In the process of firing Jacques Martin from his post as coach of the Montreal Canadiens, GM Pierre Gauthier said he really thanked Martin for what he’s given to the organization. Gauthier should probably have also slipped in an apology for some of his contributions, or lack thereof.
There’s no doubt the Canadiens have been an underwhelming club this season, one that has shown a shocking inability to protect leads. Montreal’s winning percentage when scoring first is .471, the second-worst mark in the league. That’s certainly not what we’ve come to expect from a team coached by Martin and Gauthier noted that instability was a big factor in his decision. But consider, for a moment, that four of the seven defencemen Martin had to rely on most this year are either in their rookie or sophomore NHL season and you start to understand why leads were disappearing. Had the Canadiens cleared even a few more loose pucks, they’d be sitting higher than the 11th-place standing they had on Saturday morning and Martin would still have his job.
If interim coach Randy Cunneyworth can come in and stop Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz and P.K. Subban from making the mistakes young blueliners tend to commit, he should have been given an NHL head coaching job long before now. And that will ring even truer if he can move Mike Cammalleri off a 17-goal pace, teach Lars Eller how to finish and miraculously heal Andrei Markov’s wounded knee.
Overall, the Habs went 96-75-25 during Martin’s stewardship in nearly two-and-a-half seasons and I’m not the first to suggest that had they been guided by Scotty Bowman himself, that record wouldn’t be any better. That’s not to say Martin is a fantastic coach who pulled all the right strings, but when you consider what he had to work with, it’s difficult to understand how anybody could have extracted more from a team that featured strong goaltending, a collection of small, speedy skaters and not much else.
This is Gauthier’s third significant move of a season that’s not even half over, following the dismissal of assistant coach Perry Pearn after the Canadiens started the year 1-5-2 and the move to acquire Tomas Kaberle just over a week ago. To be fair, Montreal is 12-7-5 since Pearn was labelled the scapegoat for a bad start (though just 8-7-5 after an initial four-game surge) and Kaberle has four assists in three games as a Hab. Maybe all three moves will ultimately pay off to some degree, but they feel more like the result of Gauthier knowing if this team doesn’t make the playoffs, owner Geoff Molson will have to examine wider organizational change.
If there’s a point of optimism for Habs fans, it’s the possibility Cunneyworth will try to make Montreal more of an attacking team. The Canadiens don’t have much in the way of offensive weapons, but Cunneyworth, in his first meeting with the media, talked about using the club’s best assets, one of which he identified as speed. The chances Martin was ever going to push the envelope are about the same as him finding a new career as a stand-up comedian, but, again, it’s not like he was taking the sparkplugs out of a fleet of Ferraris by insisting the Habs play a defence-minded game.
The bottom line is, whatever tack Cunneyworth chooses, best-case scenario for Montreal remains sneaking into the playoffs and trying to pull off an upset. In other words, exactly what happened under Martin the past two years. Altering that reality requires action beyond the in-season shuffling Gauthier has done the past few months. And even if Cunneyworth does a great job, he’ll only be able to mask that fact for so long.