By Stu Hackel
It’s unusual when big hockey news intrudes on the Stanley Cup Final, but fittingly in this unusual playoff year, there’s already been a lot: the announcement that the NHL and NHLPA will start CBA negotiations shortly, Nick Lidstrom retiring, Tim Thomas saying he’ll sit out next season, the Flames hiring Bob Hartley as coach, Marian Gaborik’s surgery and the Penguins acquiring Tomas Vokoun.
Now there’s another story, and it’s a curious one — the Canadiens hiring Michel Therrien as their coach, a move that returns him to the Habs’ bench for the second time.
The curiosity stems in part from Therrien’s penchant for installing a passive defensive system on the teams he coaches. Both the Canadiens players and their fans groused at Jacques Martin’s passive approach to the game and it’s pretty obvious that when teams wait for the opposition to make errors and then counterpunch, they don’t have much success in the NHL anymore. The Kings and Devils reached the Cup final because they abandoned that style of hockey. The Bruins and Canucks, last year’s finalists, did as well.
As the reader comments on The Montreal Gazette’s Hockey Inside/Out blog attest, this is not necessarily a popular hire by new GM Marc Bergevin and his new brain trust, which includes his mentor Rick Dudley and close former teammate Scott Mellanby. Therrien, too, has a friendship with Bergevin, and while familiarity can be a plus in these matters, it can also be a detriment if better choices are available.
In his first tour of duty in Montreal, Therrien would not have been considered among the best at his profession. But really, it’s hard to know if he is a better coach now than he was earlier in his career and if he will end up being an inspired choice. Remember, lots of people thought when Dean Lombardi hired Darryl Sutter, his former coach as San Jose GM, to replace Terry Murray in December, it was just cronyism and would result in more of the same passive hockey that had made L.A. the biggest underachiever in the NHL. Now the Kings are a win away from the Stanley Cup. The lesson here is we’ll have to wait to learn if Therrien’s own history repeats itself.
“We all change,” Therrien said at his re-introductory press conference. “There’s a lot of (new) people in that dressing room here and I could tell you guys (media) changed a lot too. It goes with maturity. I got a lot of experience coaching that club before and I brought that experience and knowledge when I left Montreal.”
He certainly has his detractors within Habs Nation due to his first stint with the Canadiens, which ran from the start of the 2000-01 season, after taking over from Alain Vigneault, to 2002-03 when he was replaced during the season by Claude Julien. His style was much like Jacques Lemaire’s, and trapping hockey has never been popular in Montreal, even when the team won while playing it.
In Therrien’s case, there wasn’t a great deal of winning, either. His Canadiens made the playoffs once, in 2001-02, the season they improved by 16 points largely due to the play of goalie Jose Theodore, who won the Hart Trophy as well as the Vezina. They upset the Bruins in the first round, and in that series, the combustible Therrien made a throat-slashing gesture at Boston’s Kyle McLaren after this hit on Richard Zednik:
It got Therrien fined, deservedly so, and against the Hurricanes in the next round, with the Habs up 2-1 in games and leading 3-0 in Game 4, he argued too vehemently with referee Kerry Fraser after what he thought was a missed cross-checking call and was hit with a bench penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Carolina scored, got back in the game, eventually tied it and sent it to overtime. Habs fans still rue Therrien’s puzzling decision to send Bill Lindsay, a depth winger, out to take a defensive zone faceoff in OT, a draw he lost cleanly as the puck went back to Niclas Wallin, who beat Theodore for the game-winner. It was the turning point of a series they eventually lost.
If the throat slash and the bench minor clashed harshly with the image the Habs like to project of a classy organization, the botched face-off called into question Therrien’s hockey acumen. When the Habs stumbled the next season, he was gone after 46 games.
On Montreal radio Team 990 Tuesday morning, host Tony Marinaro (who defended the hiring), invoked the old cliché that it’s a bad idea to date your former girlfriend, but added that if one of you has changed, it could work out fine. That’s what Montreal fans must hope for. But in a readers’ poll on Hockey Inside/Out that listed all the potential candidates for the vacant coaching position, Therrien was a distant fifth, favored by only three percent of the voters. (In an updated poll, two-thirds said hiring Therrien was not a good move.)
