Monday, June 4, 2012

A Tale of Two Coaches

As much as I've tried not to believe the rumours, it is at this point hard to believe that Montreal isn't down to at most two candidates in their head coaching search in Michel Therrien and Marc Crawford.  Many fans have been hoping there would be some third off-the-radar candidate who would come in and steal the job away, but all three major hockey networks - TSN, RDS, and SportsNet - have been reporting the same facts for a few days now.  And the problem is that even if these weren't the only two names in the pot, with Bob Hartley in Calgary and Patrick Roy's demands allegedly being far too great, given the team's self-imposed "must speak French" rule, there aren't many other qualified candidates out there.  I've said before and maintain that I have faith in Marc Bergevin right now and will be happy to give a chance to whoever he deems the best man to execute his vision for the Montreal Canadiens, but on the day he opts for one of Therrien or Crawford, I will not be a happy sheep applauding his selection.  Here's a look at the two candidates to give you an idea of why:

Michel Therrien

Many Habs fans are quick to spit out, "been there, done that," when Therrien's name comes up.  I find that a bit of a naive approach to his candidacy; just because a guy held the job a decade ago, doesn't mean he wouldn't have learned from mistakes or be a better fit today.  The qualifications of candidates should be based on what Bergevin thinks they can do today.

At age 48, Therrien still has plenty of years in the sport left ahead of him, which is a positive for a team seeking stability.  In his playing career, he never made it beyond the AHL, though he did spend a couple of seasons in the Habs' system with the Nova Scotia Voyageurs and Sherbrooke Canadiens.  His full-time head coaching career began in 1993-94 with the QMJHL's Laval Titan, and he led the Granby Predateurs to a league championship after taking over the club in 1995-96.  Returning to the Canadiens' organization, he spent four seasons as the Head Coach of the team's AHL affiliate (two in Fredericton and two in Quebec) before replacing Alain Vigneault as Coach of the Habs some 20 games into the 2000-01 campaign.  That team would fail to qualify for the post-season, but he would lead Montreal back to the playoffs the following year, and upset the top seed Boston Bruins in the first round in six games (which included a fine to Therrien for making a throat-slitting gesture at Kyle McLaren after he nearly took Richard Zednik's head off with a dirty below, though Hab fans will forgive him for that one).  

What likely sealed his fate were clear coaching errors in the second round.  Montreal looked poised to complete a second straight upset, up 2-1 in the series against the Carolina Hurricanes and leading game 4 by a 3-0 score in the third period.  Perhaps Therrien momentarily forgot where he was, but he was a bit too vocal with referee Kerry Fraser in arguing a cross-checking call and earned himself an additional 2 minute bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct.  The 'Canes took advantage to get back in the game, and found themselves down just 1 goal entering the final minute of regulation.  Current Hab Erik Cole scored to tie things up, and Therrien committed another gaff in OT with a face-off in the Montreal end.  Known as an Xs and Os coach who goes with gut feelings on who is hot on a given night, the coach sent out Bill Lindsay - a winger playing out of position in the middle - to take a defensive end faceoff in the extra frame.  Lindsay had the best FO win percentage in the game, but it was still far from a strength of his, not to mention that the team featured face-off whiz Yanic Perreault and shutdown center Joe Juneau, along with responsible veterans Doug Gilmour and Saku Koivu.  Lindsay lost the draw cleanly, and the puck came back to the point where Nic Wallin fired one home.  The Canadiens showed no life following that crushing defeat, losing in two straight blowouts.

Therrien was fired halfway through the following year with his team playing at an under .500 clip, but would rebound the following season with the AHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins.  He led the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to the Calder Cup Final in his first season with the team, and in his third year with the team got it off to a 21-1-3 start, leading to his replacing Ed Olcyzk as bench boss with the big club.  He would take Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007-08, but after losing to the Detroit Red Wings, would be canned 57 games into the following season with his team just above the .500 mark despite a stacked roster.  The team's disappointing start is largely blamed on Therrien since Dan Bylsma took over the club and led them to a Stanley Cup win that very same season.  

Therrien also gained a reputation throughout his career as being a coach that his own players hate, given his tactic of trying to get under their skin to motivate them to deliver their best.  A prime example was on display in this now infamous press conference:

I fully understand that people can learn from their mistakes, and coaches can evolve over time.  However, Therrien hasn't been in coaching since that 2008-09 season, instead currently serving as a scout for the Minnesota Wild, so we have no way to know what kind of attitudes or demeanour he would bring to the job.  Still, he's a candidate in part largely due to a good off-ice relationship with Bergevin, who has shown a strong propensity for hiring those he knows well  or are within his inner circle thus far.  It is important that Bergevin hires someone who is on the same page as him, and a guy he feels he can work with on a daily basis, as a team's GM and Head Coach need to be able to agree on how the players brought in should be used.  From the front office to the coaching staff, a team will only play to its highest potential if all have a unified vision.

