie season and finish ninth in Calder Trophy voting. That success also carried over into last season, resulting in a career-high 26 goals and 36 points in 46 contests.

Despite that surge, the former Canadiens head coach remains confident his structure and systems did not negatively impact the winger's development.

“I did not slow him down,” Ducharme said. “I was not holding him back. It's an unfortunate coincidence. I'm sure if you told Cole about it, he'd tell you pretty much the same story."

Jeff Petry, one of Ducharme’s former players, previously criticized the ineffective structure and tactics implemented by his head coach at the tail end of his eight-year tenure in Montreal. The two did hash things out privately afterward, though.

While the 50-year-old coach admitted hearing those comments hurt at the time, he felt the veteran defenceman’s intentions were coming from a place of concern.

“I never felt his goal was to make us look bad or his teammates look bad," Ducharme said.

The Canadiens went 15-16-7 under Ducharme after being promoted from the assistant staff to replace Claude Julien. With an injury-riddled and aging roster, however, his team earned an 8-30-7 record during his second and final season as head coach.

Following a brief hiatus in 2022-23, Ducharme is set to return to the coaching realm next season as an assistant with the Vegas Golden Knights, where he’ll join Bruce Cassidy’s Stanley Cup-defending staff. The Quebec native says he's anxious to get started in the new role.

“I’m really excited to join the Golden Knights and looking forward to it.”