MONTREAL, QC. — No doubt about it: the 2015 version of the Montreal Canadiens will be a much different team than the one we saw advance to the Eastern Conference Finals a few months ago.
There are numerous subtractions, leaders Josh Gorges and Brian Gionta to name a few, and some surprising additions in the likes of forward P.A. Parenteau and defenseman Tom Gilbert. Though the team has changed some of its on-ice personnel, the one person who the Habs might regret letting go the most is assistant coach Gerard Gallant.
Gallant, who head coach Michel Therrien poached from the junior coaching ranks, accepted the position to be the head coach of the lowly Florida Panthers. Since nabbing his next head coach, Florida general manager Dale Tallon has equipped his team with veterans who may help improve the Panthers fortunes going into next season. However, the most important connection to keep in mind when considering Gallant as coach of the Panthers is young forward Jonathan Huberdeau.
Huberdeau, who was a centerpiece for the Saint John’s Sea Dogs and their Memorial Cup victories, was coached by Gallant in junior. Huberdeau enjoyed a terrific start to his NHL career, scoring 31 points in a lockout shortened 48-game season. However, Huberdeau fell victim to a suspected sophomore year curse and finished last season with only nine goals in 69 games. Adding Gallant will only help spark Huberdeau to return to the form he displayed during his time in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The 3rd overall pick in 2011, Huberdeau has lots of time to develop but Gallant should accelerate the process based on the pair’s previous work together.
Without question Huberdeau will be a future leader for the Panthers, but if he can help rally the team under Gallant’s system, the 21-year-old could emerge as the team’s captain this season. With an owner who is willing to spend, Florida has assembled a roster that could challenge for a playoff spot. Tallon’s free agent signings this off-season include the likes of Willie Mitchell, Jussi Jokinen and Dave Bolland. As a former Blackhawk, Bolland, was drafted by Tallon and is a two-time Stanley Cup champion along with Mitchell. These seasoned veterans, combined with Montreal native Roberto Luongo between the pipes, Gallant has a team with size and speed at his disposal to complement Huberdeau’s success. At least, this is what Tallon is hoping for and what Bergevin and the Habs should be weary of.
The Habs and the Panthers have had connections in the past season, and it should be remembered that both Marc Bergevin and Dale Tallon are previous members of the Chicago Blackhawks’ front office. The Habs acquired George Parros from the Panthers last summer for a minor league player and a draft pick. This past trade deadline, Bergevin nabbed defenseman Mike Weaver from Tallon in exchange for a fifth round pick. Then there’s the signing of Tom Gilbert from Florida to Montreal. The Habs seem to have built a solid relationship with Florida. . Bergevin and Tallon, while cut from the same managerial cloth, appear to have similar interests in how to build their teams. Therefore, when Tallon called and asked Bergevin for permission to speak with Gallant regarding their coaching vacancy there wasn’t likely any hesitation from the Canadiens front office. Letting Gallant go to greener pastures and taking the reins of his own team may seem noble of the Habs to do, but the move is likely going to sting next season when Therrien will have to rely on someone new for further coaching insight.
Gallant was a strong member of the supporting staff for Therrien, often planning the Habs’ offensive strategies and managing the power-play. Gallant’s most valuable asset to the team was his communication skills. He was a teacher and motivator ensuring messages from the coaching staff were effectively conveyed to players whether in the dressing room or on the bench. Known as a straight shooter his voice was respected by the officials. Whomever Therrien chooses as his assistant, they should have the same technical abilities that Gallant had. By contrast, Therrien may see value in giving current assistant coach Clement Jodoin more responsibility at practice and behind the bench although communication is not Jodoin’s strong suit. Jodoin is a former assistant coach with the Habs, from 1997 to 2001 as well as the 2002-2003 campaign.
While Therrien may name another assistant coach to his bench closer to the start of the 2015 season, the head coach may stick with Jodoin and J.J. Daigneault as associates. If so, Therrien could be scrutinized to see if Gallant’s departure will have a negative effect on the team’s performance.
In 2011-2012, Jacques Martin was entering his third year behind the Canadiens bench when Kirk Muller left to become head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes. Martin was fired after 32 games that season while Muller went on to coach for two more years. The Habs, who landed a top three pick in the 2012 Entry Draft, finished with one of the worst records the franchise has seen in a long time, which led to the hiring of Bergevin as general manager. After drafting Alex Galchenyuk, Bergevin named Therrien head coach.
Now, in his third season as the bench boss, Michel Therrien faces a similar fate to that of his predecessor. Will Gallant be his downfall? Surely, a head coach with Therrien’s pedigree will survive the loss of an understudy but the questions will only be answered by more on-ice success for the blue-blanc-et-rouge. Therrien, who in his second stint as coach led the Habs to a first place finish in his first year, is coming off a season where the Habs made it to the Conference Finals since Martin did in 2010. Bergevin’s leash on his coach is not to be as tight as it was for Martin, but the cat scratch fevered fans in Montreal will expect the team to succeed even more in 2015. The dynamic duo of Bergevin and Therrien will face their greatest test in their third season together, but Habs fans can only hope it won’t be their last.