Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun break down Montreal's decision to fire coach Jacques Martin:
Burnside: Good day, my friend. I trust your Saturday is going better than former Montreal Canadiens coach Jacques Martin, who was relieved of his duties Saturday morning. Talk about a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking. But I guess we shouldn't be surprised by any of the machinations of the Canadiens, who continue to operate one of the strangest organizations in pro sports.
GM Pierre Gauthier made the move after the Habs lost at home against an injury-depleted Philadelphia Flyers team Thursday night. Gauthier replaced Martin with longtime NHLer Randy Cunneyworth, who is sliding into an NHL head-coaching gig for the first time after a long stint as an AHL head coach and NHL assistant.
Cunneyworth, one of the few Anglophones to coach the storied bleu, blanc et rouge in recent memory takes over a team that is just two points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference (the Canadiens seem a lot further away given their lackluster play for much of this season). Have to admit, even though Martin is an easy guy to dislike given his lack of emotion and prickly demeanor with the media, I figured Gauthier would stick with the coach until at least the end of the season. But this is just the latest in a series of rather curious moves by the Habs dating to this past summer. Your thoughts?
LeBrun: I suppose you could read the tea leaves that there was something not quite right between GM and head coach in October, when Gauthier fired assistant coach Perry Pearn (Martin's good friend and colleague). Remember, Martin has been a GM in this league, and my belief is he and Gauthier did not see eye to eye on how this team should play or be constructed.
My colleague Luc Gelinas of RDS (French sports network) in Montreal tweeted that he heard there was a lively confrontation between Gauthier and Martin after Thursday night's loss against Philadelphia, so that may have spurred this on quicker than Gauthier had originally planned. Like you, my thought was the Habs would decide whether or not to make big changes in the offseason. Of course, that would still happen if ownership decides Gauthier should no longer be running this team. If it was me, I would make a GM change, no question.
The Canadiens made sure to announce that Cunneyworth was taking over for the rest of the season. In other words, Gauthier was not going to hire another head coach at this point. Is that ownership saying they don't want to allow Gauthier to hire another coach until it is sure about the GM?
In my opinion, this team needs new direction. The Canadiens are among the softest teams in the NHL and Gauthier did not address that in the offseason. The Canadiens are only contending for a playoff spot because they've got an all-world goalie in Carey Price, the same reason they made the playoffs last season.
Burnside: I admit I've been critical of Martin in the past, especially with his failure to get a talented Senators squad over the top all those seasons he was in Ottawa. I also didn't like how he handled himself in Florida, where he appeared to throw his old friend Mike Keenan under the bus. But you cannot argue with what he accomplished in Montreal in recent seasons with a less-than-stellar squad. It was Martin who guided the Habs to upsets against the top-seeded Washington Capitals and the defending Cup champs from Pittsburgh in 2010.
This season, he still had the Habs near the top of the league in penalty killing, although the power play has struggled. That will be a priority for Cunneyworth, but this simply isn't a very good team and a lot of that falls at Gauthier's feet. What was he thinking giving Andrei Markov that three-year deal worth $5.75 million annually in the offseason? Markov hasn't played a game yet this season with ongoing knee issues. The Erik Cole contract (four years at $4.5 million annually) is risky at best given his streaky play.
So, whether this was born out of desperation or some real belief that Cunneyworth is the one to get the Habs back into the postseason, it's hard to imagine Gauthier will survive the offseason if the Canadiens fall short. Not that the Canadiens are unique in pulling the trigger on coaches even if they aren't buried in the standings. Martin is sixth NHL coach to go over the side and we haven't even reached the midway point of the season. Is this just a function of trigger-happy GMs looking to save their own bacon, or the league parity that allows for teams to play poorly for long stretches and still be in the playoff hunt?
LeBrun: I wrote about this in a weekend notebook a couple of weeks ago, quoting an NHL coach who requested anonymity. I asked him if he felt firing coaches was the only magic pill left for GMs who can't make big trades in the first half of the season to shake up their roster. Dating back three and a half years, there have been 19 in-season coaching changes.
"And I ask you, how many times did the team make a trade before they fired the coach? Not too often," the coach told ESPN.com. "It's hard to make trades in this system. So I wonder if this system doesn't lead itself to firing more coaches as some form of cure-all when teams are struggling? Because the GM feels he has to do something. There's pressure on him to do something."
I think that explains this recent trend. The cap system has tied GMs' hands in the first half of the season on the trade front, so they take the only route left. Going back to the Habs, what will be interesting is how well Cunneyworth performs. He's long been one of those names always bandied about as the next can't-miss NHL coaching prospect, much like Kevin Dineen was. Dineen has proved so far to be a marvelous hire in Florida this season. Perhaps Cunneyworth can also do the trick?
Burnside: It's funny you mention trades and how difficult they are. I know Tomas Kaberle has played well in his first couple of games with the Habs; but after seeing him shrink as the competition got tougher during the playoffs last season, it's hard not to see that this trade (one that cost the Habs popular veteran defenseman Jaroslav Spacek) will be yet another albatross to drag the team down. Oh well, guess that's what buyouts are for.
Of the coaching moves already made this season, only the St. Louis Blues' decision to dismiss Davis Payne and hire veteran Ken Hitchcock has paid immediate dividends. The Blues are a bona fide playoff team and have the look of a club that could make some noise in the spring. The rest -- Anaheim, Washington, Los Angeles, Carolina and now Montreal -- all look like teams that will be lucky to make the playoffs.
As we wait for the Darryl Sutter shoe to drop in Los Angeles, where he's expected to take over for the dismissed Terry Murray, it's hard to imagine any more than one of these teams actually qualifying for the playoffs. I wouldn't be shocked if none of them did.
LeBrun: Good on you to mention the Kaberle trade. At least Gauthier tried to give Martin a boost that way before firing him. But, like you, I think that Kaberle contract ($4.25 million a year for two more seasons past this year) will represent another failure on Gauthier's part. The Habs have a shot at a playoff spot because of the mediocrity at the bottom end of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket and having Carey Price in goal. But I wouldn't bet any of my money on it. Enjoy the rest of the weekend, Scotty. Hopefully we can reach Monday without another NHL coach getting fired.