I’ve never pretended to be a fan of Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin, but there are times when I have to shake my head in wonder at the willingness of any coach to attempt to helm one of the most high-profile teams in the NHL.
Right now, as I fume about Lars Eller’s confidence potentially being eroded while he sits in the press box, my Internet feeds are alight with repeated calls for Martin’s head for splitting up the second line pairing of Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta.
This is precisely what a lot of armchair GMs such as yours truly have been calling for. Even the well-respected and high-profile Arpon Basu suggested pulling Gionta off Gomez’s wing in a recent blog entry. And last night Martin did just that, sliding Gionta onto the first line along with Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri.
If Martin were the sort of coach to shed his calm, cool demeanor long enough to scream and yell some sense at his players, I doubt very much that we’d see the sort of line experimentation that has been going on lately.
But the truth is this coach is not an excitable guy, and so to get his message across to his players, he employs some good, old-fashioned line shuffling.
Last night, watching Gionta, I didn’t see much change. He’s been trying hard as usual, and it was no different with Plekanec feeding him than with Gomez. Gionta and Plekanec are two solid, high-effort players, so it’s not unusual to find they complemented each other on the ice.
Meanwhile, the newly demoted Gomez skated harder, fought harder for the puck and actually went to the net in an attempt to score. Message received?
I think Martin may believe so, because in the third period he reunited Gomez and Gionta. That’s when Gionta finally stopped with the fancy shots long enough to dislodge the monkey off his back and put a puck past Senators netminder Brian Elliott to score his first goal in eight games.
A friend of mine on Twitter pointed out that a lot of this team doesn’t seem to work well when the lines are shuffled, and that with all the Habs' talent, they should be able to pick up the slack when that happens. When Plekanec was sick and sat out the Buffalo game, for example, the top two lines looked absolutely lost.
It’s a valid point, and I can see how it’s a possible liability waiting to happen if there are injuries or illness, but at the same time it’s hard to ignore that strong chemistry amongst linemates often produces the greatest results.
There’s a reason most coaches don’t like to tamper with teams that are winning, and until the top two lines all became suddenly and mysteriously snakebit at the same time, this team was winning more often than not.
I think a lot of the top line’s production is a direct result of the chemistry and familiarity formed over last season’s playoff run. Gomez and Gionta showed plenty of chemistry even before they ever got signed by the Habs, and I find it hard to believe that this same magic has somehow vanished from both lines for good.
As I said, I’m not a fan of Martin, but he does have an impressive NHL record and he is by no means a stupid man. Baying for his blood because he's been tinkering with two ineffective top lines this early in the season seems very premature to me. Isn't it his job to fix what's not working?
I suspect that the Gomez-Gionta duo will be reunited sooner rather than later, though it’s still anyone’s guess who their left winger will be. I also expect that Martin will be reuniting his top line duo of Plekanec-Cammalleri with their usual right winger, Andrei Kostitsyn, who seems a bit lost without them.
Martin has delivered his message in a way that is entirely consistent with his personality and method of coaching. Now the question is, have the top two lines received it and understood, or will he need to send it again?
I really hope it’s the former. With Vancouver, Boston and the always difficult Leafs on tap for November, the Habs will need their top two lines intact and firing, instead of in a state of constant disarray.