By Stu Hackel
One downside to having an enchanted, storied past is that when things turn wrong, the picture looks ugly. That's where the Montreal Canadiens find themselves in this young season.
The Habs currently sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and only the winless Blue Jackets are keeping them from occupying the league's basement. Going into tonight's game against the Florida Panthers, they are 1-4-2, the legendary club's worst start in (get ready) 70 years. You have to go back to 1941 to find an edition of Les Habitants that stumbled out of the gate worse than these guys.
That was before Maurice Richard became The Rocket. In '41, Frank Calder was the President of the NHL and Franklin D. Roosevelt was the President of the U.S., just to provide some perspective. So, yes, it was a long time ago.
But "long time ago" is also where the Canadiens glory days reside. They last won the Stanley Cup, their 24th, in 1993, and an entire generation of their fans has never experienced anything more exhilarating than a run to the conference championship round. That might be commonplace elsewhere in the NHL, but in Montreal it has become an annual shame.
Adding to the sting was the Duckboat parade with the Cup through the streets of Boston last June. There is little solace that the Habs were one OT goal away from eliminating the Bruins in the first round.
Of course, life might look different for the Habs had they won the postgame skills competition against Colorado on Oct. 15 and gotten the bonus point against the Maple Leafs on Saturday as well. But they're not winning those games, and -- since losing all three OT games in their playoff series against the B's last April -- they're not winning any with regularity.
During the preseason, only the most delusional predicted the Canadiens would have their revenge and hoist the big silver mug next June with a cheering throng watching the Centre Ville motorcade along what Mayor Jean Drapeau called in the 1960s "the usual route." Most people expected mediocrity at worst, competency for certain, with perhaps an outside shot at a good deep run and just maybe a surprise finish. At the season's outset, when pundits were projecting which NHL coaches would be on the firing line, none we saw included Jacques Martin's name.
Now, mediocrity would be a step up and many partisans want Martin's name forwarded to the executioner, with GM Pierre Gauthier's name right alongside. They see a team with a good complement of skilled veteran performers (Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn) and unproductive big-ticket items (Scott Gomez and Erik Cole) and believe they are being illogically instructed to play a safe defensive-oriented game with victories gained by winning the special teams battles. Unfortunately, Montreal ranks 29th on the power play and 20th on the penalty kill.
Habs fans see a team with a defense corps that has become paper-thin. Their best defenseman and power play quarterback, Andrei Markov, has wrecked knees, and its second-best defender, Josh Gorges, is shy of his previous form after knee woes of his own. Yet, the Habs allowed reliable Roman Hamrlik to sign with Washington last summer. They also lost hard-shooting James Wisniewski to free agency without adding experience on the blueline (signing Chris Campoli only after Markov's rehab was set back. Campoli was promptly injured). With Jaro Spacek also hurt, the Habs' blueline last week featured four players who each had under 100 games of NHL experience, two of whom had less than 10.
The fans wonder why valued pluggers like Travis Moen and Mathieu Darche end up playing quality minutes in situations that would call for more offensive weapons. And they see an excellent goaltender in Carey Price who not only faces a ton of quality chances each game, but is frequently bowled over by opposing forwards who are apparently unconcerned that someone in bleu, blanc et rouge might send them flying in retaliation.
The current blueline problems exacerbate another sore point -- the June 2009 trade with the Rangers for Gomez and his massive, long-term contract (seven years, $51.5 million) he signed in 2007. Montreal not only dispatched Chris Higgins (recently seen with the Cup in Vancouver), but also fast-rising defenseman Ryan McDonagh. That swap looks worse every day. Former GM Bob Gainey pulled the trigger on that one, but whoever was scouting Gomez and McDonagh prior to the deal slipped up badly on their evaluations.
Of course, the fans aren't the only ones who see this. One wonders how long Gauthier might go before making a change behind the bench -- or how long owner/president Geoff Molson waits until stepping in to blow the thing up. He'd have some cause to think the Canadiens' entire hockey department needs cleaning. Even the deal yesterday that landed Petteri Nokelainen from the Coyotes seems strange: The Habs traded for his ability to win faceoffs, a need for their special teams play. But Nokelainen is often injured, his knees are suspect (as if Montreal needs another set of those) and there is rumbling they could have had David Steckel instead to fill that role before the Leafs landed him from New Jersey for merely a fourth round draft pick.
A bad start has doomed the entire Canadiens Hockey Department before: in 1995. The president at that time, Ronald Corey, overreacted and fired both coach Jacques Demers and GM Serge Savard, two years and four games removed from winning the Cup. He inserted two completely inexperienced men, Rejean Houle as manager and Mario Tremblay as coach. Within a few months, an irate Patrick Roy was seen on national TV in Canada demanding that Corey either trade him or fire Tremblay...
For Montreal, the rest was misery.
So there are caution flags to waive. The first is, if Martin is to go, who takes his place? There is no shortage of names to be floated but, Gauthier and Molson know, holding one of the top hockey jobs in Montreal is unlike anywhere else. Not only is there a legacy to maintain, there's also unparalleled scrutiny from 4 million would-be managers and coaches among the fans and media (some of whom are, in fact, former NHL coaches). It all begins the moment one's name comes up as a trial balloon and is a nonstop proposition once the job is taken.
Apart from that intense pressure is the need to select carefully among the candidates so that the new guy fits into the province's unique cultural landscape. Being bilingual is mandatory; being French may be preferable.
That narrows the field considerably -- not that it cheapens it by any means. The two coaches in the Cup final, Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault, have held the Montreal job and the Lightning's Guy Boucher, considered one of the game's most innovative young thinkers, previously coached the Habs' AHL team. Whether anyone is prepared at this time to step into what may be the hardest job in hockey, however, is another story.
None of this is to say that, despite much conjecture and unnecessary personal attack, Martin's firing is imminent with a loss tonight -- or even continued losses in the days ahead. (Montreal's rugged schedule this week also consists of a match against the Flyers and a pair against Boston.) The injuries are a big consideration in the Habs' current standing (add Gomez to that list with an upper body injury; he hasn't scored much, but he can still carry the puck into the offensive zone), and some players in the lineup are less than 100 percent. Plus, Gauthier has a long relationship with Martin that reaches back to their time together with the Senators in the mid-90s. Their comfort level is not insignificant.
But at some point, if things don't turn around Gauthier will be forced to make a change. If he doesn't, Molson will -- and Molson might in any event. As if he needs any reminders, the fans are letting him know all is not well.
That's Daniel Iorio's work. Not a bad imitation, eh?