The Czech kid reported to the AHL in the fall of 2002, yet another teenager who needed directions and a map to find his own defensive zone.
So his coach, barely a decade removed from his playing days as a canny, if comparatively leaden defenceman, got the sketch pad out.
Eventually, Tomas Plekanec would grow into perhaps the most unsung two-way centre in the NHL.
“I was a rookie, I didn’t speak any English … everything was a new world for me. He pretty much taught me everything,” the Montreal Canadiens forward said.
The ‘he’ in question is Claude Julien.
When Plekanec’s former Hamilton Bulldogs mentor returned to the fold on Feb. 14 – to replace Michel Therrien, the man he also stepped in for at midseason in 2002-03 – the 34-year-old had a stronger basis for comparison than just about anyone else in the room (Russian defenceman Andrei Markov is the only other holdover from the first Julien era).
“Hockey-wise there are several things that are different. He’s evolved like every coach, but I do get flashbacks,” Plekanec laughed. “He communicated really well with the players, and he’s a teacher, so that part is very similar.”
In other words: comparable, but not quite the same.
Hockey players are hesitant to discuss the nitty-gritty of game plans and overall system strategy, so there were no grand revelations from Plekanec. Suffice it to say, Julien has a broadly similar but updated and improved philosophy relative to the Bulldogs of yore (in Plekanec’s first season they finished first overall and reached the championship final).
There is ample evidence of his influence after 12 games in charge, eight of them victories.
The penalty killing is vastly improved, zone exits are far crisper and defensive-zone coverage is beginning to round into shape.
“I feel like we’re trending in the right direction,” captain Max Pacioretty said this week after a hard-fought loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. “But it doesn’t mean much if you don’t win.”
Oh, about that.
This time around Julien has tangible, metallic evidence that his plan works: a Stanley Cup ring (presumably kept in the same drawer as the two Olympic and one World Cup gold medals).
If there is a signal difference between then and now, that’s it.
Julien is the same height and within shouting distance of his weight in 2002 – he joked that his old coaching tracksuit still fits, if a little more snugly – and if it seems as though his stature has grown, it’s a function of his considerable reputation.
Success confers authority.
Although he has done a lot of winning since his first NHL coaching shot, which was marred by a lockout season and ended after a front-office shuffle, it’s not exactly a foreign concept to him.
Julien, a roofer’s son who grew up just east of Ottawa, has enjoyed success since he first picked up a whistle.
Maybe it’s a family thing. His older brother Rick would later become a celebrated minor-hockey coach.
After a peripatetic junior and minor-league playing career – he played 14 NHL games (point total: one assist) with the Quebec Nordiques – Julien returned home for good in 1992.
Within 18 months he would join the staff of the Ottawa Jr. Senators, of the Central Junior Hockey League Junior A circuit. The fellow in charge of personnel decisions was Pierre Dorion, now general-manager of the honest-to-God NHL Senators. The two remain close.
After that came a call from the Hull Olympiques, the major-junior team, who he took to a Memorial Cup championship, and a stint with Hockey Canada’s under-20 program.
That’s when the Julien blip first showed up on the Team Canada radar. It has never left.
In those years, André Savard worked in the Sens’ front office, which matters because he both played with and coached Julien in the Nordique’s organization.
Savard was appointed the Habs’ player-personnel director in 2000 and later replaced Réjean Houle as GM.
By then Julien was in the AHL with Hamilton, where he coached a losing team for the first time. It was an eye-opening, formative experience.
When the 2002-03 season started the situation was less than ideal. The team’s affiliation was split between the Habs and the Edmonton Oilers, who had hired Julien two seasons previously.
He built it into a powerhouse and when Savard was trying to reverse the Habs’ fortunes he turned to his old teammate, at the cost of a fifth-round draft pick (Oilers brass initially asked for a third-rounder).
“I thought he had that presence and the patience that you need to coach at this level,” said Savard, who now scouts for the New Jersey Devils. “When you replace a coach in midseason, you have to make sure you get someone you know and trust.”
Running down the names, the 2002-03 Habs roster doesn’t look half-bad: Doug Gilmour, Joé Juneau, faceoff wizard Yanic Perreault, defensive stalwart Stéphane Quintal, in-their-prime Saku Koivu and Andrei Markov, a young Mike Ribeiro.
Then you look at the age column, and – well, sensitive eyes might want to avert their gaze.
The 39-year-old Gilmour was one of 13 players on the wrong side of 30. Within a year, 10 of them would either be retired or playing in Europe.
This is the hockey flotsam that greeted Julien when he walked into an NHL dressing room as a coach for the first time.
Not long after came a season-killing nine-game losing streak during which Gilmour would be flipped to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The next year, the Habs squeaked into the playoffs and upset the heavily favoured Boston Bruins before bowing out against the eventual Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
A year after that the NHL season was scrapped amid the acrimony of a labour dispute. By January of 2006, Julien was out of a job.
Ottawa connections have been a unifying thread in Julien’s career. After his singularly weird ouster after 79 games behind the New Jersey Devils bench – three games before the playoffs – he got a call from then-Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, another National Capital-area guy.
When he was let go by Boston earlier this year, the prospect of moving his family back to his old stomping ground – Montreal is an easy drive to his parents’ and siblings’ houses – the allure was immense.
He returns for a second stint a wizened, more experienced version of the coach – mostly positive, occasionally shouty, perenially demanding – he’s always been.
“I don’t know if there’s a lesson” from his initial tenure, Julien said after being hired. “It’s more about experience.”
By which he means his decade in Boston and the years comparing notes and ideas with pillars of the coaching world – Mike Babcock, Joel Quenneville, Ken Hitchcock, Barry Trotz – at international tournaments.
Julien has always been an inquisitive and analytical thinker, his Xs and Os stack up to anyone’s and he devours stats and scouting reports.
After a recent game he alluded to the opponent being tops in the league in scoring chances off the rush (fact-check: true).
Earlier this month, he talked unabashedly about his penalty-killing strategy: this is a confident coach who understands knowing what’s coming isn’t the same as stopping it.
While Julien can be fiery when the occasion demands, he keeps the negativity for the officials.
After praising his team following the Chicago game this week, a 4-2 loss, he was asked about the performance of defenceman Alexei Emelin, whose wretched play over the past two weeks has weighed down the Montreal blueline like a 230-pound anchor.
“It doesn’t matter what I say here, what matters is what I do inside that dressing room … every mistake, if you want to put it that way, is unacceptable in this game,” he said. “But they happen.”
Armed with a five-year contract beyond this season that pays him a rumoured $5-million a year, Julien can afford to be patient.
But he’s also got more to work with than he did 14 years ago.
Instead of Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis, Julien now has Max Pacioretty, Alexander Radulov and Alex Galchenyuk.
Instead of Craig Rivet on the top defensive pair, he has Shea Weber.
Jose Theodore had an MVP season in 2001-02 and it would require a lengthy and exhausting search to find a corner of the hockey world where he is rated more highly than Carey Price.
Julien says he doesn’t remember much of his first NHL game as a head coach other than it was a loss.
There is a symmetry to the fact he made his Montreal return just in time to coach his 1,000th.
As it happens the parallel extends completely – it was also a loss.
Few sports clubs do tributes like the Habs, but instead of a live pre-game ceremony to mark the occasion, Julien asked that it be taped earlier.
“I didn’t want to be the centre of attention,” he said.
An admirable sentiment, but given the man’s track record it’s a bit late for that.Report Typo/Error