Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Spring Cleaning

Jacques Martin, Melanson, Livingston And The Rest

Big week of change for the Montreal Canadiens – Bob Gainey’s finally got around to doing his spring cleaning. Though player moves can’t be made yet, he has made quite a statement by hiring in a good, experienced head coach, questioning the future of the assistants and dispensing of the outdated and welcome-worn staff members.

All in all, it’s positive stuff. The moves in themselves are not even as stirring as a regular season empty net goal; but taken together can just about drum up the excitement of a November win. The main victory for me is that Gainey’s reflections are in line with our own as fans (and mine, specifically), with accents on fitness, creativity, communication and strategy – all massive deficiencies of the previous administration.

Jacques Martin: a good choice for the Habs

Considering the limitations they set for themselves, the Canadiens have managed to pull the best candidate out of the bag here, I think. While not willing to compromise on language, they thankfully were able to compromise on availability – going for an employed vs. unemployed NHL vet. I'd be happier with a more experimental coach (after all, we're trying to beat the Pens, Caps and Wings, not just make the playoffs); but I didn't think Hartley, Crawford and especially Therrien would give us that at all.

2009-10 will be Jacques’ 15th season at the head of an NHL team to go with 7 years experience as an assistant. Remarkably, it will be his 24th consecutive season in the employ of an NHL club – never once pimping his wares for a cable TV network. With all due respect to colour commentators, the reason the Pierre McGuires of the world take the holding pattern of the TV jobs is because NHL clubs exercise "buyer beware" (ask Barry Melrose), not because they are being unfairly overlooked.

Critics point to playoff losses and his time in Florida as failures. But since much of the cynicism is coming from Toronto, who wouldn't know a good coach if he came doused in Stanley Cup champagne, and for whom Conn Smythe and Jack Adams bring to mind owners not trophies, we mustn't pay too much heed. His time in Florida was a success in my book, considering the roster and Martin's firing in Ottawa came at a time when he was the longest tenured coach in the NHL. It came a year after a 7th game in the conference finals for a promised final against the Calgary Flames. That firing to me was more akin to Serge Savard jettisoning Pat Burns after stumbling for a second time to the Bruins than it was failed experiment.

Key to the deal is experience. Martin's learnings in this league should help on a team that is hoping a 3rd year goalie, a 4th year winger and a defenceman who still plays like a rookie can form its core.

What’s more, there are benefits other than experience and his mastery of the French tongue. For one thing, his record will command respect – which is more than a certain Guy could muster in February. Also, he has a mind for the game. His press conference was enough to show this off. The fact that he already has ideas on specific points of strategy (in June!) will be a welcome change from the man who committed to his game plan on the drive to the arena.

Much of the opinion on this move is positive. RDS is happy, and thank goodness that they’ve been able to relay that both Georges Laraque and Maxim Lapierre approve of the GM’s maneuvering.

Scott Burnside doesn't think it's a good idea, but then he thought Dallas would win the Cup, Turco the Vezina, Brian Campbell the Norris and Carbonneau the Jack Adams trophy among other largesses. Not having his opinion on your side is probably quite a good thing. He can join other Leafs supporters who remember little more (nor would I want to) of the past 45 years than beating the Senators a few times in the playoffs...

I am happy with the move. For me this echoes of the Savard for Quenneville gambit that Chicago went for in October. It echoes the shift to experience for the proper mentoring of a fragile young core. Though there was a delay of 3 months from Carbonneau to Martin – the echo of a cold and calculated decision based on winning and winning alone can be seen:
“Daily Herald columnist Barry Rozner, who calls Savard his “favorite player ever,” writes “the truth is he never should have been the head coach of the Hawks. He didn’t earn the job, he didn’t deserve the job, and he couldn’t do the job. …”

Sounds like Carbonneau. And looks like Gainey had a Scotty Bowman moment (extended moment) on his coaching needs. For me, anything that echoes of Scotty Bowman is a very very good thing indeed.

Melanson and Livingston: failures to progress, just as their pupils

I think it’s pretty clear now that Scott Livingston has kindly been asked to pursue his career elsewhere, just the same as Melanson. Both of these moves were necessary as a team in search of excellence can ill afford to have coaches who fail to inspire.

While both seemed able enough to the observer; ultimately, Melanson has failed to bridge rough patches with each and every one of his NHL students and Livingston has kept the team as fit as the average, but certainly no better. Both here for long stints, both probably need the jolt of the change as much as the Canadiens need a goaltending coach with ideas and a fitness coach who cares.

This move mirrors the same analytic approach as the Carbonneau replacement. Performance was studied and honestly appraised. Those responsible were asked to face their record.
As the team moves forward and strives to keep up with the Crosbys and the Datsyuks, average in any category already puts us a step behind. When you know average is what you're getting and average is all you should expect to get, then it makes sense to look for more.

Next up, the players

None of these coaching moves will matter much, however, unless the players’ attitudes, and indeed many of the players, change.

The encouragement that we can take from clearing the dead wood and hiring the best French-speaking coach realistically available (i.e., Bowman ≠ available) will be put to the test as Gainey moves through the next weeks. First up will be re-signing, drafting and potential trades. After that the UFA jungle.

If we can come out of the next 6 weeks with equal numbers of potential 30-goalscorers, one less Brisebois and one more reason not to play Ryan O’Byrne, then it’ll be steady on for the season.

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