I should start this by saying I think Guy Carbonneau is a smart man. I think he's a good hockey man, and if Bob Gainey thinks he has what it takes to coach the Montreal Canadiens, then I'm probably not well-informed enough to question that. I support Carbonneau because the coach always takes the fall when things are going wrong. But that's unfair in this case because the same coach with the same players managed to lead the team to the top spot in the conference last season. As Carbonneau has said himself, the coach cannot go on the ice and play for the team. And I don't see how his methods of motivating the players have changed so drastically since last year. No, the fault for this lousy stretch has to lie with the players. That said, though, Carbonneau isn't perfect, and while I believe he's not the root cause of the current troubles...I think his biggest weakness is what made him such a great player: stubborn intractability.
The team played a great game against Detroit, despite missing Tanguay, Latendresse and Komisarek. Predictably, everyone talked about what a well-coached game that was. Carbonneau was forced to juggle things, and was inspired to play Tom Kostopoulos on Higgins and Koivu's line after Tanguay went down. It worked well because Detroit plays a strong defensive game and Kostopoulos gave the first line a good forechecking presence to counter that. Now, I have a hard time believing Carbonneau and company arrived in Washington and said, "What the hell guys...you must be tired from playing the Wings, and these guys are icing a bunch of minor-leaguers. Take it easy out there." Of course he told the team to play the same game they'd played in Detroit. But the problem is, Carbonneau doesn't adjust to differences between opponents.
Sure, the Kostopoulos thing worked in an emergency situation in Detroit...but that was a case in which the whole team was pumped about playing the Cup champs and stepped it up a notch to cover for their missing teammates. We all know TK is not a goal scorer, and what worked once...through hard work and great good fortune...was unlikely to continue working for the long haul. Yet, Carbonneau stubbornly refuses to change the lineup if it won the game before. Facing a depleted team with a very young, inexperienced defence in the Caps last night, Carbonneau didn't need to have the team play the smothering game they played against the Wings. He could have put Andrei Kostitsyn on the top line instead of Kostopoulos and his brother on the Plekanec line and let the offence push the Caps' inexperienced D. It didn't work out that way. I saw three occasions last night when Tom the Bomb just couldn't complete the play that Koivu started.
It's easy to second-guess of course. But it seems to me that Carbonneau's ability to make quick adjustments in-game, and modify his lineup to meet the particular circumstances of each opponent is lacking. He's not stupid, and sometimes he makes very good choices. But often he just stubbornly throws the same players out in the same situations because it worked one time before. How long will he keep forcing Tomas Plekanec to play with a dispeptic Alex Kovalev? It's frustrating for us, but worse is that it's not helping motivate the players.
Worst of all is when Carbonneau has to face the fact his moves aren't working and he admits he doesn't know what to do. That's scary for us and must be worrying the players. They're trained from a very young age to listen to the coach above all else. And like all basic training, it's what you fall back on when things are at their worst, when you can't see a solution to the problem yourself and when all seems lost. It's one thing to be winning and feel like you're talented, smart and fast. But when you're losing, even if you're a millionaire, you look to authority to solve the problem. In this case, though, when the players fall back on their blind faith in their coach to give them answers...they're just getting more questions.
Carbonneau needs to make some assertive decisions, like identifying the player who's hurting the team the most and benching him, regardless of age, status, salary or numbers. If the player in question is angry about that, Carbonneau needs to stand up and rip him a new one. He can't keep letting the same guys make the same mistakes over and over. It's not getting better and he's the one who has to find it in himself to make smart changes as required. Intractability in a coach is a fatal flaw. If Carbonneau can't solve that weakness in himself, it will inevitably lead to his demise behind the bench. And that's too bad because he's got a lot of other traits in his favour.
The question now is, if Carbonneau can't make that inner adjustment, what will Bob Gainey do?