I liked Michel Therrien. But then again, I never had to play for him.
I liked his back story. I liked the street smart element of his persona. He was a scrapper, with a cigarette dangling from his lips. The fact that he was an inelegant man doing a job in a sophisticated and stylish market actually endeared him to me. I rooted for him to succeed because, in part, so many believed he couldn’t. Even though he took a good but hardly great team – without its best player for all but two periods – to game six of the Eastern Conference Final in 2013-14 and owned a territorial advantage while losing a second round series the following season to a team that made it’s way to the Stanley Cup Final, it mattered little to those who saw a coach who constantly played musical chairs with his players while stifling creativity and doubling down on the old handbook – that might have been updated by Ken Hitchcock – It’s my way or the highway.
But, as last season began to unravel, we saw another element of Therrien’s character that was all too familiar to those who knew him from his early coaching days in Laval. He started lashing out, mostly in private, but many of those words would come back to haunt him. And we also discovered, no matter how good his team might have looked during any given stretch, that his strong reliance on his goaltender, exposed more than a few flaws in his “demanding” system. Watching opposing teams continuously take advantage of a team in disarray in its own zone seemed at odds with Therrien’s rep as a strong defensive-minded coach.
“It’s on me” was a signature moment in the career of the man who hired Therrien. Most NHL GM’s would have fired Therrien a year ago after he and his staff were wholly incapable of finding a solution to the mess that was created once Carey Price was injured. But Marc Bergevin was no better than his coach. He too seemed ill-prepared to deal with the adversity of what will now be known as the Therrien swoon. (Therrien was first fired as coach of the Habs in late January 2003. He was fired as coach of the Penguins on February 15, 2009. Bergevin defended Therrien during a meet the media session last February. The end date of Therrien’s tenure as coach of the Habs the second time around was February 14.) Bergevin simply couldn’t watch another collapse play itself out all over again just one year later. He needed to make a change after the disconnect between Therrien and his players clearly played out on several rinks over the last couple of weeks. The fact that a coach the stature of Claude Julien was available made the decision a no-brainer.
When did Therrien start to lose his team? It could have been as early as the 10-0 loss in Columbus when Carey Price, scheduled for a night off, was ignored when he clearly indicated he was ready to bail out Al Montoya. As we said at the time – no goalie, at any level, should be subjected to that kind of night. It’s a testament to Montoya’s character and experience that he was able to bounce back. But the night at least planted a seed of doubt. (As for the Price stare down at Therrien after he was yanked during a Bell Centre game against San Jose in mid-December? Price was the best player on the ice in the Habs next game in Washington (a 2-1 win). And even though Price and Therrien met following the loss to San Jose – with goalie coach Stephen Waite – you can’t help but wonder about Price’s state of mind, even as he said of the meeting that “we’re good”.) As the Canadiens hit the skids (again) early in the new year, it was obvious that even with key players out of the line up, they looked like a different team on the ice. As the offense dried up, the defense (and goalie) was no longer there to bail them out. It was back to the Tomas Plekanec quote prior to the start of last season when he said he was kind of sick and tired of hearing how the Habs were only about Carey Price. But Plekanec was part of a growing number of players who did their best to prove exactly that. As the Habs appeared to shrink before our eyes, Therrien seemed to take the heat personally. Maybe with good reason. His decision to bench – and then scratch – the popular (with teammates) Andrew Shaw for a costly penalty in Philadelphia didn’t exactly win friends and influence people (except his pals in the media). Shaw is a proven NHL vet and Stanley Cup winner. He’s not Ryan White. From that night on, The Habs won just one game while losing six, including shutout losses in three of Therrien’s final four games as coach. Publicly demeaning a veteran player who was brought in by his general manager was one fight Therrien was not going to win.
Which brings us back to the future. January 2003. Claude Julien is hired by Andre Savard to replace Therrien. Julien appeared to be NHL ready after capturing the Memorial Cup in Hull five years earlier and then eventually working in Hamilton (for the Oilers – not the Habs) and leading the Bulldogs in ’02-03 to wins in 33 of their first 45 games. But his future in Montreal already seemed like a thing of the past once Bob Gainey replaced Savard as the Habs GM. Gainey would make the first mistake of his Montreal off ice career by firing Julien, in essence to bring in his old centreman Guy Carbonneau (“My best move as GM” said Gainey shortly before he fired Carbonneau.)
So there is some unfinished business back here for Julien. His second debut as Habs coach ended with his players getting booed off the ice following an uninspired 3-1 loss to Winnipeg, which was close only because Price looked more like himself while virtually every skater struggled with the exception of 38 year old Andrei Markov who had spent the week off in Russia dealing with significant personal adversity.
Julien has already changed the PK system. He has tinkered with the lines. When he settles on trios you can expect little to no movement between them. He is changing the Habs break outs. He likes his defensemen to pinch aggressively and has them set up right behind the forwards for offensive zone face offs. What he doesn’t have is a Patrice Bergeron who usually begins the puck possession game with a face off win. And no matter what the forward lines look like, there is (still) a glaring hole in the middle and another on left wing. And then there is no small matter in finding Shea Weber a more appropriate partner than Alexei Emelin. Only Therrien, among NHL coaches, would have kept the Weber-Emelin duo together this deep into the season with the losses and defensive zone mistakes piling up.
Marc Bergevin’s work to clean up the mess of a year ago began last summer. There can be no more references – ever – to P.K. Subban as the main culprit of a lost season. Bergevin’s effort to change the look and culture in the last year (Phillip Danault, Weber, Shaw, Montoya, Alexander Radulov and Kirk Muller) has had only mixed results. He concluded, rightfully so, that Therrien was not the guy to take that work to the next level. In many ways his toughest assignment since becoming general manager is going on right now. Because what happens over the next 10 days will ultimately decide his own future.