Rabid Habs

Therrien Not Solely Responsible For Habs’ Struggles

Habs head coach Michel Therrien

Leafing through Mickey Mantle’s autobiography, I stumbled across a passage in which the famous Yankee called attention to his manager, Casey Stengel. To paraphrase, Mantle said that a good baseball manager was one who didn’t lose his team any games. Stengel, who he considered great, was capable of producing a few wins. Now, it can be extremely difficult to align coaching in any of the four major North American sports, however I wonder if there isn’t some underlying truth to Mick’s opinion.

When I look at some of the greatest NHL coaches in the past 50 years, the first thing that jumps out are the great teams they are coaching. Al Arbour and Scotty Bowman appear to be among the best examples. Were the Canadiens of the 70’s, Islanders of the 80’s, Penguins of the 90’s or Red Wings of the millennium not great teams, with or without a tactician behind the bench? To what degree do coaches impact the overall outcome of games?

Although I do see a tremendous amount of value in having a strong X’s and O’s coach who can masterfully prepare his troops, ultimately success is determined by execution on the ice and not in the dressing room. Sure, there is preparation and planning; strategy and system. But ultimately, does it not come down to execution and personnel? An inch here or there and the Bruins might have beaten the Canadiens last year. This year, a break and/or a bounce and the Habs might have beaten the Lightning. The margins between winning and losing have never been finer. Therefore, it does stand to reason that a coach can impact results, but can a great coach be the difference in more than 5 wins per season?

Prior to proceeding, allow me to offer a full disclosure – I am not a fan of coach Therrien. I was not a fan of the hiring and despite the restrictive language mandate declared by principal owner Geoff Molson, I do believe that better bilingual options were available. I believed that then and I continue to believe it now. That said, when I remove the emotional investment I have in this argument, I return to the notion that coaches have a limited amount of influence on the outcome of games over an 82 game schedule (as a percentage of outcomes).

Where I do see coaches having the greatest impact is in the system or style of play that they dictate. Great coaches are able to adjust to their opponent, forcing the opposition to counter. In this regard, Therrien has failed the organization as he is either unwilling or unable to adjust the style of play. This restrictive action has allowed the Canadiens to become a one dimensional team, relying far too heavily on goaltending. Now, in fairness, I could see a coach deciding to use this strategy given a weak lineup or a rash of injuries.

Collapsing defence, trap hockey might help to reduce the number of opposition scoring chances, but ultimately it does not allow a team to press an opponent and force them to defend. Using a boxing analogy, it is the equivalent of a fighter always circling to his left and remaining in a defensive posture. Although this stance might reduce impact, it seldom offers the hope of a counter. It is only after sustaining a flurry of punches and in the process taxing the other boxer that this defensive style might be leveraged as an asset. But, in the long term, you are most likely to lose more than you win, even if they manage to keep the score (cards) close.

The other issue I have with coach Therrien specifically and where I believe he has failed the organization is in the deployment of assets. Nothing, in my humble opinion, is more frustrating than watching a goal scorer get called up and stuck on the fourth line. A player with speed and skill such as Christian Thomas cannot reach his potential or greatly assist the team by playing on a fourth line. His role, his responsibility should be that of a top 6 player. This issue is not specific only to Montreal, however it is consistent with an old adage that no longer functions in the modern NHL.

Further, the attachment Therrien has to David Desharnais is puzzling. Perhaps it is an authoritative issue as MT does not want to risk calling further attention to the contracts signed by Bergevin that have led to long term commitments to players who no longer fit their original role. Emelin is no longer a top pairing defenceman (I don’t believe he ever should have been), but perhaps due to loyalty, MT chooses to play him beyond his capabilities, often exceeding the TOI of all but PK and/or Markov.

The game has changed and coaches must adapt. While Therrien once enjoyed a degree of success, I see a steady decline in future results as the game continues to grow, while his style continues to stagnate. Thus far I have showcased what I believe to be Therrien’s greatest weaknesses. I believe these issues can impact the outcome of games. I believe these issues can prevent a team from taking a step forward and contending for a Stanley Cup. However, these are not the sole reasons why the Canadiens were eliminated in round 2 and were not the only reasons why the organization struggles to score goals.

Here, in fairness to coach MT, I shift focus to the Canadiens’ personnel. This is where I begin to struggle to place all the blame on Therrien and where I wonder how much differently the team might look under the leadership of a coach like Mike Babcock?

So much as I applauded the moves to exit Moen and Bourque, the organization added payroll by agreeing to take on Parenteau’s contract. In doing so, the Habs are now in the position to either continue to play PA in the top six, thus blocking the potential for a much younger player to grow in the role or sit him as the 13th forward with his $4 million salary idle. Sure, Bergevin might be able to facilitate a trade, however with the salary cap remaining flat, the likelihood of an organization adding payroll with limited production upside seems unlikely at best. So, in defence of Therrien, he has a lineup that does not feature the best players in the top positions. Now, once again, some of this is his own doing, however I don’t believe that it could be argued that the organization has all the answers internally. Perhaps, in time, however not right now.

I still see a scoring deficiency, the result of a missing top line RW. I also don’t believe the organization has a #1 centre. Plekanec is, at best, a number 2 although this is becoming less clear by the season. Desharnais is, at best, a number 3 centre. Neither player would play in the top six of any of the remaining four Stanley Cup contenders’ lineups and likely only Plekanec could play inside the top nine.

This lack of talent, in key positions, is difficult to ignore. Could Mike Babcock win with Desharnais and Plekanec as his top 2 centres? Maybe, but I highly doubt it. In short, this is where I am troubled with the notion that only Therrien is responsible for the team’s struggles. This narrative openly dismisses the notion that there is a talent gap in the organization. Compounding issues is the recent regular season success, which has the organization drafting in or around the 26th spot. Although not impossible to find talent at 26, it usually suggests that prospects are less seasoned and the road to the NHL (and the salvation that this 1st round pick might afford) is measured in years, not months.

In closing, I believe that the Habs remain a contender despite Therrien’s continuation behind the bench. Although I don’t believe he is responsible for winning the team any games, I also don’t believe he’s solely responsible for many losses. So much as I am looking to our younger players to take a significant step forward in preparation for the next season, perhaps no larger growth opportunity exits than that of the coaching staff.

Will the organization make adjustments and refine their system/style to match the incoming and existing talent, or will the staff continue to preach dump and chase? As year three turns into year four under Bergevin’s guidance, expectations will continue to increase and the pressure of winning in the postseason will continue to mount. What was deemed a successful season this year, will not placate the fans next season. So goes life in the cradle of professional hockey.

I welcome your feedback. What impact do you believe a coach has on a team? Can a coach overcome talent deficiencies? Share your thoughts with me @RabidHabs_CJ.