Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jacques the Knife

"You can act like a man! [slap] What's the matter with you?"

- Don Corleone to Johnny Fontane

Okay, maybe he's not quite Don Corleone, but now that the Habs are pared down to the guys who'll likely play in the NHL this year, Jacques the Knife is flexing his muscle and telling last season's party club last call has arrived. I like it. A lot. Martin has looked like the proverbial cat, post-canary lunch, ever since he arrived in Montreal. I wonder how much his attitude has to do with the fact that he watched some of the talented young players on the team stagnate last year and he's anticipating how much more he can get out of them.

I loved Guy Carbonneau as a player. I supported him as a coach through his first rough season when the team imploded after Christmas and missed the playoffs. He's just learning, I thought. It seemed he'd learned well in his second season, when his team won the conference and he was up for coach of the year. But this past season, the glorious Centennial, it became painfully obvious that Carbo hadn't learned. He just benefitted from an extraordinary streak of good fortune in 2007-08 when he didn't have to figure out how to deal with adversity. Then adversity hit last year, and the team went down like the Lusitania. Carbo stood helplessly by until he became yet another Centennial casualty, falling on his old friend and mentor's sword.

The thing with Carbo is he never got over being a player in his own mind. He made decisions based on what he liked and didn't like when he played. He never found bag-skates after embarrassing losses motivational for him as a player, so he never forced his team to endure them. He liked days off from practice to recharge the mental batteries, so he gave them to his players, even when they used them as an excuse to cut loose instead. Carbo always treated his players the way he wanted to be treated, which is great for observance of the Golden Rule, but not so much when managing a team of various personalities, not all of whom were like his own.

The quality a good coach needs, as much as an ability to institute a system or conduct a chalk talk, is empathy. He has to be able to put himself into players' skates and into their heads to figure out why they do the things they do, and, conversely, how to convince them NOT to do some of those things. Carbonneau didn't have that ability. He could never understand why a player couldn't have a good night out on the town, and still show up and give his heart and soul on the ice every night. He only knew his own approach to the game and didn't get the players who weren't like him. He found out the hard way that it's one thing to rally a team with emotion when you're a captain, and quite a different thing to motivate them as a coach.

Jacques Martin does understand personalities. He sees the potential in Sergei Kostitsyn and he calls him out for not using his talent to best advantage, even in practice. Sure, it's embarrassing, but Martin understands sometimes you have to get on a player like that for his own good. Scotty Bowman did it too, with a little bit of success. Ken Dryden writes about how players who were used to Bowman's iron fist were discontented and worried about the way lax discipline on the coach's part led to more losses, after Bowman began to mentally detach from the Canadiens in the 1978-79 season.

Martin doesn't care if the players like or dislike tough practices. He knows tough practices are what will make the team better and anyone who doesn't buy in won't fit on his squad. He knows short, precise passing and tight D is what needs to happen to make the team harder to play against. It's not as exciting as the dramatic stretch passing we saw last year, but it will reduce shots against and improve the goalie's lot in life. Martin will make the players execute his style, like it or not. The difference between him and Carbo reminds me of the difference between the behaviour of the kids when they have a sitter and when mom and dad are home.

Well, Habs, daddy's home and you'd better be on your best behaviour. I use the analogy of the kids because I think kids and hockey players have a lot in common. From their earliest days, players are taught the coach is almost godlike in his omnipotence at the rink. He's the one who controls icetime and linemates and all the things that make the game more or less fun to play. As players get older, they do things they might not ordinarily do, like fight a tougher opponent or hit another team's star, because the coach tells them to do it. So, when a coach decides (as Carbo did) to treat the players like adults, the truth is a lot of them aren't used to it and a some will take advantage. NHL teams have curfews for a reason. And that's because men, who buy houses and cars and have families in the real world, are conditioned to obey the coach when they're at the rink. If the coach doesn't put limits on the team, the players will set their own. Which, as we saw last year, is not a good thing.

I don't think Jacques the Knife will last a terribly long time in Montreal. Maybe three or four years. His kind of coaching eventually inspires rebellion and that will cost him in the end. But for now he'll crack down on a team left too long to discipline itself, which is exactly what the talent in Montreal needs. The saddest part about all of this is I think Martin might have salvaged last season with his approach, and I hate to see potential wasted. With any luck, we'll finally see a Habs team fulfill the best of its potential. If they crash and burn again this year, I want to have no "what ifs." I want to be able to say, "yes, they did the best they could, and this is what we got."

I think it's not too much to ask for a team that does its best, and I think Martin will insist on it. Otherwise, they'll be sleeping with the fishes.


DB said...

I completely agree that Carbo did not know how to handle adversity. I think when adversity struck he got frustrated, made panicy moves, and eventually gave up on some of the players.

Martin knows that coaches have to set limits, clearly spell out what is required, and hold players accountable. He knows accountability requires him to tell players immediately when thay have done something wrong and to pat them on the back when they've made a good play. Occassionally he may call a player out, like he did with Sergei, but he will not routinely yell and scream at the players.

It is the yellers and screamers, like Pat Burns, who wear out their welcome in a few years. Martin's style is more like Bowman's and Babcock's - coaches that treat their players like men. This makes me think he could have a long run with the Habs.

Howard said...

All I can say is A-M-E-N to the that sister! You're preachin to the choir. It's ironic when noting the Kostitsyn bros alleged mob associations that they finally be kissing the ring of Don Martin!
I think Carbo will do much better on the CBC!