MONTREAL, QC. — It’s the post-holiday stretch, the Winter Olympics are just around the corner, and the Montreal Canadiens are in a bit of a rut. An uneventful start to the season was followed by a tremendous streak of piling up the points, but in the last several weeks, the Habs have been playing inconsistent hockey. With expectations high following an unexpected resurgence during last year’s lockout-shortened season, Habs fans are puzzled over the true capability of their team.
Signs of confusion started to surface in Habs nation towards the end of the team’s November-December hot streak when some observers argued that the victories were masking problems. With erratic performances marking the club’s transition into 2014, a classic debate went to Twitter:
Is, as suggested by TSN 690’s Mitch Melnick, coach Michel Therrien failing to bring out the best out of a reasonably talented group of players?
@BWildeCTV That's where we disagree. They have more talent to produce. And player usage is, many times, a joke.
— Mitch Melnick (@HunterZThompson) January 1, 2014
Or, as argued in response by CTV Montreal’s Brian Wilde, is this simply a team whose coaching staff is getting the best that it can out of the current talent on its roster?
@HunterZThompson Again, they're playing to their potential with hard work. 4th is most this group can hope for. They don't have Pens talent.
— BrianWilde (@BWildeCTV) January 1, 2014
To assess the state of the Habs just past the halfway point of the season, I have turned to a handful of passionate observers. Each brings a specific expertise to the situation, and surveying their thoughts will provide understanding at a time when emotions are pushing our ability to be rational to the most extreme of limits.
Guiding me through the collective psyche of Habs fans, I first went to a respected source, and friend, Brendan Kelly. Montreal Gazette arts and culture writer and CBC radio broadcaster by day, and Habs analyst by night, Kelly passionately follows the Montreal Canadiens, and maintains a lively blog on the team’s weekly adventures. As a classic heart-on-the-sleeve kind of guy when it comes to the Habs, Kelly’s concerns are surely representative of those vigorously discussed by members of Habs nation today.
Kelly’s focus was temporarily diverted by the buzz leading up to the announcement of Team Canada’s hockey team for Sochi, but with that out of the way, he’s returned to Habs watch. And, while he’s not been happy with the team’s recent stretch of play, Kelly’s also not totally surprised given the expectations he had coming into the season.
“I was not super upbeat,” Kelly said over the phone while simultaneously negotiating Montreal’s icy winter roads. “Last season was an illusion and I feel the same way this year. They’re in a good position in the conference, but I just don’t see them going anywhere. They’re a fragile team, and I don’t see much happening.”
Referring to the quality of the team’s play this season as Jekyll and Hyde, Kelly agrees with those who demand that questions be asked about the coach. While Kelly insists that no one on the outside can really know about the relationship Therrien has with his players, he cites the constant shuffling of the lines as a problematic situation.
“Who’s our first line,” Kelly asked, somewhat exasperated. “I do think this mania that the Habs have for changing lines, no other team does this. We don’t ever have lines. The guys never know who they’re going to play with, and that could be on the coach.”
As with most Habs fans today, Kelly is skeptical of Therrien’s moves. Yet, in arguing that lineup inconsistency has been a trademark of Canadiens teams for years, he’s reluctant to pin it all on the bench boss.
Based on this reticence, I decided to get a second opinion.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I’m looking for a take, I can think of no one more engaged in Habs Studies than TSN 690’s Tony Marinaro. Host of the Montreal Forum, Habs Lunch, and Co-Host of the post-game show, Marinaro certainly has his share of supporters and detractors. Marinaro was happy to offer his thoughts on Therrien 2.0.
Like Kelly, Marinaro didn’t have the highest hopes for the Habs heading into the season, but he did predict a last minute qualification for the playoffs. With the team currently ranked in the upper tier of both their division and conference, and thus surpassing his expectations, how does Marinaro grade the coach?
Having endorsed bringing Therrien back, Marinaro was pleased by the up-tempo style of play the coach instilled last year. And, while there are facets of Therrien’s work that he approves, Marinaro identifies the disappearance of attack-oriented hockey as one of Therrien’s most serious shortcomings this season.
“The team plays too predictably and safe,” Marinaro said. “It’s short term gain but long term pain. [Therrien] may end up having a good season by going the safe route, but when you don’t have your team playing offensive hockey, sooner or later you’re going to have a bunch of unhappy guys in that locker room.”
Marinaro spoke to me days before the debacle against the Flyers, a game after which Therrien was blasted for having benched PK Subban as well as for undermining his players by refusing to pull Peter Budaj in favour of an extra attacker in the final minute. Though his concern that the players could turn against the coach has skyrocketed along with recent events, Marinaro’s overall view of Therrien was quite measured when we talked.
