By Stu Hackel
It’s doubtful that Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier woke up Saturday morning, picked up a copy of Red Fisher’s story in The Montreal Gazette and decided to fire coach Jacques Martin. But if you need any explanation as to why Gauthier pulled the trigger, the venerable Fisher — who has covered the Canadiens since 1955 — tells you all you need to know.
“The morning numbers Friday showed they were ranked No. 10 in the Eastern Conference with a 13-12-7 record (and they were 11th on Saturday — SH). Clearly, it is not where the Canadiens wanted to be awaiting a six-game road trip following Saturday’s game against New Jersey….
“Ten of the Canadiens’ 13 victories have been in regulation time, two in overtime and one in a shootout. On the other hand, 12 have been lost in regulation, two in overtime and five in The Gimmick. A team winning only 13 of its first 32 games is facing an uphill climb in terms of making the postseason.”
Missing the playoffs is unacceptable in Montreal — well, so are early eliminations. So Martin is gone, replaced by assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth, who had been head coach of the Habs’ AHL affiliate in Hamilton until this season.
But Gauthier had clearly put Martin on notice in late October after the Canadiens lost seven of their first eight games and six in a row. It was the glorious franchise’s worst start in 70 years and Gauthier fired Martin’s longtime trusted lieutenant Perry Pearn, who had been his assistant coach in Ottawa as well as with the Canadiens. That little wake-up call prompted the Habs to win four straight, but they came down to earth after that and didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
No one, especially the Canadiens’ front office, expected the team to show this badly. The players certainly didn’t and they seemed surprised by the firing, as the various interviews posted on The Gazette’s Hockey Inside/Out blog — like the one above with defenseman Josh Gorges – reveal. The players also say the responsibility for the team’s failure has been theirs, not Martin’s.
But five factors clearly doomed the coach: First was his team’s inability to win at home. The Bell Centre is the loudest arena in the NHL and if a team can’t respond to that, it has a problem. The Habs’ record at home is 5-6-6.
Second is their inability to hold leads, which became something of an indictment of Martin, who is renowned as a defensive-oriented coach. The Canadiens have scored the first goal of the game 17 times this season, but they have gotten two points in only eight of those contests. In the last five weeks alone, they squandered a 2-0 third period lead in Buffalo and lost in the shootout, lost a 3-1 lead over Pittsburgh and fell in overtime, blew a third period lead against San Jose and lost in the shootout, turned a 3-0 lead over Vancouver into a shootout loss, and blew a 3-0 lead against the Islanders, although they rallied to win that one, 5-3.
“I don’t think that was an X-and-O thing,” Gorges said Saturday after the morning skate. “That came from a false sense of who we are. We got leads against some good teams, and all of a sudden we started thinking we’re a first-place team. We would get complacent.”
The third factor is the power play, a Canadiens’ strength for years, but this season it’s limping along at 12.1 percent, ranked 28th in the league. They’ve also surrendered five shorthanded goals, the league’s second highest total.
Fourth is their recent habit of losing to teams at the bottom of the standings, and that has frustrated them and their fans. In the last month they’ve been beaten by Columbus, the Islanders and Anaheim. Whether it was overconfidence or lack of preparation, those losses damaged Martin’s standing with his bosses.
And fifth is their overall poor offensive performance. While they are one of the fastest clubs in the NHL, their 82 goals scored rank 14th in the Eastern Conference.
In addition, the Canadiens have too often been authors of their own demise with sloppy play. Their 312 giveaways ranks fifth-most in the league. As Gorges remarks in the interview above, the players have not all been on the same page.
Of course, there are mitigating circumstances in Montreal’s plight that were out of Martin’s control. Their top defenseman and power play quarterback, Andrei Markov, has yet to dress for a game this season; Scott Gomez has been out of the lineup more than he’s been in; captain Brian Gionta is currently sidelined, too, and, as Andrew Berkshire of the Canadiens fan blog Eyes on the Prize notes, they have been “the most injured team in the NHL this season in both man-games lost and CHIP, which calculates how much salary is on the shelf each game.”
And while Martin’s defense-first emphasis has stifled some of the Habs’ offensive creativity, important top six forwards who have put up good numbers under him in the past, namely Gionta and Mike Cammalleri, are slumping. Cammalleri has probably hit more posts than anyone in the NHL this season.
Critics have slammed Martin, not just for his safe approach to the game, but also the way he’s used his players. They say veterans often got preference over younger talents in terms of ice time, and they charged that even some veterans have been misused. Erik Cole, for example, was kept off the power play early on and Martin defended his decision, explaining that Cole hadn’t been productive with the extra man while playing last season in Carolina. Martin eventually reversed himself and Cole now leads the club in power play tallies.
But there are also lingering questions about the makeup of this team, and that falls to Gauthier. The Habs are chronically small, especially up front, which was obvious in their loss to the Flyers on Thursday. Philadelphia was without Chris Pronger and Claude Giroux, their two best players, but prevailed in the trenches, often winning the one-on-one puck battles by using their superior size.
Gauthier tried to address that during the offseason by signing Cole, who has probably been Montreal’s best player on their best line, with Max Pacioretty on the other wing and diminutive David Desharnais between them. But too many nights, the Canadiens come out second best in the muscle department and there is a sense that Gauthier’s job may not be secure either.
An important sidelight to all this is Cunneyworth’s appointment to run the team; he speaks very little French, which is thought to be a prerequisite for that job. In La Presse, Philippe Cantin writes that the Canadiens, as a Quebec institution, have abdicated their responsibility to the majority of the populace with this move and called it an “affront to the French fans.”
Gauthier tabbed French-speaking Larry Carriere, Montreal’s assistant general manager, as an assistant coach to fill Cunneyworth’s spot. Carriere has never been a head or assistant coach at the NHL level, although Gauthier was comfortable that his hockey knowledge would not put the team at a disadvantage. One wonders how that will work out.
“When we are where we are and expect to be a better team than we’ve been, you definitely are aware there might be changes,” said Cammalleri. “For it to be Jacques was somewhat surprising.
“We’re in 11th place, that’s what went wrong. I think Jacques was still trying to work on things and improve the team. I don’t think there was anyone not listening to him.”
Defenseman Chris Campoli, who just re-entered the lineup this week after an opening night injury, added, “It’s a wake-up call and an opportunity to turn things around.”
The Canadiens were expected to be in thick of things, not on the outside looking in. Even with this change behind the bench, as Red Fisher says, they have an uphill climb in front of them.