It was a week before Christmas and Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier decided to play a pre-repentant Scrooge to Jacques Martin's Bob Cratchett. He fired the Montreal Canadiens' coach Saturday morning of a game day as they prepared to play the New Jersey Devils in what was an important game for the struggling Habitants.
The low-key, defense minded Martin wasn't the most popular fixture in Montreal and his firing, while a surprise, was largely unlamented.
The first indication Gauthier felt the mediocre Montreal team was under-performing had come on the morning of another game day in October. The Canadiens GM fired assistant coach Perry Pearn on Oct. 26. That surprising move was followed up, coincidentally or not, with a 5-1 Montreal victory over the Philadelphia Flyers that night. There has been no commensurate surge in play following the pre-Christmas canning of the head coach.
At the time the Canadiens were struggling in 11th place in the East at just over .500. Since the firing the Canadiens have swung into a death spiral, losing to the aforementioned New Jersey Devils 5-3, the Boston Bruins 3-2, the Chicago Blackhawks 5-1 and last night to the equally-mediocre Winnipeg Jets 4-0.
They are currently on a season-worst five-game losing streak. They have fallen to 12th place in the Eastern Conference and are four points and four teams away from a playoff spot. All of those teams have games in hand on Montreal which has played a league-high 36 already. Just three points behind Montreal sit the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning, a playoff team from last year. They have three games in hand on the Canadiens. Montreal is on the verge of getting buried and falling out of the playoff race early in the new year.
More troubling is the way the Canadiens have played these last four games. The goals being given up are the result of bad execution by the players on the ice. That is not really a coaching issue.
The Pearn firing smacks of ill-considered panic from a GM who may have suddenly realized his team doesn't have the talent to be a Stanley Cup contender.
Jacques Martin isn't exciting and doesn't coach exciting hockey, but in his two-and-a-half years in Montreal he has gotten all you could ask out of his line-up and more. His teams made the playoffs both years he coached. His first run in 2010 saw the Canadiens as the unlikely underdogs in the Eastern Conference Finals after beating the President's trophy winning Washington Capitals and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in two harrowing seven-game series. He certainly got everything and more from the players on his team that year.
Last season, Martin and Co. had a better regular season and lost another tough, seven-game series to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. This was all despite the fact Montreal seemed to match up poorly against the much bigger, tougher Bruins.
The team itself is rebuilding with young players. It has some huge gaps. The most obvious short-fall is the lack of a first-line offensive center. The team power play has suffered after the departure of James Wisniewski to free agency. Gauthier has made no legitimate attempt to replace his shot on the point.
There is a need to get Scott Gomez and his cap hit off the roster. Gauthier and ownership has been unwilling to grasp the nettle and stick him in the AHL when they finally admit to themselves no one will take that contract off their hands. Glen Sather and the New York Rangers still can't believe someone came along to take that contract from them.
These are not coaching deficiencies. These problems lay within the purview of the GM.
Gauthier has a young, rebuilding team and it was suffering growing pains. Someone in the Montreal organization decided precipitously to make a change because they feared missing the playoffs. This attempted short-term adjustment and thinking has proven to be disastrous to this point.
Montreal had been grooming a well-regarded assistant coach by the name of Kirk Muller. He was a popular player in Montreal. He spent three-and-a-half seasons for them in the early 1990's.
The highly-regarded head coaching candidate, Muller, was allowed to go to Carolina because as recently as Nov. 28 Pierre Gauthier and the Montreal Canadiens hadn't begun to have the inkling of a suspicion that they would be needing a new head coach a mere three weeks later.
Kirk Muller was apparently not a good candidate for head coach in Montreal because he doesn't speak french. However, his success as an assistant and the fact that he won a Stanley Cup as a player there would probably have bought him some time with the Quebec press and french Canadian fans.
Instead Muller was sent off with well wishes. Now poor, unsuspecting AHL English-speaking coach Randy Cunneyworth was promoted in a frantic flurry and has endured a firestorm of criticism from the francophone press in Quebec as well as some political groups and leaders. It is apparently impossible to coach the Montreal Canadiens without being fluent in french and preferably being French Canadian by birth.
