Michel Therrien is a hard man to love.
Before taking up residence behind the Pittsburgh Penguins' bench, Therrien punched an opposing coach in the face, dumped players' sticks on the ice—mid-game—after a bad call, and threatened a referee with a throat-slashing gesture.
Needless to say, he’s earned his reputation as a tough-as-nails coach.
In 2005, Therrien led the Baby Penguins to an impressive 21-1-3 pace to open the season. After the parent club posted a dismal 8-17-6 in the first 31 games, Therrien was called up to replace head coach Eddie Olczyk.
Once in the big leagues, Therrien gave the Penguins a month to shape up. After that, he cracked down.
“When I saw that we were not capable of changing the mentality of what it takes to win, I decided to go hard. Let’s break it and fix it,” Therrien said.
The new head coach put the underachieving players through bag skates. He called them out in the media, blasting the defensive corps as “soft” and suggesting players return half of their salaries since they only play half of the time.
Still, the Penguins finished well out of playoff contention. The next season, despite a 47-point improvement, Pittsburgh was swept in the first round of the playoffs.
Regardless, Therrien was named a Jack Adams Trophy finalist for his role in the team's impressive turnaround, and the Penguins inked him to a contract extension in the offseason.
Last season, Therrien led the Penguins to a record of 47-26-8 and their deepest playoff run in 16 years. He did so with significant injuries to Marc-Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby.
In the end, it was the team's first division title in a decade and their first Cup final since 1991-1992.
But how short fans memories become when faced with a five-game home losing streak.
Therrien is not blameless, but he’s also not the only one with blood on his hands.
Miroslav Satan, brought in to fill the “bona fide winger” slot vacated by Marian Hossa, has only 12 goals on the season—and none in the past ten games—despite spending significant time on the top two lines.
Marc-Andre Fleury has one of the league’s worst save percentages.
Before Tuesday’s power play goal against the Thrashers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had gone 24 and 23 games—respectively—without scoring on the man-advantage.
Some question Therrien’s tactics—particularly calling out players—but many forget it has proven successful.
Last season, Therrien said defenseman Ryan Whitney’s play “cost [us] the game” against the Devils. Three days later, Whitney scored two power play goals and assisted on an even-strength tally against the Islanders.
When Alexander Semin question the abilities of Crosby, Therrien was there to stand up for his captain.
“Is he talking about the youngest guy to get 100 points in the history of the National Hockey League?” Therrien asked during a press conference. “Is he talking about the [second-youngest] guy to win the Hart Trophy and the [youngest] leading scorer? Is he talking about the youngest captain in the history of National Hockey League, and to bring his team to the Stanley Cup Final?”
“That’s all I have to say.”
Despite the tough love, Therrien has not lost control of the locker room. Just ask, well, the locker room.
Not a single word of dissent.
There’s a reason the season is 82 games long. Have the Penguins gone off track? Absolutely. But it’s not irreversible, and it’s not completely Therrien’s fault.
He has the confidence of the front office and of the players, and those are the opinions that count the most.