As we've all been dealing with the departures of some of our favourite Habs, it's made me wonder what the guys who are left are thinking about it all. So far, all we've heard from the incumbents are words like "shock" and "stunned." Nobody was expecting such a team-wide purge of personnel and it sounds like the guys who survived the Centennial Gutting are feeling a bit like the ground has been washed away under their feet.
When you think about it, it must be pretty shocking. The young holdovers from last year...Latendresse, Lapierre, Price, Halak, Gorges, Plekanec, the Kostitsyns...have all (with the exception of Gorges) known only one organization and one captain throughout their short pro careers. Now the rug has been pulled out from under them and the way things were is no longer the way things will continue. For them, it means their roles can change. They can choose new identities in the team infrastructure. Leadership is up for grabs. It'll be an opportunity for some of the young guys. Others, like Plekanec, are looking at the purge as a warning from management: shape up or get out. Those guys will feel like they're on trial all season as they search for their place in the new team hierarchy. They'll be wondering how long it'll be before they get shown the door like so many of their teammates have been already. Then, you throw in a whole bunch of new guys who know nothing about what it's like to play hockey in Montreal, and the uncertainty deepens.
With the dismissal of the entire leadership of last year's team and the unfamiliarity between the shellshocked returnees and the newcomers, the Habs are pretty adrift right now. This is where Jacques Martin's biggest challenge will lie. Aside from instituting an on-ice system and an off-ice philosophy, he's first going to have to set himself up as a touchstone for the younger players. They have to know if they're unsure about the direction of the team or their roles on it, the coach is the one with the answers. He's the one who will assign jobs to those who are not inclined to step up and take them on their own. He also has to be a clear communicator with the older guys, and have very carefully defined expectations he can relay to them.
The team's new identity will, by necessity, come from the coaching staff. It's a rare opportunity for Martin, as it's not very often a coach comes into a new team with absolutely no pre-set culture into which he must fit. He doesn't have to break up cliques or bend any entrenched attitudes to his will for the simple reason that there aren't any.
It's a double-edged sword though. On one hand, Martin has a unique chance to really make the team his own. Everyone is getting a new start and he can take them in any direction he wants. But on the other hand, if he chooses wrongly, the season could be a disaster. It's like being a test pilot on a brand new aircraft. If you pull off the prescribed manouvers, you're a hero. If you miscalculate, you're crashing down in a multi-million dollar pile of crumpled metal.
Bob Gainey is relying on Martin's experience and his ability to know when to push a button and when to back off. He won't be just a coach. He'll be a mentor, a guide, a disciplinarian and a tactician. I have a lot of hope Martin is the right guy to pull this off. He's been criticized for his boring manner, but in this case, I think it would serve the team's collective purpose better to have a quiet-mannered man at the helm, rather than an explosive guy who loses it when things (inevitably) start to go wrong. So, if Martin is the right skipper to steady the Habs ship and break in the new crew, the only question remaining is how quickly he can get it all together.
Two weeks of training camp are all he has before the season opener on the first of October. That's not a lot of time, so I like what I'm hearing about the coach visiting Carey Price in Calgary, and talking to some of the newly-acquired veterans on the phone in the leadup to camp. For a man who's got to not only coach the team, but also help build it, he's got some of the foundation laid already.
From the fan's point of view, we have to understand the season is long and a team can't be built from scratch in a couple of weeks, even if there's unusually good chemistry among some of the players. If there's a rough start, we have to be patient. I have faith Jacques Martin can do a good job in re-creating our team. But we have to give him and the scattered group of players in his charge a real chance to show what they can do. There's enough uncertainty around the team now without giving the players doubts about the support of their fans.
It's a big job for Martin, and a big chance to really make something of his own. It'll be interesting to see what he can really do with that chance.