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The Puck Stops Here

What Is Wrong with The Habs

The Montreal Canadiens have been a playoff team for the last four seasons.  They won at least one round in two of them.  It looks like that streak will end this season.  Montreal is currently tied for last place in the East Conference with 49 points.  They have a 20-33 record with nine regulation tie points.  Only Anaheim and Columbus have fewer wins than they do.  What has gone wrong?

The biggest problem surrounding the Habs is the uncertainty of who is in charge.    In December Jacques Martin was fired as coach and replaced by Randy Cunneyworth.  This soon led to controversy as Cunneyworth does not speak French and this angered some Quebec language activists’.  This situation was handled badly as owner Geoff Molson went on record to say that Cunneyworth is only an interim coach.  Montreal would hire a French speaking coach for next year.

With the coach sufficiently undermined, it was time to undermine the general manager.  Pierre Gauthier created the situation, so he too must be on thin ice.  Most people expect he will not be back in Montreal next season either.

Montreal will avoid hiring the best available candidate for coach or GM and instead focus on hiring a French speaker.  This failure to focus on the bottom line of winning will keep the team from contending in the future.  A successful coach need only speak “hockey” in order to win.  This is clearly shown by the North American coaches who have succeeded in Europe.  The players are a multilingual bunch who expect practise to be conducted in English.  If that offends language activists who are unrelated to the Montreal Canadiens that shouldn`t be the Habs concern, but it is.  It has been allowed to change the way things are done in Montreal.

When we look at the team on the ice, Montreal isn`t as bad as their record suggests.  They have only allowed eight more goals than they have scored.  Those numbers, while not great, should allow them into playoff contention.

Montreal is not much worse than they were last year when they made playoffs.  Carey Price returns in goal.  He isn`t having quite as good a season as he did last year, but he is playing well.  Montreal does not have any huge offensive talents.  They didn`t have any last year either.  That said Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais are scoring.  PK Subban, Josh Gorges and Raphael Diaz lead a workable defence.  This is a team that has the talent to be in the playoff race.  They may not be good enough to make the playoffs annually, but they should be close.  This season is an aberration.

The problem is the aberration is leading to some bad moves.  These moves are not only coaching and management uncertainty.  They are on ice moves.  Mike Cammalleri was traded to Calgary for Rene Bourque.  This is a downgrade in talent that was made when Cammalleri went to the media with his frustrations with the Habs situation.  Tomas Kaberle was taken on in a trade.  He has been ineffective since leaving Toronto and looks like a waste of salary cap space.  In short Montreal is making moves out of panic.  The Montreal media expects moves so moves are made.  The problem is the moves are poorly thought out and have no overarching plan. 

Montreal needs a general manager and a coach who are strong enough to ignore the external pressures.  It doesn`t matter if they speak English or French or Swahili as long as they are competent hockey men who will not bow to the media whims.  Until that happens the Habs will not be serious contenders.  However even if that doesn`t happen, i expect that the team makes a partial recovery from their current low point.  They are better than their record would show.

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You’re half right, half-wrong here. Practices in Montreal are conducted in English. But the majority of this city, like 60-80% of it, are French-speaking, so having a coach or a GM who speak the language does matter.  The Habs aren’t your garden variety hockey club, they are a cultural institution, some have gone so far as to say a secular religion.  So it’s facile to say the coach/GM need to speak “hockey.”  Come to Montreal for a day, you’ll see how wrong you are.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the team is doomed to mediocrity, either.  As for panic moves, yeah, you’re right, sort of.  The Cammalleri trade was in the works for 6 weeks before it happened, so it wasn’t a panic move and it wasn’t because he kvetched in the media.  Kaberle also has not been half bad here, but he hasn’t saved the powerplay. 

Moreover, both Gauthier and Molson have undermined Cunneyworth in public. 

This team is missing solid leadership because of it and the way they’ve survived in past years has been with a killer Power Play, which has not been the case this year.  In fact, they’re at the bottom of the league, so no surprise they are in the standings, too.

Posted by Bill on 02/06/12 at 05:06 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

The Habs aren’t your garden variety hockey club, they are a cultural institution, some have gone so far as to say a secular religion.

This is the problem.  This self-aggrandizing way Montreal thinks they are somehow special and need to do different things with their franchise instead of concentrating on winning is what is moving them in the wrong direction.

So it’s facile to say the coach/GM need to speak “hockey.”  Come to Montreal for a day, you’ll see how wrong you are.

