Wednesday March 25th, 2009

Three weeks ago, Guy Carbonneau was an NHL coach who apparently had trouble communicating with his players. He had "lost" the dressing room and tinkered with his lines indiscriminately. Now, with chants of "Carb-o, Carb-o" resonating at the Bell Centre in Montreal on many nights, he has apparently metamorphosed into a cross between Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman.

Like Elvis Presley's untimely death, a firing turned out to be a decent career move.

The Canadiens have languished since general manager Bob Gainey sacked Carbonneau on March 9 and returned behind the bench on an interim basis. Prior to a 6-3 home win on Tuesday over the feckless Atlanta Thrashers, Montreal had not won a game in regulation under Gainey. Maybe lumping his offensive stars together as he did against the Thrashers will prove to be the magic bullet -- Alex Tanguay, playing with Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev, had a five-point game -- but a three-for-six power play explosion against the worst penalty-killing team in the NHL (scrambling from the start because it can't win a faceoff) seems less an omen than a reflection of the opposition.

If Montreal -- which entered Wednesday's games in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of Florida -- can replicate that performance against Tampa Bay and Buffalo later this week, maybe Gainey has found something. The late-season coaching changes that have been effective involved an overhaul of styles -- Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh, Cory Clouston in Ottawa, and John Tortorella with the New York Rangers -- but the slumping Canadiens had shown no evidence of doing anything markedly different.

Carbonneau, a finalist for the Jack Adams Award last year, might become a first-rate NHL head coach, but as happens too often, it will be done somewhere other than in the city where he got his first such job. In the eternal search for the Next Great Coach, the Canadiens have discarded Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien and Claude Julien in the past decade. Vigneault went on to win a coach-of-the-year award for Vancouver, Therrien took Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008. and Julien has done a superb job this season extracting latent talent from conference-leading Boston.

Like the Montreal Expos did, the Canadiens have stumbled into the business of grooming talent for other organizations. The moral of the story: maybe the Next Great Coach is the coach you already have.

Think of the Buffalo Sabres. Although they have only faint hopes of making the playoffs, president Larry Quinn has said that GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff aren't going anywhere. Splendid. They are as steadfast as bacon and eggs, or Minneapolis and St. Paul. Regier and Ruff have been together since 1997-98, the longest-running GM-coach duo in North American professional sports. Given the exigencies of a small-revenue club, Regier has soldiered through tough times, failing to win a Stanley Cup but getting his team to the 1999 final and two conference finals since the lockout. Ruff, who merits consideration for Team Canada's 2010 Olympics staff, continues to goad his team into usually solid play and consistently great effort. To the organization's credit, it found the right two people for its market and never wavered.

There is a Western Conference version of the Sabres in Nashville, a franchise that has plugged along under GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz since the first day in 1998. Now, the Predators never have won a playoff series -- a pair of first-rounders each against Detroit and San Jose the past four seasons is not evidence of spring success -- but the strapped franchise is on the cusp of going five-for-five. Like Ruff, Trotz is among the most popular NHL coaches as far as players are concerned, and he deserves a look for the Olympics.

Since Trotz coached his first game in October 1998, the New York Islanders have had nine coaches, Mike Keenan has been behind the bench for four different teams, and four men-- Julien, Ron Wilson, Ken Hitchcock and Joel Quenneville -- have guided three different teams apiece while 20 men have coached two each. (Thanks to Predators broadcaster Pete Weber for passing on that information.)

The long view, even in the go-go NHL, can often be the best one.

Just when Detroit goalie Chris Osgood appeared out of his season-long funk, the era of good feeling -- three straight wins, including a shutout -- screeched to a halt on Monday in Calgary. Osgood gave up three Charmin-soft goals on 14 shots in a little more than 25 minutes in a performance that sent a shudder through fans of America's (hockey) Team.

The good news is that among NHL goalies, none is as adroit at selective amnesia as Osgood. Asked after the game how much concern he felt with the playoffs approaching, he said, "Zero."

But if statistics don't always tell the whole story, rarely are they a funhouse mirror that distorts the evidence of the eyes. Osgood has rarely looked sharp; his .884 save percentage and 3.18 goals-against average support that impression. Among the presumptive starters of possible Western Conference playoff teams, no other goalie has a save percentage worse than .900.

With the way GM Ken Holland has constructed the Red Wings, his goaltenders aren't going to be his best players. Osgood and backup Ty Conklin, who won in Edmonton on Tuesday, earn a combined $2.25 million. Holland puts his resources into other areas, such as quality players who can cocoon those goalies. The offensive firepower and commitment to team defense mean Osgood shouldn't have to stop more than 25 or 26 shots per game to ensure a Detroit victory.

(Through Monday only San Jose, Columbus and Buffalo had allowed fewer total shots on goal than the Red Wings. The Blue Jackets, however, allowed a marginally higher shots-per-game total than Detroit.)

Osgood, who last spring came off the bench during the first-round Nashville series in place of Dominik Hasek, will open the playoffs. Despite a goals-against-average that is three-quarters of a goal better than Osgood's, the well-traveled Conklin is a less appealing Plan B than Osgood was to Hasek last spring. Says one NHL GM, "I think Conklin can win you a game if he steps in for Ozzie, but I'm not so sure he's going to win you a series."

The number of the week: 42 percent.

That's the percentage of NHL players who, as of now, can be unrestricted or restricted free agents on July 1. With a stagnant salary cap for 2009-10 and a falling one in 2010-11, this is a lousy time to be coming on the market.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.