They met for three days early in the summer. Then they met for three weeks leading up to training camp – or what was supposed to be training camp, anyway.
Michel Therrien and his coaches knew what they were getting into. They were taking over the Montreal Canadiens, the 24-time Stanley Cup champions, after the team had fallen to last in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. They were going to a city that expected to win after the team hadn’t won. They would have little time to get to know each other, get to know their players and install their systems if there were a lockout and the season started late. To satisfy the fans, to turn this around, they needed to get to work. Now.
They studied the roster. They watched video of last year’s team. They went over everything methodically – player by player, system by system. D zone. Neutral zone. Forecheck. Trap. Power play. Penalty kill.
“We tried to see each guy,” said assistant coach Gerard Gallant, “and tried to figure out how he plays and what role he’s going to have.”
A day or two before the lockout began Sept. 16, the last time the coaches could talk to players until it ended, they showed some video to defenseman Josh Gorges. It was a few minutes of highlights, not enough to go over a system, but that wasn’t the point.
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“They were excited to get camp started in case of a lockout,” Gorges said. “They were showing some clips. ‘Oh, you’ve got to watch this. This is what we’re going to be doing this year. It’s going to be great.’ ”
It has been great so far. The Habs have risen from worst to challenging for first in the East. They are 13-4-3 – and 7-0-2 in their past nine – entering Saturday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Therrien is among the early candidates for the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.
Are they really this good? We’ll see. They have to prove this is more than just a hot start.
But maybe last year’s debacle was the real surprise. They shouldn’t have been that bad, considering they went to the Eastern Conference final in 2010 and went to overtime of Game 7 in the first round in 2011 against the Bruins, the eventual Cup champs.
And maybe with a new GM, a new coach, a new style and some new players, they can return to normal.
“We have to bring the pride of the Montreal Canadiens back into our dressing room,” said Gorges. “It’s something that we’ve tried to put into our game every night.”
* * * * *
There is no place like Montreal when you’re winning. But when you’re losing …
“Last year, it was almost like you weren’t playing in Montreal,” said winger Max Pacioretty. “It was like you were playing somewhere else. … I tried to stay away from the city as much as possible.”
Pacioretty said he felt like he was “letting the city down” – and he was the Habs’ leading scorer.
Thing was, the Habs weren’t just losing games. They were losing their identity as classy organization and a cultural institution.
General manager Pierre Gauthier fired assistant coach Perry Pearn right before a game. He fired coach Jacques Martin right before a morning skate, and he put replacement Randy Cunneyworth in no position to succeed, failing to anticipate the uproar that would come because Cunneyworth spoke only English, no French.
Owner Geoff Molson had to release a statement emphasizing that Cunneyworth was just an interim coach and that the ability to speak both English and French would be important in hiring a permanent head coach. Gauthier then apologized for the man he hired.
Gauthier yanked winger Michael Cammalleri from a one-goal game against the rival Bruins so he could trade him. He put him in a taxi and sent him back to the team hotel, even though the Habs had already checked out. He said it had nothing to do with his complaints about ice time and the Habs’ losing mentality the day before. Uh-huh.
All this happened on top of injuries to defenseman Andrei Markov and captain Brian Gionta, the trade of glue guy Jaroslav Spacek for the overpaid Tomas Kaberle, the scoring struggles of $7 million man Scott Gomez, the scuffle in practice involving lightning rod P.K. Subban.
It was a dispiriting, disorganized, disorienting season, off the ice and on.
“I think in the past, people weren’t really aware of their role on the team,” Pacioretty said. “They just went out there and played.”
But underneath all the ugliness, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. At least it could have been better. The Habs’ goal differential was minus-14, ninth in the East. They lost 16 games after regulation, tied for second-most in the conference.
“If you get half of those,” Subban said, “you’re in the playoffs.”
Not quite. The Habs finished 14 points out of eighth, not eight points out of eighth. But you get the idea. The feeling was that the team wasn’t as far away as it appeared.
Gauthier was fired in late March, after the Habs were officially eliminated from the playoffs. Molson said the next GM needed to be an “excellent communicator” and that the Canadiens needed to restore their status as “one of the best.”
