MONTREAL, QC. — Michel Therrien entered the 2012-2013 NHL season as a coach that had a lot to prove. His hiring to take over the Montreal Canadiens for a second time raised some eyebrows but despite a shortened training camp, he has shown a refreshing mix of successful in-game management and lineup construction.
He made it clear from the beginning that there will be no excuses on this Canadiens team under his watch and all it took was one game to show his rule. Lars Eller, according to his coach, showed a “lack of intensity” in the season opener and was a healthy scratch for the next two games. Then, upon the return of P.K. Subban, Therrien again had to make a decision about a healthy scratch with a forward. He decided that Ryan White would be the one to sit out after White took a roughing call followed by an unsportsmanlike conduct call that allowed the Ottawa Senators to turn a 1-1 game into a 3-1 lead. This wasn’t public discipline, just somebody had to sit and White was the most convenient choice with the team going with 11 forwards that day.
Now, with Max Pacioretty back, Therrien has a completely healthy lineup save Petteri Nokelainen. That means he has 13 forwards that have a role in the Canadiens lineup. It is a good problem to have, but it is not an easy situation to deal with.
Therrien has said publicly that he wants to hold players accountable and that he wants to reward good play. That is part of the reason Eller and White were healthy scratches and part of the reason Eller stayed in the lineup after he had his best game of the season against Buffalo. Therrien has also said that he wants everybody to play and that he will rotate players in and out because he does not want players hoping their teammates will make a mistake so that they can re-enter the lineup. To me, it makes sense. However, it can paint Therrien into a corner.
Scratching Eller and White for bad games or mistakes can be alright. But what happens when he wants to get White back into the lineup? Do you sit out Eller who has been playing better since moving to center and taking some shifts with Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk? That will not reward good play. Does Therrien sit out Travis Moen or Colby Armstrong? Arguably they are the most similar to White (read: interchangeable) but are veterans who play their role well and it makes it harder to sit them out. Brandon Prust? He provides a punch (no pun intended) to whichever line he steps out with. And you can’t realistically expect him to sit out any of the top-six forwards unless they visibly struggle.
Basically, Therrien will have to communicate with his players. Use the healthy scratch as a tool to rest key players for a condensed schedule. When Therrien tells Carey Price that he will start Peter Budaj, Price doesn’t see it as a punishment. It is a chance to rest. That is how Therrien will have to juggle his forwards and maybe even to a certain extent his defencemen. Look at the opponent and play the 12 forwards that fit in best. To that point, don’t be surprised if White makes his way back into the lineup just in time for Wednesday’s game against the Boston Bruins.
Resting players is something that other teams have already talked about this season with their veteran players. Florida has sat captain Ed Jovanovski out in back-to-back games. Ottawa has talked about doing the same thing with Daniel Alfredsson. It is hard to play hard every night, especially with a condensed schedule and if Therrien can communicate that to his players successfully, everybody can be happy.
Competition can be good. It’s what these players thrive on, especially if the team continues to win. However, there is a negative side to this as well. If players are scared that if they make a mistake, they will sit, they can play tight and make even more mistakes. It’s why Therrien has to be careful with how he juggles his lineup. He has given Gallagher and Galchenyuk confidence that they can play their games without looking over their shoulder. He has presumably done the same thing with Rene Bourque in a talk prior to the season.
It has been a while since Canadiens fans have 13 forwards they want in their lineup. Last year, White, Tomas Kaberle and Yannick Weber had significant roles with the team. This year, with added depth and health, it isn’t the case. However, injuries will happen and they will have to step up for the team and may even have to do it in an important game. That is what makes this juggling act Therrien has in front of him so important.
A lot of people would dream of being the coach of the Montreal Canadiens. They all have opinions about who should play and where they should play. A lot of players saw the lineup the Canadiens had against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday afternoon as the perfect lineup for their current roster. However, the three people who are sitting out are people too. They have goals and dreams and need to have the confidence that they can go out there and have a regular shift.
Handling the 18 players who are in the lineup is the easy part. But Therrien and his coaching staff have the job of making sure everybody is ready to play when called upon and that will take strong communication with his players. That is something that had been missing but it seems to be one of the first things that have improved from the old regime. There is still a lot of hockey left to be played, and a lot of potential lineup decisions to be questioned. However, it won’t be the decisions themselves that allow the Canadiens to sink or swim this season. It will be how the decisions are made and how they are handled inside the room.