A Time for Change – The Habs Report

With the recent announcement of the hiring of Michel Therrien as the new head coach of the Montreal Canadiens there has been no shortage of opinion as to the wisdom of the move by new GM Marc Bergevin. As is the case with most news coming out of Montreal regarding anything hockey related, the announcement has over shadowed all other happenings in the province; even the never ending student protests for a couple of days. This is no surprise. What has struck me is the amount of vitriol that Therrien’s hire has generated, not only with the established press but also blogs, radio call-in shows and anywhere else an opinion can be voiced. Opinions have varied from disappointment, to anger with the majority seeming to be against the decision to hire Therrien. (Note: An ongoing poll conducted by the Montreal Gazette reported 65% against the hire with over 5,600 votes cast). Some have even argued that he went the conservative road by choosing Therrien and should have instead gone with the popular choice of Patrick Roy.

This article will take the approach of looking at Bergevin’s decision from the perspective of the choices that confronted him; what was his criteria for selecting a coach; that by choosing Therrien, Bergevin actually made the riskier choice; and what he did to lessen the risk of choosing Therrien.
To begin with let us be thankful that the Gauthier era of the last two years has ended. An era best described as dysfunctional at times and bordering on wacky at other times. To recap the past season low points:
 finished 15th in the Conference.
 78 points is the lowest total since 2002-03
 1 Assistant Coach and the Head Coach both fired.
 traded a top 6 forward during a game asking him to leave the ice between periods.
 7m Scott Gomez played like Selena Gomez.
 440 man games lost to injury. Number 1 in the NHL(first in something!). The most significant being injuries to Markov and Gionta.
 28th ranked Power Play.

The once mighty Habs had fallen quickly as everything began to unravel. While the team continued to flounder then General Manager Pierre Gauthier seemed to have no idea how to fix the problems. And the moves he did make only reinforced the notion that whatever game plan he had been operating under was tossed aside and by the time Randy Cunneyworth was installed as coach the season was lost. The fiasco mercifully concluded with Gauthier’s dismissal and a new era had begun when Marc Bergevin was hired as the General Manager on May 02/12. He came over from the Chicago Black Hawks where he spent seven years working at all levels of the organization including scout, director of scouting, director of player personnel, assistant coach and assistant general manger.

What can Habs fans expect from Bergevin?

Up to this point he can be judged on whom he has hired. He quickly surrounded himself with experienced hockey people by hiring Rick Dudley and Scott Mellanby to work in player personnel. The hiring of a new coach was his first big decision. Let us look at the process of the coaching search. By limiting the search to a bilingual coach the field was thinned considerably. Plus, having already let Guy Boucher and Kirk Muller leave during the last two years he could not look internally as the ranks were severely diminished so Bergevin had to look outside the organization for a replacement.

According to all reports the field was narrowed to: Therrien, Marc Crawford, Bob Hartley and Patrick Roy. All came with their own personal history and baggage. Hartley quickly signed with Calgary.
Therrien and Crawford were quite similar in that both had been NHL coaches and both had been fired after their teams had underperformed and both had been working as analysts. Some fans and broadcasters therefore put forth Roy as being the “popular” choice. Let’s look at what Bergevin said in a recent interview with Prime Time Sports. He said he was looking for a coach who met the following criteria:
 someone with “ dressing room experience”
 someone who “would initiate a strong work ethic and strong team concept”
 someone who “could work with young players”
 someone “he could work with; feel comfortable with each other”

I believe all three candidates possessed similar traits on the first three points. So it must have come down to two key points: NHL experience as a head coach and the comfort level of Bergevin; specifically, who was he going to best be able to work with? Folks, this is huge. At this level of coaching each has a system to implement, each has a burning desire to succeed and each are confident in their abilities to push their players to be their best. If all other factors are equal I believe the one essential trait that separated the candidates was who Bergevin could work with the best. Once the hockey areas were all covered, that is what it came down to.

Regarding Therrien’s past Bergevin stated that he questioned Therrien on this subject during the interview process and believed Therrien had learned from past mistakes, had matured and grown as a coach and as a person, could work with the veterans and kids alike and ultimately felt that Therrien was the best person to lead this team.
On Patrick Roy, the lack of NHL coaching experience could have been overlooked if Bergevin felt he would be able to work with Roy. I actually believe that would have been the easier choice. Bring in the former hero, large personality, the popular choice who would quickly become the focal point. A connection to the past glory days when this team was the most respected franchise not just in hockey but arguably in all of professional sports. By selecting Therrien, Bergevin actually has gone out on a limb. He chose to re-hire the former coach trusting that he indeed has learned from the past and is the coach to lead this organization back to respectability. Make no mistake this is a risky decision by Bergevin.

With the recent hiring of Gerard Gallant and Clement Jodoin as assistant coaches in Montreal and Sylvain Lefebvre in Hamilton with the AHL Bulldogs we can now get a clearer picture of the direction Bergevin has in mind with his coaching staff and the contingency plan he is putting in place. Gallant and Jodoin are former successful QMJHL coaches who have proven they can work with and develop young talent. Lefebvre is a former NHL defenseman who will develop the young prospects in Hamilton. This is important as the nucleus of this team going forward remains its young players: Subban, Emelin, Diaz and Weber plus top prospects Beaulieu, Tinordi and Ellis on defense and Desharnais, LeBlanc, Eller, Geoffrion, Gallagher and Bournival at forward. These are the players that this team will be built around and they need to be nurtured and developed properly.

Lastly, with the losses of Boucher and Muller a shortcoming within the organization was exposed. Due to the requirements of a bilingual coach the need to always have someone “in the bullpen” must be addressed. In the past Montreal always seemed to possess a young coach in the minors who, like a young prospect, was learning his trade. Think back to Alain Vigneault, Claude Julien Michel Therrien, Guy Carbonneau and more recently Guy Boucher. Gauthier neglected this after the release of Boucher and he paid dearly for the oversight. Now Bergevin has addressed this by hiring Sylvain Lefebvre to coach the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs. And just in case Therrien turns out to not be the guiding force he had envisioned Bergevin has employed at least two candidates (Lefebvre and Gallant) that can replace the coach from within the organization so as to avoid the debacle that took place last winter.

Another aspect of an organizational change happened last week that did not get a lot of press but one I found interesting. When the top prospects were in Montreal meeting with Habs scouts and coaches at another facility within the city was a group of twenty French prospects from the QMJHL that had been gathered for a private audition with the Canadiens scouts. I believe it provides insight into what Bergevin is attempting to achieve, namely, he intends to place a higher priority on re-establishing the connection between French players and their traditional place within the Canadiens organization. This example, together with his hirings indicates that he is rebuilding this franchise on all levels attempting to provide a connection to the past with an emphasis on the language and cultural connections with the fan base of the province of Quebec. Most important of course is the performance of the team and we will now begin to move into that phase with the upcoming draft this weekend, the signings of Price and Subban along with the other ten RFA’s, looking over the UFA’s and exploring possible trade options.

This team, I believe is on the right track, a true number one goalie, a young and talented group of defensemen , a true number one forward line. It is a foundation to build upon. I for one am willing to let Bergevin implement his plan and will continue support the team.

Next up: Sitting at number 3 on the draft board, “the Montreal Canadiens select”: ???

Comments and discussion are thoroughly encouraged.