Can the Canadiens win with Michel Therrien?

Stephen Brunt examines how Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien went from Bell linemen to one of the most high pressure coaching jobs in the NHL.

Michel Therrien might be the most polarizing coach in the NHL.

The Montreal Canadiens managed 50 wins and 110 points in 2014-15, the second best record in the NHL. They advanced to the second round, bowing out after a tough six-game series against the Lightning. And yet, at general manager Marc Bergevin’s year-end press conference, one of his first comments was in defence of his coach.

“In (two) years, we’ve played 29 playoff games, that’s second best in the league,” Bergevin said in French. “We’ve had 16 playoff wins and played five rounds in the last two years, good for third place behind Chicago and New York (Rangers). So Michel Therrien has done excellent work and it is disappointing — just the idea that Michel Therrien isn’t an established coach, a winner, a quality teacher — it doesn’t anger me, it disappoints me.”

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It’s a good point. It would be a better point if Montreal hadn’t played 26 playoff games and won three rounds in a two-year span from 2009-11, shortly before Therrien’s arrival. It was easy to say that the Canadiens’ deep run in 2009-10 didn’t have much to do with coaching, that it was just the result of red-hot goaltending from Jaroslav Halak, but then that’s really the crux for Therrien, too.

No position is as pivotal to success in hockey as goaltending, and in Carey Price Therrien’s team has been gifted with a great one. Price is likely to win the Hart Trophy this summer; he was the most important player to his team in the entire NHL. So how much of Therrien’s success stems from the fact that most nights he can count on having a better goalie than the other team? How much is actually a result of sound coaching?

Take away that goaltending and things look awfully grim for the Canadiens.

The power play is frequently cited as a source of complaint, and rightly so. Over Therrien’s tenure it has ranked in the bottom-third of the NHL in terms of shot generation. This year it tumbled all the way to No. 27, despite the presence of players like P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty. This was never a problem prior to Therrien’s arrival; Jacques Martin managed to build a power play with Brian Gionta as his primary sniper which routinely ranked in the top 10 of the NHL in both shot generation and goals scored.

Therrien can point to the penalty kill as a source of pride. Over three seasons under his watch the Canadiens have been a top 10 team at preventing shots while shorthanded and they’re tied for fourth in the league in terms of goals against per hour. The trouble is that Martin’s penalty kill was even better; Montreal was the fourth-best team in the NHL at shot prevention and tied for first place in the entire league in goals against per hour.

Special teams have regressed badly. If we compare the three years under Therrien to the three years before his arrival, the Canadiens now allow more than an extra goal for every two hours they spend shorthanded; they also score half a goal less than they once did on the power play. The man advantage problem seems to be getting worse, too; a team that scored 6.9 goals per hour prior to Therrien put home just 5.8 goals per hour this season.

Nor has Therrien’s reputation for teaching stingy defence translated into great even-strength results. In terms of shot suppression, Montreal ranked No. 20 in the NHL in the three years prior to Therrien’s arrival. In the three years since, they’ve jumped all the way to No. 18. Overall, the Habs were No. 21 in terms of unblocked shot percentage in the three years prior to Therrien; they sit No. 21 in the three years since.

The only thing that has really improved under Therrien is shooting percentage at even-strength. In the three years before the current coach was hired, Montreal’s shooting percentage was better than that of just three teams: the Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils. Under Therrien, it’s been just a touch above the NHL average.

Any thorough look at the team’s underlying numbers suggests that Therrien has failed to address the team’s real problems and that in some ways he’s made things worse. The penalty kill is worse, the power play is worse and the team is worse at controlling puck possession at even-strength.

This is despite some significant improvements to the roster. Tomas Plekanec was the leading even-strength goal-scorer in the three years prior to Therrien being hired; he’s since fallen to third (despite scoring more goals per game than he once did) behind up-and-comers Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher. P.K. Subban became P.K. Subban. Andrei Markov, who played just 65 games over the three seasons prior to Therrien has missed only two contests since his hire.

Maybe this team can win anyway. Between the talent on defence and in net in Montreal, it’s going to be hard for opponents to score regardless of who the coach is. With a superhuman run from Price and just enough goals the other way, the Canadiens could challenge for and perhaps even win the Stanley Cup. It would just be easier with a different coach.