Therrien Finally on Same Page as Bergevin, Buying into Habs Youth Movement

It seems like just yesterday, Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien continued to throw veterans Francis Bouillon, Rene Bourque and Douglas Murray over the boards with far greater frequency than any fan of the team agreed with. Some of the decision by the Habs bench boss were easy to criticize in the past, but he appears to finally be on the same page as the rest of the management team when it comes to giving young players an opportunity at the NHL level.

Michel Therrien - new Habs bench boss (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)
Michel Therrien – new Habs bench boss (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

What caused Therrien to have such a strong change of heart over his young players, seemingly overnight? It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment Therrien began to trust his youth, but a pair of November trades by general manager Marc Bergevin appear to have opened the eyes of the Canadiens bench boss.

EGG Line Sat While Veterans Got Power Play Time

When Therrien was re-hired as the Habs coach in time for the lockout shortened 2013 season, he put together a dynamite kid-line, better known as the EGG line. 23 year old Lars Eller was centering 18 year old Alex Galchenyuk who was just taken third overall in the NHL draft, and 20 year old rookie Brendan Gallagher was on the right side.

The EGG line clicked immediately and deserved more ice time, but never received it. The trio finished second, third and fourth on the team in even strength points that season, but only Gallagher ever found himself on the power play with any sort of regularity. Eller and Galchenyuk were never given prime ice time throughout the year, while veterans such as Erik Cole, Brian Gionta, Rene Bourque and Michael Ryder received the lion’s share of power play time, with varying degrees of success.

Even Norris Trophy winning defenseman P.K. Subban took a back seat while the team was shorthanded in favour of Raphael Diaz and Francis Bouillon, both of whom struggled on the penalty kill.

Things didn’t change heading into the 2013-14 season, as promising young defenders Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn appeared ready for full time NHL duty, but none of the three earned a promotion that stuck. Beaulieu suited up for 17 games throughout the season and Tinordi dressed 22 times in a Habs sweater. This would have been fine if the NHL club had a very strong D core, but 33 year old Douglas Murray played 53 games and struggled in each of them, while 37 year old Bouillon showed his age all year.

Brian Gionta
(Icon SMI)

When 35 year old Mike Weaver was acquired at the trade deadline, the pair of early twenties defenders who were first round draft choices were pretty much locked in the AHL for the duration of the season.

Up front we began to see a bit of a change as Daniel Briere, Gionta and Bourque’s power play ice time was reduced toward the end of the season, and Galchenyuk and Gallagher began to see a little more time on the second unit. Michael Bournival also made the team as a 20 year old, but was stapled to the fourth line, and made a healthy scratch from time to time. Still, you could forget about seeing any of these twenty something year olds late in a game while clinging to a lead, or at any time in overtime.

The most head scratching decision was that 24 year old Subban continued to sit on the bench while the team was shorthanded, and watched as Murray, Emelin, Weaver and Josh Gorges lumbered around the ice turning pucks over and then getting in line to block shots again.

Habs Changed Focus To Puck Moving D In Summer

Since being eliminated by the New York Rangers in the 2014 Eastern Conference Final, the Canadiens have clearly changed their philosophy on the blue line. Gone in the summer of 2014 were defensive defenseman and shot blockers Josh Gorges, Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon. Brought in to replace them are puck moving defenseman Tom Gilbert, Jeff Petry, Sergei Gonchar and Beaulieu has found a permanent home with the Habs.

This change in philosophy from shot blocking defenders to puck moving defenders has led to the Habs blue line becoming much faster, and not so coincidentally, much younger. “Shot blocking defensive defenseman” is not exactly the same as slow veteran defenseman, but is a reasonable facsimile. “Puck moving defenseman” is not quite a synonym for young, fast defender but it is pretty close. So, in essence, the organizational shift away from shot blockers in the summer, was a move towards adding youth.

