Article written by Michael Bitton.
With ten pending unrestricted free agents, an unstable ownership situation and
no head coach to speak of, Bob Gainey appeared to be in a little bit of a
pickle. With the draft quickly approaching and several key decisions still left
undone, there was little reason to expect that he would be able to get the team
to improve on its 8th seed finish last season. After the recent hiring of
Florida Panthers General Manager Jacques Martin, his off-season workload just
got a little bit lighter. As usual, the reactions to the hiring are polarized,
as some fans shake their heads in disappointment, pointing at other possible
head coaching candidates like Bob Hartley and Marc Crawford. Although Martin
does have a history of playoff failure with a talented Senators team, he is, it
would seem, the best man for the job.
Before the debate even begins, Martin has certain things going for him. For one,
he’s fluent in both English and French and this will appease Pierre Boivin, the
French media and many extremist fans who are now placing their Bob Gainey-tagged
bullets back on the shelves. He also happens to have the rare combination of
being both bilingual and experienced, the latter being a quality that several of
the most recent head coaches of the franchise lacked. Another rookie head coach
like, say, Patrick Roy, simply would not do. This is a mentally weak Montreal
Canadiens team that is badly in need of a calming, veteran presence. Hartley,
perhaps, would also have fit this bill, but there are other aspects which need
to be considered.
The Habs have a talented group of mostly young players (albeit a group with few
standouts) – two years removed from a Conference title – that is badly in need
of some structure. Despite having big names like Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek
and Roman Hamrlik on the blueline, Montreal’s defensive play was horrid this
season, and the smart money is on this being more due to the team’s lack of a
clear defensive system than because their top two shutdown defensemen suddenly
became duds. What the team needs more than anything is a style of play that they
can learn over the course of what should be a stabilizing 2009-2010 season.
Being realistic, there will be no blockbuster UFA signing of Marian Hossa or Jay
Bouwmeester this off-season. If Gainey intends to contend for a playoff spot
next season, his best bet will be to hang on to his assets while biding his
time. (What he can do, however, is sign veterans like Alex Kovalev and Saku
Koivu/Robert Lang to one-year contracts that will leave Gainey with millions in
capspace next season when other GMs are panicking at the reduction of the salary
cap.) This means that Martin will have to make do with the assets that are
already in the organization.
The Habs have no greater asset in their organization than 21 year old goaltender
Carey Price. After coming off an up and down season in which Price was booed out
of his own arena, some fans are vying for Gainey to give backup Jaroslav Halak
an honest chance to challenge Price for the starting job. The bottom line,
however, is that Price was put into a situation in which he had little chance to
succeed. A goaltender’s success is a product of the system in which he is
played. Martin is a defensive coach that will have the team playing a cohesive,
defensive system. Price will be put into a position to succeed and you can bet
that his stats will take off next season and that he’ll look a lot better. This
is true even if Gainey allows a downgrade to the D core to transpire in
replacing Komisarek with Johnny Oduya or Francois Beauchemin or perhaps even
Apart from disciplining the team and teaching them to play better team defence,
Martin also has an excellent reputation with young players. After unexpected
regressions in the development of several young players last season, it will be
interesting to see how they react to his presence and coaching. It will be
equally interesting to see what role he could play in rounding out the games of
offensive forwards like Alex Kovalev and the Kostitsyn brothers.
As for the complaints, some of them are legitimate and substantiated concerns.
The lack of playoff success is overblown (as usual – remember how Marian Hossa
and Evgeni Malkin were playoff chokers?) but it should worry Habs fans who have
not seen their team get past the second round in several years. Perhaps that
lack of success can be partially attributed to his lack of experience at the
time. As for the complaints that his style is boring to watch, this is a being a
bit picky. Any loss of excitement one experiences during the course of the
games, will be experienced ten-fold after the final buzzer when the team is
adding to their total in the wins column.
The Montreal Canadiens may not finish much higher in the standings than the 8th
place they did this season, but you can bet that they will be a smarter, more
disciplined and more defensively responsible unit than the most recent version.
The Canadiens are a team with lots of potential but that are unlikely to
progress without taking this year to steady the ship and forget the distractions
that plagued the team in 08-09. With Martin on board, the Habs seem to be in
good hands. One can only hope that his tutelage in this first year goes a long
way in preparing a young nucleus of players for what should be an exciting few