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.






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10 Responses

  1. Ralph

    Great recap, Mitch. I told my friends that keeping Montoya in net was going to cause friction for MT and it did. The slide may even have had its roots before that without us knowing about it. Therrien’s history also explains his unwarranted loyalty to Desharnais. Excellent summary. I hope Julien has enough time to right the ship and Bergevin pulls off one more deal.

  2. IMS1965

    Excellent analysis. I was no fan of Michel Therrien, even when he was hired, though the results on the ice up until last season seemed to prove me wrong. Then came the Carey Price-less collapse, followed by the controversial trade of PK Subban, which a lot of fans (okay, me) believe was motivated in large part by the fact that Therrien and Bergevin never seemed to like Subban. I hated the trade at that time and still do, not because Shea Weber isn’t a stud (he absolutely is), but because PK is Norris Trophy-winning defenseman who is four years younger than Weber.

    As well, there was the constant line-juggling, which messed with the heads of many players (Galchenyuk, Pateryn, Beaulieu, Tinordi, etc.). Ultimately, and as you noted, this is Bergevin’s show. He’s the one who stuck with Therrien after last season’s debacle (though in all fairness to him on that issue, who was the heir apparent? Sylvain Lefebvre? Please……….). He’s the one who gave David Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec those awful contracts. He’s the one who ultimately traded PK Subban.

    I wanted the team to hire Pierre McGuire as its GM when The Goat was fired. Maybe, five years later, I will get my wish if this season ends similarly to last season.

  3. Michael Nixon

    I was no fan of Therrien but the problem with this team is Bergevin. He has done nothing to cure the biggest issue he had when he became GM and that is lack of a true no. 1 centre.

    I am sick and tired of his constant statement that it’s too hard to make a trade. Combine that with lousy player development and it’s time for him to go also.

    Stand up if you have confidence in MB to get some players to help out. Julien’s coaching can only go so far…

  4. Matt Carbone

    Great recap Mitch.

    I to was rooting for Therrien because of the same reasons. So many people wanted him to fail, I couldnt help wanting him to succeed. With the NHL the way it is, a big mid-season trade is nearly impossible, so the coach ends up on the guillotine.

    As for MB, he has been one of the more active GMS out there as far as player movement. The holes that Montréal needs to fill are only found at the draft, The only premier center to change hands in the last 5 years is Seguin to Dallas. The rest have been 2Cs at best. Their biggest issue is player development. Why has Galchen-yuck struggled so much in that C role? He only shined when there was no pressure to perform.

    Habs havent had the luxury to draft in the top 3 since that time. I dont know how MB can ever get what he needs unless he tanks a whole season which will never happen. If they miss the playoffs or get bounced in the 1st round, my firing gun is pointed firmly at Trevor Timmins and anyone involved with the amateur scouting. Its incomprehensible how little the draft has helped this team over the past 10 years.

    Lets see what happens by March 1st but im not holding my breathe.

  5. Terry Hamel

    I have full confidence in MB, he stood by MT last year because there was so many things he couldn’t control. This year the wheels started wobbling again and it wasn’t because the team wasn’t healthy – he stepped in and made a change.

    I want the team to improve but at what cost and what if we do get the No. 1 center that we all have been clamoring for and the team doesn’t make the play-offs…what then? What value do the players hold when the team is losing and they’re not at their best? MB needs the team to improve in the next 10, so maybe he can make a trade and not lose his shirt…

  6. Marco Chioda

    As usual, Mitch, your analysis is spot on. I also agree with those who say that Bergevin’s actions (or lack thereof) in the next few days will determine his fate.
    If Bergevin is unwilling to trade his current prospects, then he should trade his first round picks in order to get what this team is missing (i.e. #1/2 centre and left-winger).
    As for Weber, I think trading P.K. for him was a move that will prove to be as disastrous as the Chelios for Savard trade. Even if Bergevin tried to trade Weber now, there is no way on hell he could get a player as good as Subban.
    Something else that needs to be done is looking at the coaching and developing of the AHL team. Not one player has had a great impact on the team since Lefebvre has been coaching there.
    Anyway, I like the hiring of Julien and think he will do very well here.

  7. C-Mac

    As happy as I was to to see that Julien was brought on, in hoping that this would inject some much needed life into what appears to be a defleated team, I was pretty sad to see Therrien go. I remember watching one of the 24CH shows a few years ago, and one of the scenes that really sticks with me is Therrien driving into work, grabbing a coffee in the drive-thru, and beaming with pride when talking about being coach of the Canadiens. I liked that he was blue-collar, and I liked that he appeared to care about he Habs as much as me and every other FAN cares about the habs. You could tell that he GOT what being coach of this team means, at least what it means in the minds of all us fanatics, and it wasn’t just another coaching gig. Unfortunately, I guess I liked him more for who he was as a person than as a coach. And although I should feel shitty for being all smiles when I know that the poor bastard just lost his dream-job, if I did feel shitty it lasted for like, maybe a half-second… Then I went back to being a Habs fan.

    On the topic of Bergevin, I have to say that I think he still has a longer leash than most seem to believe, and to be honest, I feel that it’s warranted. I really do like most of what he’s done. I loved the Vanek trade when it happened. I like that he brought on Petry, Shaw, Radulov, Montoya and got rid of guys that used to infuriate me like Eller and Bourque. I think the Weber trade was necessary as much as I loved watching P.K. I don’t remember many complaints when Plek’s was given the contract he EARNED at the time, so aside from the Desharnais mistake (and I’ll give him a pass on that one), I don’t see how we can criticize the guyThe Habs look like they have a nice balance of speed, skill, grit and goaltending (past month notwithstanding) and look closer to contention in my view, than I can remember a Habs team looking (hopped on the bandwagon in like ’96). Bergevin always seems to be in the mix, and I think that if the right trade for a centreman is out there, he’s definitely going to do it. I trust the guy, and I truly believe that he’s doing his best. The last thing I want him to do is get desperate for a centremen a make a trade that we regret for years to come, because when that happens, all the guys demanding that he do what ever necessary to get one, will be moaning about what a horrible trade it was. The last big name centreman we traded for happened to cost us a Dman prospect by the name of Ryan Mcdonagh. I’m in no rush to watch the same thing unfold with Sergachev. My money is on Molson keeping Bergevin employed for the forseeable future, regardless of this year’s outcome. He’s the right man for job.

  8. Sharon R.

    Mitch, I was out of town for family reasons and when I saw the news about MT, it was like, holy moly, finally. I couldn’t wait to see your take on it – great analysis as usual. As you said, Subban can no longer be the fall guy and it makes you wonder just how much was really going on behind the scene. That little meeting MT had with Price, Weber and Max when they were on the road recently, I doubt it was to discuss what they were having for dinner. That seemed like an omen of what was coming. Maybe Alex Galychenuk will also finally find his place on the team. Always liked Julien. Glad he’s back. Still miss P.K.though….

  9. Kev

    Great recap Mitch. I have never liked Therrien – never trusted him and I have six as long as he has been coach that the Habs would never win with him. So that’s done. Now we have Bergevin – he will lie to your face and smile while he does it. He is in so far over his head he doesn’t know what to do next. He hasn’t found a center because he has no bargaining power. Other gm’s are not stupid either. The Habs are desperate and no one is going to make it easy. It will all be over soon…