When Michel Therrien was first hired to coach the Montreal Canadiens there was public outcry. The majority of this displeasure stemmed from wounds of the past, which still hadn’t healed since his failed debut behind the Habs bench during the early 2000s. After one of the worst seasons in modern Canadiens history, the fanbase was looking for management to go in the complete opposite direction: maybe bringing in a coach more along the lines of the franchise’s new GM hire.
It was a text message that seemingly overnight changed the public’s perception. Sidney Crosby, the planet’s best hockey player, sent a message to Therrien congratulating him on receiving a new position with the Canadiens. The fact that Crosby still had a positive relationship with his former coach after things went south in Pittsburgh was an indication to many of Therrien’s worth. Suddenly, the narrative changed and he was viewed as a coach who would be beneficial for the youth movement in Montreal.
The fanbase and media, just like pretty much everyone else in the hockey community, would continue to warm up to Therrien as the 2011-12 NHL laughing stock would climb their way to the top of the league. Even after an immense struggle in the last month of the season, coupled with a disappointing playoff campaign, he was deep in the conversation for the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year.
However, it is a well-known fact that the fanbase and media in Montreal have very short memories. In a sense you are only as good as your last performance in a city that has a history of incredible hockey performances. The second winning is no longer a constant blame starts to be distributed at a surprising pace, leaving no stone unturned in the quest to find underachievement.
At this point last season, the Canadiens had a stunning record of 12-4-3, at the summit of the NHL’s Eastern Conference. Now, less than a year later, they are 9-8-2, clinging to one of the final playoff spots. This stark contrast has those surrounding the team up in arms. The majority of those arms are pointed squarely at Therrien.
Since his return to Montreal, Therrien has often been a coach who identified with making decisions that were not necessarily embraced by the public, otherwise known as “bizarre”. Between his line combinations, who he puts on the ice in certain situations and even when he elects to use his timeout, Therrien does very little that is conventional. The difference is that last season this non-conventional thinking worked, this season it has just caused more frustration.
In fact everything has gone a bit opposite for the Montreal. Last year the team found success in a sort of offense by committee system that finished third in the NHL in goals for. This year that offensive has essentially dried up. In terms of goals per game, the team has 2.5, significantly lower than the 3.1 they posted last season. That .6 more goals per game would have made all the difference thus far, as seven of the Habs ten losses this season have been by only one goal.
Therrien’s insistence on using his fourth line extensively is frustrating, especially when the team’s offense has gone quiet. But it is the poor performances of certain forwards that has truly made the wrong kind of difference up front. David Desharnais has continued his downward spiral. Max Pacioretty, when healthy, hasn’t been close to the player who has led the team in scoring two years in a row. Daniel Briere has been less than an ideal replacement for Michael Ryder. Rene Bourque’s lack of effort sticks out extensively on a team built from character and hard work. Captain Brian Gionta looks his age.
Meanwhile, singled out last year as the bump that triggered the Habs stumble over the finish line, Carey Price has been the least of the team’s problems this year. His play has positioned him well both in terms of the Vezina Trophy conversation and the Olympics. But what it surprisingly hasn’t done is carry the team to the heights of last season. Before the season began, I wrote that “Price finally has a team in front of him that will lose because of him, not despite his efforts”. After Tuesday’s loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning I could not have been more wrong.
This may not be the fault of Therrien, but since the club seems to have removed the “extra” for last year’s “extraordinary” season the fanbase is looking for reasons. Almost ironically, the moment he addressed one of his biggest criticism, the excess of icetime given to Desharnais, he turned the fanbase’s anger in his own direction. As for how he will react to this it is unclear as he has faced very little adversity since being hired.
Another controversy surrounding Therrien, and possibly the biggest thorn in his side currently, is his relationship with star defenceman PK Subban. Subban, coming off a Norris Trophy season, has seen his icetime diminish more than once this season due to mistakes he has made. The media has suggested, and not for the first time, that this has strained the relationship between the two. The story goes that it has been strained to the point where Subban would consider options other than resigning with the Canadiens when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer.
The feeling of the fanbase is that Subban is not replaceable and that Therrien can be easily replaced. End of discussion, if the Habs coach cannot get along with the team’s star than there are others who can. It’s not worth losing Subban over a coach who is struggling to get a team labeled and “Eastern Conference contender” back into the playoffs.
Calls to fire Therrien are premature, as is often the case in the Montreal market, but they do exist, and in sizable numbers. Those fires will continue to be fueled if the team cannot climb out of the early season mediocrity to which it has succumbed. Therrien had best be careful, fan opinions carry more weight than ever in this day and age. Things will only get worse if the team continues to struggle when they return to full health as Emelin and Prust return this weekend.
However, as it stands Therrien appears to be well liked within the Canadiens organization. Other than Subban, with whom the media has a tendency to exaggerate, few stories of player/coach tension have emanated from the dressing room. In this, Therrien has built a team dynamic that has legitimately caused his group to overachieve. Furthermore, The media itself seems to be accepting of Therrien, who has been highly accommodating thus far in both languages.
As for actually being relieved of his duties, it is unlikely that he will be fired prior to the end of the season. That would only take place should the team miss the playoffs, the mantra in the dressing room is “no excuses” after all. But this initial fan displeasure could be seen as the first seed should the 2013-14 results fail to improve.
Blame has to be placed somewhere, and Therrien is in one of the most vulnerable positions in the entire sport. While it is too early to say for sure, should things go south this could be pinpointed as the beginning of the end.