Marc Crawford

51-year old Marc Crawford is hoping his stint as a television analyst will last only one season by getting back into the realm of coaching.  While his playing career was only moderately more successful than Therrien's - he played 176 NHL games, all with the Vancouver Canucks - Crawford brings with him 15 years experience as an NHL head coach.  His transition from playing to coaching began in the OHL where he led the Cornwall Royals for two seasons with little success, but enough to earn him a chance as Coach of the AHL's St. John Maple Leafs.  He brought the team to the Calder Cup Final in his first season there, and after second round exits the following two seasons, was named Head Coach of the Quebec Nordiques for the lockout-shortened 1994-95 campaign.

Crawford stayed with the organization when they moved to Colorado, winning the Stanley Cup in 1996, and taking the team led by Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and others back to the Conference Finals a year later.  When his star-studded Avs were knocked out in round 1 in 1998, he was relieved of his duties, re-emerging with the Vancouver Canucks midway through the following season.  

Crawford coached the Canucks for 7 seasons but never made it past the second round of the playoffs, missing them altogether three times.  The 2003-04 season - his second to last - is the one that most will criticize him for.  In an incident that few should need to be reminded of, in a February 16, 2004 game, Colorado's Steve Moore concussed Vancouver captain Markus Naslund with a hit that was missed by officials, and deemed unsuspendable by the league.  Rather than calm and re-focus his club, Crawford stoked some fires, criticizing officials and suggesting the league should offer protection for its superstars.  While the next Avs-Nucks matchup was relatively uneventful, a subsequent game got ugly.  With Vancouver trailing by a big score, Todd Bertuzzi looked to make a statement by battling Moore, who wanted no part of the larger man, already having answered the bell to a bout with tough guy Matt Cooke in the first period.  When Moore ignored the invitation to drop the gloves, Bertuzzi grabbed Moore from behind, pulled him by the jersey, and punched him to the back of the head, falling on top of him which drove his face into the ice.  

When words like "pre-meditated" get thrown around, you have to look at the Coach as not having proper control of his players, particularly given the act occurred at a time when the game's outcome was out of reach.  Some accounts of that game had Crawford chuckling while watching Bertuzzi's actions, though this is nothing but rumour (others saw Bertuzzi acted in stark contrast to Crawford's instructions).  The other problem is that this issue has not been laid to rest, with an ongoing lawsuit on Moore's part (his career was ended by the "attack") having Crawford as one of the defendants, and Bertuzzi himself even indicating that Crawford should share in the blame due to his inciting the team to, "make Moore pay the price."  This off-ice sideshow could serve as a distraction for a team, particularly in a media-frenzied city like Montreal.

But it isn't just about "the incident."  Crawford missed the playoffs the following season, and would also miss them in his next two years with Los Angeles.  Crawford drew fire from many by encouraging his General Manager with the Kings to acquire his starting netminder from Vancouver in Dan Cloutier, a goaltender that many held in rather low regard.  Dismal .415 and .433 winning percentages cost him his job with the Kings, and after a year off, he was named Coach of the Dallas Stars, where he also failed to reach the playoffs in consecutive years.  Crawford was fired in 2011 and joined the TSN panel having missed the post-season for each of his final five seasons.

Crawford is known as a tactician, being one of the pioneers of the 1-3-1 trap system.  He has a relationship with Bergevin, having served as his Coach for the final 9 games of Bergevin's career (in Vancouver) in 2003-04.  To his credit, he has watched more Montreal Canadiens and other Canadian team games this past season than most who would be considered candidates for the job, having to analyze them and breakdown many aspects for the television audience.  But is he a good fit in Montreal?  As Crawford himself said in a recent interview, "The most important thing in any job is that the general manager and coach are on the same page." If Bergevin thinks Crow is that guy for him, then he will get the job.

Of the two, I'm not a particular fan of either.  My only hope is that whichever is named brings along some experienced Assistants who may compensate for some of his areas of weakness (e.g. a Larry Robinson or Andy Murray).


Ed. said...

Carboneau is a better choice than either of Therrien or Crawford. Carbo brought the team to the Conference finals one year and was doing well when Gainey fired him.Larry Robinson would also be good if he was able to handle the pressure. Larry would also work well with Carbo, like Muller did.

Wil said...

Wasn't Michel Therrien an RDS analyst prior to accepting this coaching position? If that's the case then he would have watched and analyzed plenty of Habs games.