“You take a look at the team, and there’s probably more things that you dislike than you like,” Marinaro said. “But, from a standings point of view, [Therrien’s] doing well. You may not appreciate his methods, but you can’t argue with them.”
Clearly there are some red flags, but neither Kelly nor Marinaro is ready to put it all on the coach. While both these guys reminded me never to mistake Therrien for Mike Babcock, Claude Julien, or Ken Hitchcock, they also pushed me to widen the frame of the discussion.
So, if the coach is imperfect, but is still getting unexpected results, what can be said about the players? Are they doing their share or are they to blame for the team’s lackluster play?
For Brendan Kelly, his very lack of optimism heading into the season came from his belief that the Habs’ roster just isn’t there yet. Yes, there’s talent, but Kelly can’t see the current group of players as being ready to take the Habs deep in the playoffs.
“The reality is they’re in a good position because of one thing, and one thing only, which is Carey Price,” Kelly said. “They have one guy scoring, Pacioretty. Gallagher is probably the only guy that comes out every night and is amazing. Beyond that, it’s an unmitigated disaster. Take Carey Price out of the equation, and they’re in last place.”
It’s that simple? The roster is no better than it was in the bad old days, even before Bob Gainey’s time as GM?
Kelly acknowledges that Subban’s a superstar, that Plekanec has been strong, and that Markov has done admirably well. But, due to the fact that many others have been underperforming, and that the young players still have a lot of developing to do, Kelly’s forced to conclude that, “if you look at the team, it’s just not that good.”
Well, just as I needed a second opinion on the coach, I decided to call in an expert to provide additional perspective on Michel Therrien’s roster.
Often a voice of reason amidst the intensity that can be found on Twitter and over the airwaves, Rick Springhetti struck me as the perfect man to consult. Scout and reporter covering the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Quebec Midget AAA for the past five years, Springhetti and I exchanged e-mails so that I could to put Brendan Kelly’s roster argument to the test.
A hockey fan more than a Habs fan, Springhetti does manage to watch a majority of Canadiens games. Viewing the team from a scout’s perspective, Springhetti predicted that the Canadiens would struggle to make the playoffs. Pointing to a specific area of weakness, Springhetti agrees that there are some significant deficiencies in player depth.
“In today’s NHL, I firmly believe that you need a complete and deep defensive corp to be successful,” Springhetti wrote in an e-mail. “The Habs have a top-two pairing, two that are 4th or 5th defensemen, and the rest are depth players. Without good defense, teams rely too much on goaltending. Skilled forwards waste time and energy chasing the puck, and little sustainable scoring opportunities can be generated.”
Habs fans are likely to cringe if they think too much about the fit between those words and the current play of the Canadiens, but it’s not all bad news according to Springhetti.
As with Brendan Kelly, Springhetti is confident in Carey Price, and, despite containing too many overpaid and/or streaky players, he sees potential among the forwards. Springhetti’s bullish on the importance of backend depth, however, and he sees the development of Beaulieu and Tinordi as decisive in determining the team’s overall future fortunes.
As for the Habs of today, and whether it’s coaching or player personnel that’s resulting in mediocrity, Springhetti’s views match those of Brendan Kelly and Tony Marinaro.
“I’m not always in agreement with Therrien’s decisions,” Springhetti wrote. “But, I am not sure if this team could be that much better considering the talent they have right now. A lot of players are inconsistent in terms of production, and that makes things very hard on the coaching staff. Only one line is clicking at any given time, and that makes it easy for opponents to plan their strategy when playing the Habs.”
So, there you go. The coach is no one’s first choice, but his roster doesn’t make his life any easier either. The picture of the fan-experts’ evaluations was becoming clear, and somewhat uniform, but I still felt there was one more piece of the puzzle to be addressed.
At the start of last year’s playoffs, Brendan Kelly celebrated the Habs return to the postseason by attributing the team’s turnaround to the club’s then rookie GM, Marc Bergevin. Months later, where does Kelly rank Bergevin? Can he get the club out of its current mess? Will the GM and his team make good on the goodwill and credit they’ve banked, or will their efforts come to resemble those of another set of local (musical) heroes towards whom Kelly is on record has having assigned a critical score?
With the exception of Brandon Prust, Kelly sees all of Bergevin’s major player transactions to date as being either entirely predictable (e.g. subtraction of Gomez and Cammalleri) or as basically disastrous in their results (e.g. Briere, Murray, and Parros). Yet, anchored by Price, he also sees a core of 8-10 great young players, as well as the potential for a much brighter future as long as Bergevin makes good on his oft-repeated master plan to build through the draft.
