Monday, December 19, 2011

What Just Happened?

The Canadiens Recalibration Project

Jacques Martin was released on Saturday, hours before a game, days before Xmas. The team is still mired in the battle for a bottom playoff spot, but it was also coming off a long series of games in which points were gathered and sometimes hard-earned.

As coaching changes go, this was one was strange. primarily in its timing.

Because it is strange, I think it is important that we step back and ask ourselves some questions.

In our traditional view of things there are several reasons why one would fire a coach:

1) The team's results don't match their potential
2) The players have asked for a change
3) There is a better candidate
4) The GM is grasping at one last straw

The answer to all these questions in this case are slightly unclear.

No one can dispute that the Canadiens are sitting near the bottom of the standings and behind some important benchmark peers. However, all but the blindly optimistic thought there would be periods of sitting outside the playoff list as the team battles to get in. In effect, the team is matching those expectations, and is merely battling back from a slump that happened to occur at the beginning rather than in the midst of a season. Taking into account injuries to some key players over these months, the expectation are even more in line with what reasonable people would expect from this list of talent at the stages they are all in in their careers.

As for the players, I think the core buy what Martin is selling. Any reasonable member still skating from the 2010 playoff team will know that they made a playoff run because of his strategies built to suit their talent deficit. I'm relatively certain that they can still see there's no Lidstrom or Crosby in their midst and are happy to go with the pragmatic approach that Martin employs. I don't think they asked for this move.

Better candidate? Perhaps. But he's not been installed. That alone undercuts this argument.

GM panic? From what I've been hearing and reading, this is the position of most who've run through the other possibilities. It's possible, but I have another set of questions first.

A few weeks ago I read an article by Michael Farber about Louis Leblanc that delved much deeper than that. If you look back at it, it is like a harbinger that signalled the end of Martin and perhaps even Gauthier.

Farber starts predictably enough down the line of francophone vs. other on the team, in the organization. But as his thesis develops, he hones in on something else.

Montreal as a city may or may not have given birth to hockey, but it certainly gave it its upbringing. The earliest hockey leagues were at their most relevant when Montreal teams were involved. Montreal was the home of the Stanley Cup in the beginning and the league's (and game's) decision makers. The rules were written in Montreal and apart from the cosmetic surgery that has been taking place the past few seasons, the rules were perfected there as well. And it's not only been the administration of the game that has mattered. The Montreal teams through the years, and the Canadiens in particular have shaped the game in so many ways. There aren't many rules originating from the problems posed by the New York Rangers, for the Canadiens there have been.

But it's the Canadiens in particular on which the city has settled. And not just the Canadiens come what may. Rather the Canadiens cast as Flying Frenchmen.

In the early years of the franchise, the "Flying Frenchmen" tag was more of a marketing tag than a comment on the hockey. But at some point, the brand infused the team. The Flying Frenchmen became a philosophy. And later still, I think the brand was adopted by this city.

There are those whose constant gaze is fixed on the word Frenchmen, and this is where Farber started. But then he lands on short examination of what I would call the Flying half of this couplet:

The Canadiens' failure is not one of falling short of some mythical quota, but one of imagination.

The players who have most touched the city in recent seasons were not French Canadians but the problematic Alexei Kovalev, an artiste in style and temperament, and defenseman P.K. Subban, whose game is layered with curlicues. Indeed when Martin scratched Subban last season, there was general outrage about his efforts to stifle the player rather than applause that the team, with its dandy rookie exiled to the press box, actually won a few games in a row.

I thought this was an insight at time. Maybe an insight I would write about later. But later is now when people are looking for possible answers to "why?" and "why now?"

Isn't it indeed the "Flying" that defines our love affair with this team?

From rough and tumble beginnings from which a modern Don Cherry might have shielded his view, the Canadiens emerged with Howie Morenz to change hockey with this attacking mentality. The heritage was passed next to the teams of the 50s, 60s and 70s, even 80s -- al the while emblazoning itself on the hearts and minds of its followers.

When Farber notes:

This current iteration of the Canadiens, lagging even the rebuilding Ottawa Senators in the Northeast Division, has not made many new friends and might be in the process of temporarily alienating some old ones.

he suggests the answer could be Louis Leblanc. Perhaps.

But if someone were really asking this question (someone like say Geoff Molson), would his recalibration begin and end with a 20 year-old already comfortable in the ways of deferring to defensive assignment for the win?

I wouldn't have thought so. He might start by identifying the roots of the alienation that has been occuring between once adoring fan and the "Flying Frenchman" brand. He might overhear all the begrudging admissions that Jacques Martin is successful , but somehow just not right; that playing the percentages is sound statistically, but ever so tedious a spectacle.

Clear your minds of preconceived notions for a minute:

- Maybe this firing is not about the Candiens wins and losses of a partial season
- Maybe this has nothing to do with Randy-on-the-spot Cunneyworth (I'll bet money it doesn't)
- Maybe there isn't a hero in the wings

Maybe what we are seeing is some recognition at long last that Montreal so loves not hockey, but their hockey; winning, but not at any cost (not at this cost); that the city if not able to boast about strings of Stanley Cups (and most are realistic to know those days are past) would at least wish to look down their noses on the adherent of trapping and negative tacttics as their team skates for goals.

Maybe what we are seeing is a deep recalibration, not just a superficial one, ten times tried in 20 years.

For me, this is the line of questioning that leads to the best answers. And for that reason, if no other, it's worth asking.

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