Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Coach Killers

Coach killer: A player that lurks in wait for the first opportunity to undermine his coach.


Searching coach killer on Google pops out a lot of interesting names, not least among them recently departed Alexei Kovalev, in limbo Saku Koivu and recently added Scott Gomez. On the dawn of the first day sans Kovalev, the first real passing of the offensive torch from his hands to those of Scott Gomez; it is surely time to wonder aloud about the issue of coach killing.


Gomez and the legendary coach killing of our time


Ah, Scott Gomez. Famous for signing one of the most overvalued contracts ever, being the best passing centre in the league circa 2006 and getting Claude Julien ousted with about 5 minutes left in the season.

As the legend goes, Gomez was a member of an elite group of coup organisers on the Devils that year, a group that included many who commanded much more respect than their coach. Among other things, the rumour goes that he was shooting pucks in Julien's general direction during those heady April days.

From that time, he was labelled a bit of a coach killer. To add fuel to the fire, this year Gomez played on a team where another coach, Tom Renney, was fired. Gomez's personality being a big one, is figured by some to be part of the explanation.


Koivu, Kovalev and Carbonneau

It's not coincidence that the day I write this is the day that I read Francois Gagnon's revelations on the Carbonneau firing.
"... Comme ça Koivu serait le grand responsable du congédiement de Guy Carbonneau. Et vous me demandez ce que j’en pense. D’abord, celui qui a dit ça ne sait pas de quoi il parle. Je ne vous dis pas que Koivu a tout fait pour sauver Carbo. Non! Même qu’il n’a certainement pas lancé de bouée de sauvetage. Mais Koivu n’a pas été le vétéran le plus actif dans cette démarche qui est venue de plusieurs. Le malaise était profond. Le mal était généralisé et les coups sont venus de plusieurs fronts. Et il y a même au moins un gars qui est encore là qui a pesé très lourd dans la balance. Il pesait et pèse encore bien plus que Koivu et a fait bien plus de torts à l’ancien coach que l’ancien capitaine..."

As we correctly diagnosed, the rot on the team (with consecutive losses) was deep. Gagnon admits that Koivu wasn't heavily implicated in the coup, so to speak; nor, however, was he ready to take up arms in his defence. Can you blame him? To fight the tide of many players and the public would take serious conviction and belief in Guy. I ask did anyone ever have serious conviction and belief in Guy as a coach? If they did, it wasn't hanging around mid-February.

Gagnon, in virtually absolving Koivu, does go on to implicate others. One obvious, yet un-named candidate here would be the illustrious Artiste – Alexei Kovalev. He who was asked to take a timeout by his GM after a long ad probably very telling chat. Kovalev did not like Carbonneau's vision of the game from the start. It seems unlikely that he was not implicated as a killer in this instance.


Gagnon does also make clear that the impetus for change came from the many, not the few. It was not Kovalev alone, in other words. He also seems to imply that a remaining veteran was very heavily involved – and that he played a larger and more influential role than did Koivu. While guessing at who this player was would be good fun (maybe a future poll...) identity is probably not important.

What Gagnon doesn't delve into anywhere (probably so as not to flog a dead horse) is that Carbonneau needed to be killed off as coach. His methods were weak and he was hindering players who as we now see are critical to the future of this team. He does not, mabe cannot, endorse the coach killers as the players who possibly saved the Canadiens from an even worse fate than they suffered.


Martin and the killers lurking in wait

Fast forward 6 months.

Should we be worried about the players assembled now? We have at least one remaining coup leader (Laraque? Price?), have exposed all our young apprentices to two notorious coach killers for years and have now added a player that is willing to take matters into his own (shooting) hands. Martin is not looking down the corral at a coach killer, but a potential posse.

Be that as it may, my feeling is that there isn't that much to worry about. Probably not for Martin and certainly not for us fans. All Jacques Martin need really do is what he is paid to do – and that is to avoid the number one coach killer in the NHL (no, not Lou Lamoriello). Because while it may take a lot of different guises, the loss (or losses), is the killer of the coach in the end.

No player is a coach killer in winning times. Not Kovalev, not Jagr, not Gomez. None. Winning is hunky dorey. Winning is back-patting time. A time to relish your role as a lesser player to aid the team, a time to watch with relish your teammates getting ice time to do the job you've so effectively taught them. It is the loss that brings thoughts of intrigue and skull-duggery.

And frankly, more than a reason to worry – it is a good thing.

If the Canadiens go through this season as a hapless and winless bunch, who would want to see a room full of players smiling patiently awaiting the next instruction from their unquestioned leader? Who would want to continue the Martin experiment any longer than necessary if early results come back definitively adverse?

On a team that dealt with surrender and entitlement, accountability all around will be a good thing. For every coach killer who rids his team of a Jack Adams candidate and future Cup winner, there are 20 who do their team a service by putting an end to unimaginative periods of play with a dearth of strategic forethought. It will be good to know that players who truly care and think about the game, with the courage to stand up to a coach are not only there to uphold the standard of play and disrupt the culture of mediocrity if necessary.

So good bye Kovy. Enter stage left, Scott Gomez – the newest guardian of accountability on the Montreal Canadiens. I wouldn't want to be without one.

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