The Montreal Canadiens were conceived in 1909 by an irish business man J. Ambrose O'Brien as team made up of francophone players to be marketed to the francophone population of Quebec and Montreal as their team.
The concept took a while to catch on but by the 1940's they had become a passion for the province. Those days they were coached by anglophone Dick Irvin Sr. Irvin, who was one of the first great coaches in Montreal history. He was replaced by former star player Hector "Toe" Blake.
Blake was born in Victoria Mines, Ontario and also spoke English from birth. He however learned french as a player on the famed "Punch Line" where he teamed up with legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard. Blake was legendary as a coach. His teams won five Stanley Cups in a row and eight during his years as coach.
While the team consisted primarily of French Canadian players, it made sense for the coach to be able to communicate with them in their own language. The greatest Canadien coaches like Scotty Bowman and Toe Blake, while not Quebec born, were fluent in french.
As the NHL evolved, Montreal could no longer monopolize the French Canadian players in the league. The "need" for a french-speaking coach has vanished. The current line-up features two players from Quebec, along with two Swiss players, a Dane, a Russian, a Belorussian, a Czech, a Slovak and a Finn. They don't each get their own coach.
As the number of french Canadian players in Montreal has diminished, the demand for a francophone and preferably Quebec born coach seems to have increased. This situation has seen the language police in Quebec land on poor Randy Cunneyworth with both heels and an accent ague.
Arguably a communications representative of the team who could communicate with the french press could fill this role for the coach of the team. The coach then would be spending his time and energy coaching the team.
In Calgary coach Brian Sutter hated dealing with the press so he would often send out assistant coach Rick Preston to deal with them. Why a similar arrangement in Montreal couldn't work is beyond me. A completely fluent french speaker who was also involved in coaching the team seems to provide the perfect solution to communication with the fans of the team while allowing the organization to hire the best coach available whatever language he spoke.
Randy Cunneyworth is a former NHL player who has paid his dues in the AHL as a head coach. He coached for nine years in the AHL with a winning record.
It seems however he won't get a chance to become anything beyond an "interim" head coach in Montreal. There was a media frenzy in Quebec when the bilingual Martin was replaced by the English-speaking Cunneyworth. Then President and CEO of the brewery that owns the Montreal Canadiens, Geoff Molson decided to weigh in on the issue of new coach Randy Cunneyworth. This came after a few french first groups in Quebec called for a boycott of Molson's brewery products.
Ownership basically cut the legs out from under "interim" coach Randy Cunneyworth with the statement "..it is obvious that an 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." Interim anglophone coach Randy Cunneyworth doesn't look to get a kick at the can when Montreal starts looking for their real, French speaking coach in the off season.
The fact that Montreal has been losing games since Cunneyworth has been promoted has given Quebec newspapers free rein to blame it all on him. I will say it again, the problem in Montreal has never been coaching and is certainly not language. The problem in Montreal is this team is at best barely good enough to sneak into the playoffs. The current crisis has been caused by the ill-conceived fiddling by the GM in an attempt to get more out of what is only a moderately talented line-up.
Some people have suggested that Randy Cunneyworth will have to produce a miracle Stanley Cup-winning season to get consideration for the head coaching job in the offseason. I'm going to say even that won't be enough to keep him in the job in Montreal. Why is that you ask? Two words: Al MacNeil.
During the 1970-'71 season, Montreal's AHL coach Al MacNeil was brought in to replace the struggling but fluently-french Claude Ruel. Despite fights with his french-speaking players and abuse from the french press in Quebec, the English-speaking MacNeil coached that team to an unlikely Stanley Cup championship. After that season in Montreal he chose to return to Halifax and coach the AHL Voyageurs rather than deal with the language insanity in Montreal.
The only good news for Cunneyworth is that if he did win a cup with this Montreal team or even stage a spirited playoff run, teams around the NHL would be lining up to hire him after Montreal replaced him him with a more press-friendly alternative.
