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Playoff-contending Habs are a mess -- no matter who's in charge

At the hockey party of the century, Guy Carbonneau didn't even make it to last call.

Bob Gainey, general manager of the NHL's most august team (and lately it must also be August's Team because it certainly hasn't been June's Team), fired Carbonneau Monday and left his office on the seventh floor of the Bell Centre for the hot spot behind the Canadiens bench. This is a move that should be heartily endorsed in the Canadiens' centennial season. No, not Carbonneau's firing. If given enough time, his innate intelligence and hockey sense would have made him a quality NHL coach. No, Gainey coming back behind the bench because as your mother once said, if the mess is partially your fault, the least you can do is clean it up.

And the Canadiens, fifth in the Eastern Conference playoff race but only two points out of ninth, are a mess.

Despite being just nine days removed from a stretch in which they defeated Vancouver, Philadelphia and San Jose -- all teams with Stanley Cup aspirations -- and coming off a road win in Dallas Sunday, the Canadiens remain remarkably fragile. They seem buffeted by the fates from game to game, giving up far too many scoring chances, uncertain of whom they really are, unlike the team that finished first in the Eastern Conference last season and flew around the ice at times like their Montreal progenitors of the 1970s. Those 2007-08 Canadiens could embarrass you with speed and then make you pay on the power play when you tried to slow them down. These Canadiens, despite an up tick in recent weeks with the man advantage, are neither especially intimidating off the rush nor are they punishing on defense. They are just hanging around, taking far too many lazy penalties, scuffling to score goals, allowing way too many shots and crossing their fingers in the hope that their goalies will stop the carnage. The 2-0 loss in Atlanta Friday was Carbonneau's death knell.

The penalty problems and the diffidence on defense were on Carbonneau -- discipline, in all its forms, always falls on the coach -- but Gainey must answer for some larger issues. The power play looked a whole lot snappier when defenseman Mark Streit was on the point last year, a free agent Gainey might have had at a reasonable $2 or $2.5 million annually -- if he had only been willing to negotiate during the season. By the time Streit was about to hit the open market, he had priced himself out of Montreal's reach. Streit, now on Long Island, has had another strong season as has another free agent who was allowed to walk, Boston's Michael Ryder, a player the organization had lost faith in.

Nor have the players Gainey brought in last summer been particularly helpful, with the exception of center Robert Lang, gone with a severed Achilles tendon. Scoring winger Alex Tanguay has been injured much of the season. And the addition of a bona fide fighter, Georges Laraque, has been a three-year, $4.5 million mistake to this point because the enforcer has been ineffective when he hasn't been hurt or a healthy scratch. If Montreal had been more curious, it would have wondered why Laraque had bounced from Edmonton to Phoenix to Pittsburgh within two years.

But Laraque -- and even Tanguay or Lang, for that matter -- is not at the core of the problem. The fulcrum is Alex Kovalev, the gifted right winger who scored 35 goals last season but who has been so far out of the picture on many nights, you couldn't find him with the Hubble Telescope. Normally, it would be up to a coach to wring the most out of the star player, but this is a rare instance when the responsibility has to be shared by the GM because of Gainey's privileged relationship with him. Memorably, Gainey once declared at a press conference, "I'll handle Alex Kovalev." He did, too, giving him a two-game hiatus in February that seemed to be paying dividends. Essentially Gainey traded Bad Alex for Good Alex, a pre-deadline deal that should have been made around the December holidays instead of allowing to fester this long.

With his quiet ways, coaching experience (1991 Stanley Cup final with the Minnesota North Stars) and Easter Island visage, Gainey might be able to scare this team straight into the playoffs. He also will make some tactical changes to staunch the flow of odd-man rushes the Canadiens have had to defend, easing the burden on goaltender Carey Price, who has put together two strong games. Gainey did this before, in 2005-06, when he fired Claude Julien and brought Carbonneau with him as an assistant behind the bench, grooming his former teammate to take over the team full-time the following season. At a somber press conference Monday night, Gainey made no mention of a successor.

"Why don't we just start with this year?" he replied brusquely when asked. Barring a Lazarus-like revival under Gainey, the most intriguing part of the story is who will be behind the Montreal bench in September. Since Jacques Demers coached the Canadiens' last Stanley Cup winner in 1993 (and was fired early in the 1995-96 season), these have been the full-time head coaches: Mario Tremblay, Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien, Julien and Carbonneau. There are some connective threads. The first: All were first-time NHL head coaches in the NHL when they were hired by Montreal. The second: All but Tremblay were hired elsewhere as head coaches and all have had a certain degree of success, even if Therrien, who led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final last spring, is currently unemployed.

There is something else that you might have noticed: All are French-speakers. Like old-time political tickets in New York, Montreal expects balance in its beloved hockey team. There is an anglophone GM (albeit one who speaks a strong French) -- so it follows there better be a francophone coach. Assuming the enigmatic Gainey stays on as general manager and doesn't attempt the impossible GM/coach daily double next season, he will have to decide if the Canadiens are going to hire the best coach available or the best francophone coach available. This might be the same person, of course, which would make his job so much easier. (Think Bob Hartley, a Franco-Ontarian, who won a Stanley Cup coaching Colorado.) But then, it might not be. This is the conundrum. Certainly fans of the team in this predominantly French-speaking province deserve a coach who can address them, through the electronic media, in their own language. That is respect, plain and simple. But after a 16-year wait for the next parade, an obscenity by the standards of Montreal, don't the same fans also deserve the best coach, period? If Gainey follows convention, he would be eliminating a large part of the talent pool. This makes no more sense than three years for Laraque.

Firing Carbonneau -- a man I always thought was too smart to be a coach and should have stayed on the GM track he started with the Stars -- might have been personally and professionally difficult. But given the linguistic swamp on Montreal, where many fans already think there are too few French-speaking players, in theory, it might be easier than Gainey's next decision.

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