Michel Therrien’s Montreal renaissance: A long way from Penguins’ scapegoat

General managers in the NHL are a hybrid of human resources executives and amateur psychologists. They build rosters of players, and then have to decipher who or what will motivate them to greatness.

That starts with the coach; and, frequently, it ends with one too.

On Feb. 15, 2009, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero fired Michel Therrien, after the veteran coach had guided his team to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008. Therrien was the scapegoat for both the players’ dizzying fall from the previous season’s heights and Shero’s own mistakes in augmenting the roster.

The Penguins were tired of playing his defense, tired of marching to this drill sergeant. But the rightful criticism of both the players and their GM for this decision was forgotten quickly when Dan Bylsma, players’ coach, led Pittsburgh to the Cup that June. Therrien, it seems, had been holding them back.

On June 5, 2012, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin hired Therrien as the team’s new head coach. Here was a rookie GM opting for a retread – Therrien coached the Habs from 2000-03 – and a coach whose abrasive style seemed at odds with the GM’s buoyant comportment.

And holy smokes, was that decision ever panned.

Slideshows were dedicated to Therrien’s predicted firing this season. Lions In Winter wrote that “we are very much on the same course as before and any expectations of a great franchise turnaround might have to wait until the next big clean out.”

How wrong those critics look today, as Therrien has led Montreal to the top of the Eastern Conference, and into Saturday's showdown with Pittsburgh.

Therrien’s known for two things as a head coach: His Hard-Ass-In-Chief approach to player relations, and his hasty turnarounds with middling teams. He showed a 17-point improvement after taking over the Canadiens and a 47-point improvement for the Penguins.

Montreal is on a 118-point pace for an 82-game season, having gone 13-4-3 in its first 20 games. The Habs had 78 points last season under both Jacques Martin and Randy Cunneyworth.

What’s clicked?

First off, it’s the culture change that arrived with Therrien. From Stu Cowan of the Gazette, on Montreal’s renewed accountability:

Francis Bouillon, who played for Therrien in junior and was signed by the Canadiens as a free agent last summer, told The Gazette’s Pat Hickey that Therrien has earned the respect of the players by demanding accountability and adjusting ice time and situations based on a player’s performance.

“He’s way different, but he has kept his passion,” Bouillon told Hickey about how Therrien has changed since his junior days. “He has good control of the room and it’s important, especially in the new NHL, that the players want to play for you. He’s put together a coaching staff where the assistants are very different than Michel, but they complement each other.”

Accountability was buying out Scott Gomez after he lingered on the roster for far too long. Accountability was shipping out Erik Cole after he had a marvelous offensive campaign last season, because he wasn’t a positive influence in the Habs’ room this season.

Therrien has also instilled a toughness in this roster. Montreal is on pace for 1,295 penalty minutes were this an 82-game season, which would have been second in the league last season.

Part of that added toughness came from the culture change; part of it arrived via Bergevin. From the Toronto Star:

Sensing a team softness that everyone could sense, Bergevin didn’t bring in a marquee heavyweight but rather a middleweight grinder in Brandon Prust, very popular as a player and teammate in New York, and ex-Leaf Colby Armstrong.

They’re a tough team to play against. Consider that Montreal has only trailed after the first period twice this season, tied for Boston for the fewest times. Conversely, the Canadiens have led after one eight times, going 7-0-1 when they do.

Therrien’s first-place Habs face the second-place (in conference seeding) Penguins on Saturday, marking the first time he’s faced his former team as Montreal coach. He told the Canadian Press that he’s had the game marked on his calendar:

"It's going to be special, I'm not going to hide it," the 49-year-old coach said. "But I've got some great memories of my time in Pittsburgh.

"There are some players I know well. I have a lot of respect for them. But to play against your old team as a player or a coach is special."

Especially when you’re looking down on them in the standings, four years after they fired him.

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