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Over time, coaches in the NHL solidify their reputations, for better or worse.
Ken Hitchcock is the master tactician who puts the pedal down his team for too long until their engine blows. Bruce Boudreau is the offense-first players’ coach who can’t win in the playoffs. John Tortorella is a sentient volcano.
Michel Therrien? He’s the guy you fire before you hire the guy who actually leads your team to success.
It’s hard to shake the reputation when that’s exactly how it played out with the Pittsburgh Penguins: Therrien led Sidney Crosby’s team to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, and then was fired in Feb. 2009 when the Penguins were dropping like a stone in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Dan Bylsma was promoted from the AHL, and led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup.
"I've watched for a number of weeks and, at the end of the day, the direction is not that I wanted to have here. I wasn't comfortable, and that's why the change was made,” said Penguins GM Ray Shero at the time.
Now it’s the Canadiens tumbling down the standings, going 4-16-1 since Dec. 1 and squandering a standings cushion to the point where they’re clinging to the last wild card slot. The Canadiens are nearly as close to the Buffalo Sabres in the standings as they are to the Florida Panthers atop the Atlantic.
But the fact still remains that Price has been out since Nov. 25, and so the question becomes whether or not that provides enough cover to save Therrien’s job, even if temporarily.
Arpon Basu of NHL.com sees the problem as being way beyond Price’s absence, and more about the team’s offensive issues:
The big difference is that up until Dec. 2 the Canadiens were scoring on 8.3 percent of their shots on goal and stopping 93.8 percent of their shots against at even strength. Since Dec. 2, the Canadiens are shooting at 5.3 percent efficiency and stopping 90.4 percent of their shots against, numbers that are respectively 29th and 30th in the NHL over that span.
The Canadiens were saying back in December that if they kept playing the same way, eventually the results would come. In theory, they were right.
As the Gazette notes, the Canadiens have averaged 1.9 goals per game in their last 20 games, which is ghastly.
When a team’s offense goes in the toilet, the first inkling is that it’s a power play problem, and it is one for Montreal: In their last 21 games, the Canadiens have scored seven goals with the man advantage, tied with four other teams for the fewest since Dec. 1.
Previous to that, in their first 25 games of the season? They scored 20 power-play goals.
But while it is a special teams problem, it’s not solely a special teams problem.
In the Canadiens’ first 25 games this season, they scored 51 goals at 5-on-5. That was second in the NHL, behind only the New York Rangers (55). In the their last 21 games, they’ve scored 28 goals at 5-on-5, as their GFA dropped from 2.04 to 1.30. That’s the second-fewest 5-on-5 goals in the NHL from Dec. 1 through Monday night, ahead of only the continuing conundrum that are the Anaheim Ducks.
When the power play fails, a team can sometimes fall back on reliable 5-on-5 play until it cycles back on. But the Canadiens’ offensive slump at even strength has just compounded the problem. It’s a disturbing trend.
Normally, this record and this output would have been enough to turf any coach, let alone one of a high-profile (alleged) championship contender. But there's a good chance the ax won't fall on Therrien.
Bob McKenzie of TSN believes that the three-year “mega-extension” contract given to Therrien is a mitigating circumstance, and that GM Marc Bergevin “doubled-down” on his coach in a way that would blow up in his face if he then fired him. That makes sense, especially given the fact that Bergevin has backed this coach in the face of really heated criticism in the past.
Marc Dumont, however, offers another theory: That the Canadiens simply aren’t this bad, that they are improved from last season’s effort, and that maybe Therrien doesn’t deserve the firing everyone has assumed will befall him.
Simply put, the Habs shouldn't be in this position, and they probably deserve a better fate. Their low shooting percentage and struggling goaltending goes a long way to explaining why they only managed to pick up 11 points since December 1. It doesn't justify the poor results, but it does help explain them.
The coach isn't preventing the forwards from scoring, although you could argue that his system is not conducive to creating scoring chances. The Canadiens are dominant in terms of shot attempts and shots on net, however their scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances leave something to be desired.
If Therrien gets fired, he won't be the first coach to get the axe due to a low PDO, and it'll be interesting to see how Marc Bergevin approaches the subject, seeing as how he pointed to the record last season to defend Therrien's job. One thing is sure, the Canadiens aren't as bad as their recent record indicates.
Personally, the combination of Price’s injury -- which, frankly, can affect how many low-percentage chances a team takes on the other end of the ice -- Bergevin’s desire to see this thing through with Therrien (at least through this season) and the fact that the Atlantic Division is jammed tighter than my thighs inside Lululemon pants makes this feel more like a “make big trade, then consider the coach” situation.
That said, if Boston enters Montreal and absolutely waxes them on Tuesday night in that Winter Classic rematch, would it surprise anyone to see a change made?
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