Heading out the door last summer with Gorges, Bouillon and Murray were 35 year old Brian Gionta, 36 year old Daniel Briere and 33 year old enforcer George Parros. This opened the door for 22 year old Jiri Sekac to make the Habs out of camp, and also left room for players like Christian Thomas and Sven Andrighetto to make their NHL debuts.

Therrien Slow To Accept New Philosophy

Still, when the 2014-15 season began, though the roster had shifted focus, Therrien refused to change his ways. Clearly, Bergevin had decided to begin a youth movement, but the GM doesn’t fill out the lineup card or decide how much ice time each player gets in a game.

(Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)
(Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

Early in the season, there was Rene Bourque, struggling his way to zero goals and two assists in 13 games, yet still playing each game on the third line. Also, 32 year old Travis Moen was not just in the lineup, but intermittently in a tope six role on Tomas Plekanec’s line. It was clear that Therrien’s reliance on veteran players had not changed after all.

With skilled free agent signee Jiri Sekac scratched for seven straight games early in the year without getting a proper opportunity, Bergevin finally acted. Within a two week period he sent Moen to the Dallas Stars for Sergei Gonchar and sent Bourque to the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs before trading him to the Anaheim Ducks for Bryan Allen.

The pair of deals paved the way for Sekac to get a chance, but 40 year old Gonchar and 34 year old Allen created a veteran logjam on the blue line. After five games, Allen was waived and sent to the Bulldogs, but Gonchar remained in the lineup, playing well at first on a pairing with Beaulieu. However, Beaulieu was once again sent to the minors for a stint shortly after the trades, where he joined Tinordi and Pateryn.

Beaulieu Finally Becomes a Regular in the Lineup

The demotion was short lived, as Beaulieu returned to the Canadiens lineup on December 9th, and aside from missing one game with the flu this week, he has not been taken out of the lineup since. His first three games back, Beaulieu averaged less than 11 minutes of ice time, but Therrien trusted him enough by February to play him more than 20 minutes in five straight games.

(Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
(Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

The first of those five games for Beaulieu was February 18th against the Ottawa Senators. Making his season debut that night was 24 year old Greg Pateryn. Pateryn played six games before being scratched for the next six. He was put back in the lineup against the New York Islanders last Saturday and has played all four games since. Pateryn’s last game was his best yet, playing over 16 minutes in a 4-0 win over the Caroline Hurricanes. He looks more comfortable with each game, and appears to have earned the trust of his coach, something that was impossible for a rookie to do just a few months ago.

This is most obvious in the fact that Pateryn has replaced Gonchar in the lineup for the past four games. Not because of an injury or illness, but Gonchar has been a healthy scratch to make room for Pateryn. Weaver has played just 8 of the past 33 Habs games, and has been a healthy scratch for the rest. Replacing a 40 year old and a 35 year old with a 24 year old rookie is a move Therrien has flat out refused to make in the past, but he finally appears to be buying in to the organization’s youth movement.

De la Rose Being Treated Like Veteran By Therrien

Exhibit A in proof of Therrien finally buying in to the organization’s shift in philosophy has been the usage of Jacob de la Rose. The 19 year old has been treated like a ten year veteran by the Habs bench boss, earning significant ice time, being trusted with shifts in overtime, and earning praise from Therrien to the media.

De la Rose made his NHL debut on February 3rd, less than a month after representing Sweden in the World Junior Hockey Championships. He has been taking key faceoffs, playing against tough competition on a third line with Lars Eller and newcomer Devante Smith-Pelly and even averages 1:00 of shorthanded ice time per game.

The last 19 year old to be trusted in defensive situations like this by Therrien was Jordan Staal, when both player and coach were members of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. All this while 34 year old Manny Malhotra, the player with the best faceoff percentage in the league, sits on the sidelines as a healthy scratch.

New England Patriots legendary coach Bill Belichick had been given praise over the years for getting rid of veteran players a year too early instead of a year too late. The NHL is faster than ever, and now requires a large dose of youthful exuberance and speed to win. It is a breath of fresh air to see the Canadiens organization has bought in to Belichick’s philosophy, and even more encouraging to see that Michel Therrien has finally bought in as well.