“At the end of the day, a great team is all about the general manager,” Kelly said. “I think you’ve got to prove yourself, and the jury is totally out on Bergevin. It’s not that he’s not good, it’s that he just hasn’t proven himself. Will he do what he has to do? We’ll see.”
Tony Marinaro and Rick Springhetti agree with Kelly that the ball is now in Bergevin’s court. Refreshing the team and its rosters into a significantly improved version will undoubtedly take time, and to get additional insight on whether Bergevin’s up to the task, I decided to consult with one final fan-expert.
In terms of her fanatical attachment to the Montreal Canadiens, Caroline Kalaydjian is just like you and me. Where she’s not like me, and maybe you, is in her extensive work experience in private sector management and in the thought she puts into the relationship between the ways of the business world and the operations of a sports team. Born in Montreal, but living in Ontario for over thirty years, Kalaydjian follows the Habs religiously. She was eager to give her assessment of what’s needed on the managerial side to bring the Habs into a better future.
In my e-mail correspondence with Kalaydjian, the former manager of a major consumer goods company outlines an impressively exhaustive list of specific hockey-related tasks to which the General Manager of a team must attend. To ensure, however, that all facets of team building (including scouting, drafting, player development, coaching, and winning) are accomplished, Kalaydjian highlights three core organizational objectives that must be set and secured by the GM: the assembly of quality decision-making teams, clear and open communication, and the need for organizational rhetoric to be matched by reality in its actions.
How does Kalaydjian see the pursuit and accomplishment of these objectives in the case of Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens?
Operating in a context mandating what she calls a need to “over-compensate” in selecting French-speaking coaches and managers, Kalaydjian believes that the Canadiens now have an experienced management team in Montreal, but that questions arise regarding both Therrien and the coaching staff of the club’s farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs. Whereas Kalaydjian’s concerns in Hamilton emerge from the slow development of key prospects like Tinordi and Beaulieu, her central critique of Therrien is that the coach sidesteps the need to communicate well, and to minimize inconsistency in decision-making.
“Time on ice is supposed to be based on performance,” Kalaydjian wrote. “Several players got the hook rather quickly in the first season and a half [under Therrien], but that principle was not applied to Desharnais. If this exception was clearly communicated internally, fine, but if not, team members would take note. Disconnect [resulting from inconsistency] leads quickly to lack of team cohesion.”
For Kalaydjian, the Desharnais case has been just one of several eyebrow-raising issues coming out of Therrien’s coaching. In writing about line shuffling, breaking up the EGG line, the failure to put Briere in a position in which he can succeed, as well as about the abandonment of up-tempo hockey, Kalaydjian cautions that coaching changes lacking proper consultation and effective communication pose a threat to securing ongoing “buy-in from the players.”
So, in light of her thoughts on Bergevin’s own mistakes (Briere!), and in considering the GM’s appointment and continued tolerance of a coach whose day-to-day decision-making appears to diverge from organizational principles she sees as inviolable for team success, what is the current reading on Kalaydjian’s audit of team management?
“The pieces to the puzzle aren’t complete, but [Bergevin] deserves a chance to build,” Kalaydjian wrote. “The key is to see personal growth for the GM and forward momentum in the objectives the organization has established. Most important is success for the team’s youth. Youth is the base, and if the structure is weak, the house falls. Keeping our eye on that is crucial for the basis of any judgment [to be made] according to the objectives the organization has laid out for us.”
So, it’s definitely been a rough couple of weeks around here, and our nerves are shot. And, though this exercise may have simply conjured up more pain, the fan-experts have also helped to mirror a strange paradox in the lives of many in Habs nation.
We seem to know there’s a lot of work to be done with the roster, and that the coach is flawed. We’re aware that Bergevin’s been on the job for but a very short while, and that only time will tell if he has what it takes to be a great GM. Yet, despite our knowledge of all these elephants in the Habs dressing room, we still insist that we deserve more, and that we deserve it now.
Why? Why do we put ourselves through such torture when we know exactly what we have right in front of our faces?
“I think you got to go with your heart,” Brendan Kelly said to me about being a hockey fan in Montreal. “It’s no different talking sports than talking about rock ‘n’ roll. And, it’s not how someone plays the guitar solo, it’s the emotion in the music. It’s the same in hockey. It’s a very passionate thing.”
Amen to that, and enjoy the Habs against Chicago on Saturday night.
Follow me on Twitter @AviGoldberg