LAVAL, Que. — When the Montreal Canadiens announced Thursday that Sylvain Lefebvre was staying on as coach of their American Hockey League team, the response on social media was overwhelmingly negative.
"Atrocious" and "pathetic" were some of the adjectives tossed out at the 49-year-old who has a 164-168-48 record in five seasons as coach of the organization’s AHL team, first with the Hamilton Bulldogs and for the last two seasons the St. John’s IceCaps.
But even though Lefebvre’s teams only made the playoffs once — last season when they were beaten in the first round by Syracuse — the former NHL defenceman who began his playing career with the Canadiens is held in high regard by the person whose opinion counts — Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin.
So those hoping for a change as the AHL club prepares to move into to the nearly completed 10,000-seat Place Bell arena in Laval, Que., for the 2017-18 season are out of luck. Bergevin has said more than once that Lefebvre has done a good job of having prospects NHL-ready when they get called up.
"If I couldn’t live with criticism, first of all I wouldn’t have played that long and I wouldn’t be here today," Lefebvre said as he met the media in what will be the dressing room of the team now called the Laval Rocket. "It’s normal that people have their opinions.
"I don’t agree with it, but that’s my opinion. And people that aren’t close to the team, that don’t come to the games, that don’t really know what’s going on, make their own assessment. I know what I’m capable of. I know that I can coach. Developing players is a passion of mine. I feel the players that came through Hamilton and St. John’s have helped the team."
The Canadiens also announced that Montreal native and former NHL defenceman Larry Carriere, who joined the club as assistant GM in 2010, will be the Rocket’s general manager while remaining part of the NHL management team as special adviser to the hockey operations department.
It can be argued that Lefebvre hasn’t been given a wealth of talent to work with. The Canadiens’ amateur scouts have come in for as much criticism for not drafting top talent as Lefebvre has for not developing them.
And Canadiens fans were in a bad mood even before the team was ousted in the first round of playoffs by the New York Rangers, after a solid 103-point regular season to finish first in the Atlantic Division. Thursday was the first anniversary of the blockbuster trade that sent the hugely popular P.K. Subban to Nashville for respected veteran Shea Weber, a move many are still furious with.
So Lefebvre will be under the gun when the AHL squad moves to Laval, a 30-minute subway ride from the Bell Centre. And the Rocket will have added pressure to fill up the new building whose costs have reportedly ballooned to $200 million.
"The outside pressure is probably nothing compared to the pressure we put on ourselves," said Lefebvre. "We want to win.
"We want to have a good team to start here in Laval, but it’s hard at this level to know what kind of team you’re going to have. We’ve seen it before. We were supposed to have (goalie) Mike Condon to start a season (2015-16) and he started in Montreal. Anything can happen."
And Lefebvre is delighted with the move. The Richmond, Que., native played three years of junior hockey in Laval and still has ties to the suburban municipality.
"Two of my kids were born in Laval," he said. "My wife and I were together back then, so family-wise it was a no-brainer. I have two grandkids that live around the corner from here."
Carriere defended Lefebvre’s coaching.
"The playoff situation last year was that we had an extremely competitive series with Syracuse that could have gone either way and they ended up in the Calder Cup finals," he said. "Our guys really stepped up and we were proud of them.
"They made some really good strides."
Lefebvre began his playing career with the Canadiens in 1989. He later played for Toronto, Quebec, Colorado and the New York Rangers before retiring in 2004. He spent three seasons as an assistant coach with the Avalanche.
He did not deny reports that he was looking for an NHL job, saying: "Yes, I did look at some options but my first option was to be here."