Of course, that poll largely reflects the minority Anglophone sentiment, which favored Marc Crawford — and the omnipresent Quebec language issue certainly can’t be ignored in the Habs’ decision to bypass him, a Stanley Cup champion, in favor of Therrien, nor the reaction from both French and English communities.
But with Crawford a passable French speaker, Bergevin’s motivation was more likely based on his comfort level with Therrien. He knows both coaches personally. He played his final NHL games as a member of the Canucks coached by Crawford, arriving in Vancouver with the team still traumatized a few weeks after the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident. Therrien is a closer friend, however. They have a mutual buddy in Mario Lemieux, who Bergevin has known since childhood. When Therrien coached Lemieux’s Penguins, some believed that Mario protected Therrien from being fired when his players wanted the coach removed.
In Pittsburgh, as in his earlier job with the Canadiens, Therrien was highly abrasive, preferred a defense-first style, and was not considered especially sharp in his bench management. His defenders maintained that coaching in the NHL is not a popularity contest and they pointed to his guiding Pittsburgh to within two games of the 2009 Stanley Cup, which they lost to the Red Wings in six games.
Therrien took over the Pens from Ed Olczyk in December 2005 after leading their Wilkes Barre-Scranton AHL team to a terrific start (21 wins in its first 25 games) and the Calder Cup final the previous season. The Pens had stumbled around for a season and change under Olczyk and didn’t improve all that much at first under Therrien. But he was blunt and didn’t hold back his feelings for his players, like on this famous rant after what he called “a pathetic performance:”
It made him something of a motivator in the grand tradition of coaches who do so through antagonism. Getting the young, talented Pens to play more of a passive trapping game, Therrien’s reputation as a coach soared following a 47-point improvement in 2006-07, which included a 16-game unbeaten streak, a leap in the standings to fifth in the East, and Pittsburgh’s first playoff berth in five years.
The next year, with an even better club — GM Ray Shero picked up key performers like Gary Roberts and Marian Hossa – the Pens actually fell back a few points from the previous season, but finished first in their division and made it to the final, some believing it was due more to the talent than the coaching. The script was similar to what happened in Montreal: The Penguins bristled under Therrien’s tough demeanor and he continually complained about the officiating during the final. Once again, his tactical abilities were questioned, and he reportedly feuded with his stars, including Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. But with postseason success, Therrien was awarded a new four-year contract. Yet, after a strong start in 2008-09, the Pens weakened and he was fired after 57 games. He eventually took a job scouting for the Minnesota Wild and he hasn’t coached since. He was also on RDS TV in Montreal, analyzing/criticizing the same Canadiens players he now has to coach (and was especially critical of P.K. Suban, one of the Habs few elite talents).
Oh, that same Pittsburgh team won the Cup a few months later under a kinder, gentler and more tactically aware Dan Bylsma.
Therrien’s hiring isn’t exactly a surprise. His name has been floating around for various openings since he was dismissed in Pittsburgh. His name surfaced (along with Hartley and Crawford) on the short list of likely candidates for the Habs job last month, and when Hartley took the Calgary gig (reuniting him with GM Jay Feaster, with whom he worked in the AHL), Therrien’s chances escalated.
Perhaps it was all coincidental, but the sequence of some events in the last week point to the possibility that there may have been some trepidation among the Habs’ new hockey department about selecting either Therrien or Crawford. Thought to be out of the running early in the process, Patrick Roy suddenly reappeared in news reports as a potential candidate right after Hartley’s decision. Roy would have been a popular choice, but his desire to have a big say in player personnel decisions likely didn’t mesh with the way Bergevin wants to run his operation. And if the Canadiens approached Roy a second time, asking if he’d relent on that point, they probably got a second “no” for an answer.
So Therrien begins anew and only time will reveal whether this tiger indeed has new stripes. If he’s changed, if he’s matured, this could be a good hire. He can be a good motivator. Perhaps he can also be a good tactician. But if he’s going to be the same coach and the same guy he was his last time around, the results won’t be hard to predict.
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