During that barely lamented stretch in 2011 when Randy Cunnyworth replaced Jacques Martin, Canadiens president Geoff Molson, in response to the predictable public hoo-haw said “It is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach.”
I think I’m also safe in saying there are some very good French-speaking coaches in-and-around the NHL. The problem is there aren’t a lot of them and the good ones have been employed and unavailable. Marc Bergevin has been known to be one of the most pro-active GM’s in the league and he wasted no time making an inevitable move that might well have delayed if the Bruins hadn’t fired Claude Julien.
Let me start with this. Michel Therrien had a terrific record through his first three years with the Canadiens. The Canadiens had two 100-point seasons and probably would have hand a third except his first season was shortened by the lockout. His teams also won seven playoff rounds in three seasons and had two seasons of 100 or more points. Last season, his fourth in this his second tour behind the Canadiens bench, was a disaster.
Even the best NHL coaches have a shelf-life. Very few leave their teams on their own terms. We could only be accused of second-guessing if we said Marc Bergevin should have shown Therrien the door last June but hindsight tells us his expiry date had passed.
A couple of things saved him. The first was the built in excuse of 348 man-games lost to injury including the devastating fifty-nine games Carey Price wasn’t available. Secondly, Therrien was Bergevin’s “foxhole guy” and he wasn’t prepared to give up on him after one bad season. Thirdly, even if he considered it, the list of available qualified replacements was limited to Guy Boucher whom Ottawa hired.
So, Therrien stayed. And history repeated. Fast start. Mid-season collapse. And gone.
If I were to pick one thing that led to his downfall it would be Therrien’s inflexibility. Therrien sold Bergevin on the systematic way he wanted his team to play. It was a good system and it worked for three seasons. But Therrien doesn’t coach in a vacuum. Other coaches adjust and they figured out what he was doing and answered with their own counteraction. Ultimately it was Therrien’s stubborn refusal or inability to answer opponents tactics with adjustments of his own and the Canadiens actually became stereo-tyed and easy to play against.
So we come full circle. Claude Julien replaces Michel Therrien as head coach of the Canadiens for the second time in fifteen seasons. His first stint behind the Canadiens bench lasted 159 games before Bob Gainey, in one of his whims, fired him and replaced him with Guy Carbonneau in January 2006.
Will he be better than Therrien?
Initially it can be guaranteed. As we”ve seen with the Islanders and Bruins, a change is as good as a rest. There is inevitably a honeymoon period. As a team, the Canadiens will respond to a new coach and system.
Julien has proven in his fifteen seasons as an NHL head coach that he knows what he’s doing. In Boston, where it became apparent that the Bruins once-solid defense was in decline, I was impressed with some of his adjustments to a more offensive minded game this season. It didn’t save his job, but it was worth noting.
But, in the end, a lack of coaching imagination is not the only problem confronting the Canadiens.. They have serious roster issues and little help on the way from their AHL affiliate.
Julien can only do so much. The rest is up to Bergevin.