As the lame duck Randy Cunneyworth tries to stabilize the sinking ship in Montreal, rumours abound about the likely "permanent" coach that is going to be hired.
The most frightening speculation involves the idea that former Canadiens' star goalie Patrick Roy should be the new coach.
Roy is an exciting individual and was a great player. As a general rule of thumb great players make poor coaches. A great player with demonstrated anger management issues might have a few more problems as the coach of a professional hockey team.
Hopefully Patrick is too happy with his position with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to agree to becoming a mere coach in Montreal. The volatile and narcissistic Roy has carved himself out a fiefdom In Quebec City, where he is co-owner, Vice President of Hockey Operations, General Manager and head coach of the team.
Hopefully ownership in Montreal isn't so hapless or desperate that they will give the entire control of the rebuilding franchise to Roy. The wrong person in charge could easily set things back a decade in Montreal.
Patrick Roy already blew up the Montreal Canadiens when he forced a trade to the Colorado Avalanche back in 1995. The Canadiens took more than a decade to recover from that mess. It is hard to imagine that any organization would give him another kick at that can.
The Montreal Canadiens have had some bad luck with former players chosen as coaches mostly because they were former players and francophones. Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, Mario Tremblay and to a lesser extent Guy Carbonneau were spectacularly unsuccessful as Montreal Canadiens coaches and couldn't get a job as a head coach outside of the province of Quebec. Whoever eventually becomes the head coach in Montreal has to have more head coaching experience at the professional level than those three had.
If Randy Cunneyworth is automatically excluded from becoming the permanent head coach in Montreal the question has to be asked: Why does Montreal have any non-french speaking coaches in their organization? Are the Canadiens simply training coaches like Kirk Muller for the use of the other 29 teams in the NHL? It seems senseless to have English-speaking coaches in Hamilton or English-speaking coaches in Montreal if they can never actually coach the team. That is perhaps a question the team will have to address after the season is over.
Some observers have noted that this years' Montreal Canadien team is suffering from some serious personnel issues. They looked like an eighth-place team at best this season. If this team made the playoffs they could not, as constituted, challenge for a Stanley Cup. A Stanley Cup victory for Montreal in 2012 would be a near miraculous event.
None of Montreal's problems appear to have anything to do with either inferior coaching or the players having tuned out the coach. The firing of Jacques Martin has disrupted a team that with him at the helm could still have potentially challenged for a playoff spot. The departure of Martin seems to have sent the Canadiens spiraling downwards. Unless things improve drastically and soon, the Canadiens will be out of the running for the playoffs early in the new year.
The long-term success of the organization is probably better served by a poor finish this season and a high draft pick. This team has gaps to fill and if they can fill one or two of them with their own Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, they could be a much better team for years to come because of it.
Perhaps what seems like a crazy, desperate move was in fact a Machiavellian move by GM Pierre Gauthier to secure that higher draft pick this season by inducing this chaos and the losing streak that has come with it. If so, well, Bravo!
Personally I don't see it. Any blame for the under-performance of this team has to lie with the players and the GMs that have assembled the players. I think a more patient organization would have ridden this rough spot out, especially in a year Montreal couldn't begin to think they could compete for the Stanley Cup. Instead, panic has taken hold and the whole team is going for a ride.
Look for general manager Pierre Gauthier to reap what he has sown and get fired before season's end. Hopefully no more crazy personnel or coaching moves will happen before he heads out the door.
Given another year to develop Montreal's young talent, the team will improve. Perhaps after a good draft and the dumping or hiding of a few of the remaining big contracts Montreal will be a free agent or two away from being a Stanley Cup contender for years to come. Not yet however, and thanks to Pierre Gauthier the Canadiens seem further from that than when they opened this season.
As far as intentionally plummeting to the bottom of the league for a better draft pick, who knows? Personally I don't think they have the brains to manage that. But if they have, Bravo. In one short week a struggling young team is suddenly in free-fall. If they don't straighten up soon hope of a playoff birth will swiftly vanish.