As the sound of sharpening knives reaches a crescendo in Montreal, the calls for coach Michel Therrien’s head are likely being driven not just by the Canadiens’ record since January 11, but that of the Winnipeg Jets from the same date.
Rewind less than three weeks back to that Saturday and you’ll find the Habs and Jets in very different positions than they are today. Montreal had just claimed a rollicking 2-1 OT win over the Chicago Blackhawks that left the Habs three points back of the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins. By contrast, Winnipeg was embarrassed 6-3 on home ice by the Columbus Blue Jackets and looked determined to give Calgary and Edmonton a run for their money as Canada’s most cringe-worthy club. Then, Paul Maurice replaced Claude Noel behind the bench and the Jets suddenly started scoring goals like they still played in the Smythe Division.
Since Maurice came in Winnipeg is 6-1-0 with the only setback being a 1-0 loss to the Cup-contending San Jose Sharks. Meanwhile, Montreal has gone 1-5-0 since besting the defending champions, allowing at least four goals in every game during that stretch. The Habs’ sole victory was a 5-4 overtime win in Ottawa that could have been an 8-2 loss based on scoring chances. The Canadiens have dropped their past three games by a combined total of 14-2. In a hockey town like Montreal, that kind of run would trigger calls for the coach’s job; even if it happened to Scotty Bowman in 1977 on the heels of a 20-game winning streak.
Would the Canadiens get a boost similar to the Jets under Maurice if they told Therrien to take a hike? It seems plausible. Changing coaches often provides an instant jolt to a club, and Winnipeg was obviously in need of a new voice implementing a different approach. But barring a couple more disastrous outings, the betting here is that Montreal General Manager Marc Bergevin will keep Therrien, a man he hired not long after being tabbed to run the Canadiens. Ifthe axe does fall, it better be about reasons bigger than providing shock therapy to a bubble team that’s still inside the playoffs in the topsy-turvy Eastern Conference.
The case being compiled against Therrien on bar stools across La Belle Province is more or less that he’s a Douglas Murray-loving, P.K. Subban-alienating schmuck who wouldn’t see Lars Eller’s potential if it pied him in the face. The more measured critiques mention the fact Therrien has constantly had the Habs lines and defence pairings in a blender, largely because aside from a 9-0-1 run in late November and early December, Montreal has been very average all season.
Therrien has also found it hard to sustain success in each of his past two stints as an NHL coach. He guided the Pittsburgh Penguins for parts of four seasons, but after losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the 2008 Cup final, the Pens stumbled the following year and Therrien was let go after 57 games. Dan Bylsma took the reigns and a few months later, the Pens were Cup champs.
Therrien’s first tenure in Montreal began in 2000-01, when the Canadiens fired Alain Vigneault en route to missing the playoffs for the third straight year. In his first full season behind the bench, Therrien maneuvered the club back into the post-season and past the No. 1-seeded Boston Bruins in a huge first-round upset. The Habs were knocked off in round two by the Carolina Hurricanes and Therrien lasted just 46 games the following year, as the team once again finished outside the playoffs.
That precedent makes it seem more possible the Canadiens’ surprise second-place finish in the East last year represents the pinnacle of life under Therrien. But it’s worth noting that exactly 100 games into his second tour of duty, Therrien has posted a .610 winning percentage after taking over a team that finished dead-last in the conference the season before he arrived. Maybe he does give too much time to ineffective vets like Murray, Rene Bourque and Daniel Briere, but the notion that another coach would have squeezed more points out of the Canadiens in the past calendar year sure feels like a reach.
Is it Therrien’s fault that four of the defenceman who see regular action—Murray, Raphael Diaz, Alexei Emelin and Francis Bouillon—are also marginal enough NHLers that they’re scratched from time to time? It seems a stretch that Therrien would have begged Bergevin for another small forward last summer, which is what he got when the team inked Briere to a seriously questionable two-year deal.
When considering the plight of the Canadiens, it’s critical to recall what they are; a team with young cornerstone pieces in Price, Subban and sophomore Alex Galchenyuk that is still a long way from establishing itself as a top-tier outfit. In that respect, the franchise would be better served if Therrien gave more ice to the likes of Michael Bournival and Louis Leblanc, and kept pushing 21-year-old defenceman Nathan Beaulieu’s minutes.
A coach’s top concern, however, is always the next two points, which is why they usually default to playing established veterans. And as long as Bergevin’s supreme priorities are fixated on the long run rather than the immediate future, Therrien will still be the guy making Montreal’s lineup for a while.