With a record of 9-4-1 heading into tonight’s matchup versus the Carolina Hurricanes, the Montreal Canadiens have defied most expert predictions to this point in the season, and currently sit fifth in the Eastern Conference. But despite their surprisingly high point total a quarter of the way through the schedule, there are still quite a few question marks surrounding the team.
After starting out of the gates red hot, dropping just two games through their first eight, followers of the Canadiens have been witness to a tale of two teams. After blowing a third period lead to the Boston Bruins in their ninth game of the season, the team then proceeded to blow a third period lead to Buffalo the following night, before being shellacked 6-0 at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs two Saturdays ago. Les Glorieux then departed on a short Floridian road trip where they kicked things off by – you guessed it – blowing a third period lead to the Tampa Bay Lightning before salvaging a shoot-out win. Two days later, it was a war of attrition as the club visited the Florida Panthers for a match-up that neither team seemed particularly interested in winning. Although they came away with a 1-0 overtime victory, the Canadiens seemed reluctant to engage the opposition for long stretches of the game, despite Michel Therrien’s first round of line tinkering in this, his second stint behind the Habs’ bench.
This Saturday offered a welcome reprieve, as the team seemed to find its legs again in a 4-1 thumping of the Philadelphia Flyers, but the question marks of the past two weeks linger nonetheless. Are the Canadiens the team we saw through the first stretch of the season; an offensively driven young club capable of rolling three scoring lines, all willing to the drive the net with reckless abandon? Or are they the hesitant Habs we’ve seen of late; so afraid of blowing a lead that they lack the killer instinct needed to put teams away?
Only time will tell, but whichever the direction the club eventually turns, it will almost certainly be the coaching strategies of Michel Therrien which get them there. Through the first eight games of 2013, we saw in full detail why GM Marc Bergevin was drawn to Therrien as his first choice for the Habs’ head coaching job. When it comes to the X’s and O’s of hockey, there are few better, and his offensively driven systems paid big dividends early in the season. ‘Crashing and banging’, as a style of play, has been held to a minimum over the past few seasons in Montreal, but it didn’t take long for the team to serve notice the rest of the league that those days are now over…and the proof was certainly in the pudding as the team put up 17 goals over their first five games to start the year.
But now that teams have had the chance to break down and review the Canadiens’ new systems in the film room, open ice has become harder to find. Other clubs have begun to respond by taking away the pathways to the slot that the Habs were so successful in exploiting during their first few games.
Now, the real coaching begins. Being adept in the film room and understanding the complexities of running a team’s various personnel packages is one thing, but at the NHL level, it is an absolute given that head coaches will be fully fluent in the language of strategy. The real challenge, and the one place where Therrien has consistently dropped the ball thus far in his career, is leading a team through the constant process of adaptation that becomes necessary once the opposition has figured out your game plan. At that point, it’s as much about being a leader as it is being a coach.
In his Pittsburgh days, Therrien was accused of relying too heavily upon his superstars, and thus spoiling team chemistry. His reputation was one of starving the little dogs in order to keep the big dogs fed, and his inability to inspire the secondary troops led to his eventual dismissal halfway through the 08-09 season.
Rumour has it that Therrien is now a changed coach, having benefitted greatly from his time away. And without a Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin to rely upon in Montreal, one would certainly assume that it is not his intention to rely too heavily upon any one grouping to handle the offensive load. After being known as a coach who is great with superstars, but lukewarm with his lunch-bucket players, Therrien now faces a golden opportunity to show that he has what it takes to inspire and lead a group of players who have the potential for success, but lack the direction and identity needed to go that extra mile.
The next few months will help to define and cement Therrien’s legacy in a city that has been home to many of the greatest coaches this game has ever known. Will he once again lose his grip on the reins, or will this be the year Michel Therrien makes that giant leap from being just another man holding a clipboard to being the true, uncontested leader of contending hockey team?