After the season, Molson hired Marc Bergevin, who had been an assistant GM with the Chicago Blackhawks for only one season, but had extensive experience as a player, scout and executive.
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Bergevin surrounded himself with veteran eyes, keeping Larry Carriere and hiring Rick Dudley in the front office. He brought Therrien, once fired by the Canadiens and Penguins, out of coaching exile. They added character players like Colby Armstrong, Francis Bouillon and Brandon Prust, and they prepared.
“All the guys that we brought in,” Therrien said, “there was a purpose.”
* * * * *
There was a positive in all the negativity. The players learned to hate it.
“It was a good experience for us to go through that,” Subban said. “We don’t want to ever go through it again.”
They stewed throughout the summer and the lockout. When the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association reached a labor agreement in January, the Habs knew they could not ease into the shortened season and avoid another disaster.
“The guys that were here last year talked to everybody before camp started,” Gorges said. “We said, ‘We have a new coach. We have a new GM. We have new players. Things are going to change. When we get there, we have to be ready to learn now. We have to pay attention to those details.’
“I think a lot of teams might have spent time on conditioning, getting themselves in game shape. Ours was about fine-tuning the little parts of our game. I think we knew we had to buy in right away.”
If they didn’t know, Therrien told them as he laid out the vision the coaches had developed in the summer.
“When everybody came to camp, Michel let them know early,” Gallant said. “There’s going to be no excuses on our team. We’re going to work hard and expect to win – not expect to play good, but expect to win.”
Bergevin got rid of Gomez – at first putting him in moth balls so he could buy him out after the season under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, then buying him out immediately after the NHL and NHLPA tweaked the rules. He held the line on Subban, a restricted free agent.
Subban saw a difference as he sat out and the Habs got off to a good start. He saw a healthy Gionta and a healthy Markov. He saw the impact of the new arrivals, particularly Prust and rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. He saw more aggressiveness, more energy.
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“You could see it in our forecheck,” Subban said. “You could see the way we would attack. You could see the way we were on the puck. You could see …”
“You could see that we expected to win.”
Subban signed a two-year, $5.75 million deal – a big win for Bergevin, at least in the short term.
The Habs suffered a 6-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on home ice Feb. 9. They were 0-2-1 in their last three at that point and had slipped to 6-4-1 overall. They seemed to be coming back to earth.
But they weren’t bothered. They knew they hadn’t played their game. And they haven’t lost in regulation since.
Bergevin has made another sharp move, acquiring Michael Ryder and a third-round pick from the Dallas Stars for Erik Cole. Ryder and Cole both scored 35 goals last season, but Ryder has an expiring contract while Cole had two years left at a $4.5 million hit. So the Habs gained an equivalent player, a pick and cap flexibility.
The Canadiens, so clueless last season, suddenly seem to know what they’re doing now from top to bottom.
“Every system that we have – defensive zone, neutral zone, forecheck, trap, whatever it is, penalty kill, power play – each player has a specific job,” Gorges said. “It gets explained what his job is, but also why he has to do that job so that the next guy knows exactly what his job is. So the details of our game plan are laid out in front of us. It’s not a guessing game. You know what’s expected of you, and you know what you have to do.”
The Habs are still heavy on skill and short on size, but they use their speed to be first on the puck and they have more grit. They have more depth throughout the lineup. They have better scoring balance up front and puck-movers matched with steady guys on each defensive pair. And Carey Price is playing well again in goal, along with backup Peter Budaj.
No one should get carried away.
“Expectations are high,” Pacioretty said, “and when expectations are high in Montreal …”
“Hopefully we won’t get the fans’ expectations too high.”
But none of the players needs to stay away from the city, either. The Montreal Canadiens aren’t letting anyone down.
“Our mentality of our team is we expect to win now,” Subban said. “We have that mentality. You can feel it in the room. It’s a group of guys that believe in each other. It’s a group of guys that come together and see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Now, don’t get me wrong. You need to have bounces happen. You need to have things go your way for that confidence to build, and we’ve had that early in the season. That’s great. To keep that going, it takes 22, 23 guys to buy in and want to do that.
“But you can see everybody wants to win in this dressing room, and we know we have enough to win.”