MONTREAL—Canadiens coach Michel Therrien says he would like to shed his reputation as somewhat of a dictator.
“These days it’s not like the old days, that it’s ‘my way or the highway,’” Therrien told reporters at his annual golf tournament on Aug. 11. “It doesn’t work like that.”
Therrien was referring to the approach he intends to take with perplexing forward Alexander Semin, who signed a one-year, $1.1 million free agent deal with the Canadiens on July 24.
The 31-year-old Russian has all-world talent that’s seen him crack the 20-goal mark seven times, including three 30-goal seasons and a 40-goal campaign with Washington in 2009-10. But following a disappointing six-goal, 19-point effort in 57 games with Carolina last season, the Hurricanes decided to buy out the remaining three years and $21 million on his contract.
Therrien revealed how he hopes to keep not just Semin, but all of his players motivated and focused next season.
“You need to try and build relationships with players, communicate a lot,” he explained. “I truly believe in those things and [believe in] teaching the way you want them to play, the way you want them to compete.”
The question is: when did Therrien adopt this philosophy? For the better part of three years, a popular narrative around Therrien has been that he isn’t suited to coach this generation of players. Therrien’s critics point to his “dump and chase” system—a style of play advanced statisticians argue is antiquated—as evidence he’s adverse to change.
What’s not in doubt is how Therrien earned his reputation.
“He was an authoritarian,” Terry Ryan, a former first-round pick of the Canadiens told an Ontario-based podcast about Therrien, who he played for while with Montreal’s AHL affiliate in Fredericton from 1997-99.
“Once, he called me in for a meeting and he just lit a cigarette, smoked it and told me to get the [expletive] out of his office,” said Ryan. “Obviously there was a message being sent. I didn’t really know what it was…There was obviously a thing where he wanted mental dominance.”
Ryan expanded on his other contentious moments with Therrien in his 2014 autobiography “Tales of a First-Round Nothing.”
There was also this infamous tirade from 2006, when Therrien–then head coach with Pittsburgh–ripped into his Penguins players.
More recently, in 2013 there was an episode of the Canadiens-produced reality television show 24CH in which the cameras caught Therrien lacing into defencemen P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges for some sloppy work in their own end.
But that was then and this is now. And given Therrien’s 125-64-23 record since returning behind Montreal’s bench, perhaps he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Comments from players who recently played under Therrien with the Canadiens, but are now elsewhere, don’t support the idea that he has become a better communicator.
“To be honest, I never really knew what my role was in Montreal,” said forward Jiri Sekac upon his arrival to Anaheim after only half a season under Therrien. “It doesn’t give you confidence or help you with your game.”
Said an anonymous former player Therrien recently coached in Montreal: “Having the best goaltender in the world [Carey Price] masks a lot of problems.”
Forward Rene Bourque, who was given ample opportunity to produce but was never consistent in nearly four seasons with the Canadiens said, like Sekac, he never knew what was expected of him.
“Michel and I didn’t have the best relationship,” Bourque told the Columbus Dispatch in March. “We didn’t communicate. I didn’t know what he wanted from me or vice versa.”
Conversely, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, upon hearing of Therrien’s rehiring in Montreal, referred to his experience with the coach as “a great time.”
Other high-profile players, such as Montreal’s Max Pacioretty, have vehemently defended Therrien’s style over the past few years.
Therrien’s stated desire to alter his approach with players speaks to the reality of coaching in today’s NHL, but time will tell whether he can actually evolve.
A revival for Semin under Therrien could offer some proof of tangible change. Likewise, a breakout season for forward Alex Galchenyuk, who’s fallen just short of expectations in his first three seasons under Therrien’s guidance, would help.
But if Therrien’s comments were merely lip service, he’s got a better chance of ending up on that “highway” he was referring to, than he does of helping the Canadiens get to the next level.