I have come to Montreal many times and it doesn`t change the way you should run a hockey team. 

If you need to hire an interpretor for the coach to speak French that is fine.  I don`t care what language the coach speaks as long as he can communicate with his team.  Restricting yourself to French speakers reduces the talent pool available.  Why would anyone want to restrict the talent pool available?  It might be that the best several choices are among the group you reduced from the talent pool and you wind up hiring a poor second, third or fourth choice such as Pierre Gauthier.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 02/06/12 at 05:21 PM ET

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I find that how you view this situation is how you view affirmative action and how it applies to this situation.

The feeling back in the day in Quebec—up until maybe the late 80’s—is that a Francophone would not get much of a shot because we were the oppressed class (foreman/workers relationship as an example, Francophones standing up in restricted areas at the Forum while the Anglos are allowed to have seats).

Much has changed, but the perception—for some reason—still lingers on in some circles.  Thus, some still sees it as the Canadiens’ duty to give opportunities to Quebecers, because they feel that discrimination still exists at a large scale.  Some would argue that if it weren’t for the Canadiens giving them a shot in order to prove themselves to the rest of the league, the two coaches in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals would never have had a chance to be hired (Vigneault and Julien).

Now, you may say “that’s bullshit” or “that’s actually quite right”, but as with everything, the truth is not that black and white, self-evident or even a shared one.

I, myself, am often torn between the two arguments (Canadiens-as-an-institution-that-belongs-to-the-People vs Hockey-is-hockey-not politics), because I sympathize with both, no matter how outdated I find some of the views are.  You can’t make people let go of history because it’s history.

But whatever side you plant your flag in, it is absolutely possible to show empathy and compassion to the other side’s perspective.

Posted by sayjust on 02/06/12 at 05:54 PM ET

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Maybe I should clarify, Bill is short form for Guillaume.  But your missing my point, perhaps deliberately, Mr. Puck.

I didn’t say that Montréal sees itself as exceptional (and it is, you find me another major city in North America where English isn’t the primary language, at least outside of Mexico), it is more that whether you like it or not, as SayJust says, this is the way it is, people here are deeply attached to the Habs not because we think we’re exceptional, but because this is the way it is in terms of the meaning of this hockey team to this place, much like a football (i.e. soccer) club has meaning in Liverpool or Munich or Milan.  This is not a sports franchise like other North American teams, it’s that simple.

As for being in Montréal, I hate to say this, but you’re not French Canadian, I presume your American, but unless you are, as SayJust notes, you’re not going to get it. 

I’m not saying all of this is right, nor am I saying it’s wrong.  Like SayJust, I’m ambivalent about all of this, I see both sides of the argument. 

I’m really quite shocked by your attitude, people try to engage you in discussion and all you can do is spit back inaccuracies and obfuscations of counter-arguments.  If you cannot handle someone questioning you, why do you blog in public in the first place?

Posted by Bill on 02/06/12 at 09:21 PM ET

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My two cents on where the Habs have erred.

1) Bad management post Serge Savard. The Koivu years were marked by poor drafting and bad on ice personnel decisions.

2) It took the hiring of Andre Savard as GM to start seeing the end of the tunnel. But they failed to tank when they could have and didn’t draft well in their post Roy rebuild.

3) Poor scouting in Quebec. How many decent local players have the Habs missed through poor scounting back home.

4) Gainey’s misguided philosophy that you could win with a LOT of skilled undersized players.

5) Rushing kids like Latendresse and Price to the show when more seasoning in the minors would be the way to go.

6) Letting UFA talent walk without getting any return when you’re a bubble 8th place team - Souray, Koivu, Komi, etc, etc…

7) Restricting your GM and coach hires to bilingual candidates. (Incidentally, the Habs are on the record as saying if Mike Babcock or any of the top Red Wings management was available, they’d waive that criteria…)

8) High taxes

9) Fishbowl existence for players

We could go on, but I think that covers it.

Hell, I dare say having a crap team in a high tax area with a rabid fanbase would scare off a lot of players.

Hopefully the Habs who have drafted better of late will continue in that vein and get a superstar at the draft from this lost season. Heck, tanking two years might even be better so we can get our version of Kane & Toews…

Posted by Marc10 on 02/06/12 at 10:00 PM ET

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Tanking these two years might land you better than Kane + Toews, might land you Hossa (Galchenyuk) and Crosby (MacKinnon)

Posted by Ralph on 02/07/12 at 06:25 PM ET

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.

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Email: y2kfhl@hotmail.com